The Dead Don't Die: Jim Jarmusch's hilarious zombie/eco satire slips in a dry lament between killer laughs

By Karen Gordon

Rating: B-plus

 This is going to end badly” says police officer Ronnie Peterson, repeatedly early in The Dead Don’t Die, the new very pointed, very funny horror-inflected satire by American indie god Jim Jarmusch.  

 Peterson, played by Adam Driver is one of three police officers in the small American own of Centrevlle, the other two being, his superior, Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray), and Mindy Morrison (Chloë Sevigny). 

Small-town cops Bill Murray, Chloe Sevigny and Adam Driver lock and load for a zombie invasion

Small-town cops Bill Murray, Chloe Sevigny and Adam Driver lock and load for a zombie invasion

 The three maintain the law in this one hardware store town where, in spite of some quirky inhabitants, like the cranky farmer (Steve Buscemi) who calls the police to complain that the local fixture Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) has stolen one of his chickens, not much seems to be happening. Centreville is sleepy, and, aside from the personality clashes, so far, safe. 

That is until the earth moves off its axis thanks to “polar fracking”.  Now, the sun is up all night, the moon is up in the day, and even odder things start happening: Notably, the dead start rising from their graves. 

 So is it related to this environmental issue? While the merits and believability of the scientific conclusions are debated in the media, Peterson, Robertson and Morrison  are being called to bizarre crime sites. Peterson, takes a look at an unusually gory murder scene and confidentially concludes the only thing that you can conclude under those circumstances: the murders are being done by zombies, More dead rise from their graves and do what zombies do, shuffle dully around, looking for some tasty humans. 

 These zombies have one other attribute: They can utter a single word, as they pine for the hobby or activity that obsessed them in life. (Look for a cameo by the zombified Sturgell Simpson, whose song “The Dead Don’t Die” plays throughout the movie.)

His appearance is one of the pleasures in this film. As always, Jarmusch’s casts are an appealing mix of his loose ensemble: actors he’s worked with before.  In addition to the aforementioned,  he has RZA, (playing a courier who works for WU-P.S., a nod to his former band the Wu Tang Clan), Tilda Swinton, as an undertaker noted as odd by the townsfolk for her Scottishness, and some newcomers  to the Jarmuschian fold including Selena Gomez, Caleb Landry Jones, and Danny Glover

 On the surface The Dead Don’t Die is a seemingly light and silly froufrou of a genre-flick that nods to other filmmakers like George Romero and Zack Snyder.  But, Jarmusch is also picking up on one of his own themes: In his excellent 2014 vampire movie Only Lovers Left Alive, the troubled vampire Adam, refers to humans - who he sees as being in the process of ruining everything good - as zombies.

 The Dead Don’t Die picks up on that idea and circles it in bold strokes.

 The obvious thing to call this film is a social satire. The humour is dry, pointed and often very, very funny.  But Jarmusch is too clever and too careful a filmmaker to simply toss off a genre film for a few laughs.  We are living through the Trump era, after all:  A period that, for some of us, feels like an unending assault on a lot of basic values, and where facts are not warmly received as facts in certain quarters.   

The movie is like an inside joke (it even acknowledges outright at certain points that it’s a movie, just for the surprise laughs). And at the same time, it’s not a joke. The planet is warming, the polar caps are melting and scientists are sounding the alarms while some of the powerful debate whether this is even true. 

This is our current reality, and in “The Dead Don’t Die” Jarmusch points at it, in the most entertaining way possible, and wonders whether we’ll get out alive.

The Dead Don’t Die. Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. Starring Bill Murray, Adam Driver and Tilda Swinton. Opens wide Friday, June 14.