The Dead Don't Die
The zombie genre has been surprisingly flexible to infuse symbolism. Since the mainstream launch of the genre with George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) the genre has explored the fear that people had with infection in the 80s with the AIDs epidemic and with immigration in the early 2000s. However, genre fatigue began to settle in the 2010s, specifically with the presence of behemoth TV show The Walking Dead (2010-). Indie darling Jim Jarmusch now takes his focus on deconstructing this genre, after a successful, if somewhat overlooked, analysis of vampires in Only Lovers Left Alive (2013).
The Dead Don’t Die is the result of a mash-up between indie clichés and a zombie apocalypse. The story centers on many characters in the town of Centerville, ranging from a peculiar funeral home owner (Tilda Swinton), three friends on a road trip (Selena Gomez, Austin Butler, Luka Sabbat), the young man at the gas station (Caleb Landry Jones), the local cops (Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny), and more. When the world’s rotation is altered by polar fracking, the aspects of nature begin to get distorted; from the attitude of animals becoming feral, to the interruption of electro-magnetic waves, the elongation of daylight, and of course the reanimation of the dead.
The quirky aspects and attention to detail, characteristic of Jarmusch’s films, is very much apparent here. The Dead Don’t Die becomes an exploration of the genre tropes by Jarmusch, but at the same time he wants to craft an entirely different branch of the genre. Instead of the fast-pace of most zombie flicks (ironic considering their slow-moving antagonists), Jarmusch chooses a slow burn that allows viewers to become attached to the endearing and distinct characters. It is only in the climaxing of the film that all this hard work comes off the rails.
Jarmusch infuses political commentary subtly at first, with a red hat worn by a character reading “Keep America White Again,” being the most prominent wink. As the zombies make their entrance, they are crafted with a curious societal commentary. As the dead are reanimated they gravitate towards things they did and loved when they were alive, thus we have a Carol Kane zombie murmuring “chardonnay,” others attack a diner groaning “coffee,” and perhaps in the most powerful snippets, crowds walk around glued to phones while others flock to a pharmacy chanting “Xanax.” These references alone would have been enough to get Jarmusch’s commentaries across, but instead an unnecessary speech is tagged at the end remarking the excessive consumerism that capitalistic societies of today have fallen into, to the point that we end up “consuming ourselves.” This is a refreshing shift and use of the zombie genre to comment on society, but its prominence at the end of The Dead Don’t Die overtakes the painstaking work of having crafted the world of Centerville and these characters, so that such a build-up isn’t paid off. The end credits come at a moment when your tension and expectations haven’t culminated. This in itself could be a commentary of Jarmusch’s regarding the overused structures of these films, but regardless, viewers will see this less as a reference and more as an anti-climax.
In the end, the quirky workings of Jarmusch’s films seem to fit well with the zombie genre, and the various nods and analyses in The Dead Don’t Die seem to build up to an exciting and refreshing film. The finale, while fun, seems to lose it’s heading as important themes and elements are abandoned and a blatant and pandering speech closes us out. The film seemed to have a lot to say, but ended up tripping over the core of what it wanted to be.