Bill Murray’s newest foray, The Dead Don’t Die, into a satire of the zombie apocalypse and into the world of Jim Jarmusch is an amusing, if slow, good time.
The Plot, Essentially
The dead are rising from their graves (again) to terrorize (this time) the odd backwoods town of Centerville. All that stands in their way is Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray), Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver), and an assortment of the townsfolk trying not to get eaten. An energized Moon hanging low and “Polar Fracking” are the likely cause, but who cares? Zombies are coming!
Director Jim Jarmusch made a zombie movie that resembles the classics of the 70s and 80s, particularly the corpus of George Romero, and injects his self-aware indie sensibility. What he achieves is a picture lampooning the subgenre and simultaneously paying tribute to its greatest auteurs.
In turn, Jarmusch also takes full advantage of the undead tradition of sociopolitical commentary. The flesh-eating ghouls here are the product of a planet off balance and The Moon looming dangerously close because of fracking and man messing with nature — ergo “she” needs to fight back. And this is nothing new: the dead rising in these things has been attributed before to radiation, comets, soundwaves, and pesticides.
Ever the metaphor, the walking corpses, groaning about electronics and consumer products from their living years, represent the stereotype of small-town American folk, who revert to familiar habits reflexively, Hollywood has in its head. When the zombie Iggy Pop rises from the grave the one thing he wants, besides gnawing on the arm of a nurse, is lots and lots of coffee.
Again, not anything new to anyone who saw either Dawn of the Dead (sort of). To Jarmusch, the message is probably crucial but biting and approaching high art, which postmodern indie cinema aspires to be. In actuality, it comes across as pure satire that is worth a chuckle and not deep contemplation.
Indie Style, Indie Substance
Nevertheless, he keeps things fun with interesting characters and deadpan humor that plays around with the fourth wall. Our much needed glue is the buddy-cop interplay between Bill Murray and Adam Driver, who comes to the conclusion of zombies terrorizing the town rather casually. Later, they’re driving in the patrol car with malfunctioning devices and nothing plays on the radio except one song — the title tune by Sturgill Simpson. What’s the song? Why, it’s “The Dead Don’t Die.” Why’s it familiar? It’s the theme song. This motif recurs periodically.
Driver’s Peterson character knows a lot about what happens and why since he read the entire script. Jarmusch gave him the whole thing while Murray only got his own scenes. This disclosure plays out in a funny exchange where Murray goes off on the director whom he’s made several films with.
A couple of other notable characters who act as a voice for the director are Zelda the coroner (Tilda Swinton), who dispatches zombies with a katana and has a subplot that almost turns the story into a Plan 9 remake, and Hermit Bob (Tom Waits). Bob is a visible narrator — a Uatu if you will — with a clearer grasp than Peterson of what is going on and the human condition. He’s strictly there in the background to move things along when the action takes a beat.
Steve Buscemi is in this too, in the most heavy-handed aspect of the film, as a farmer named Frank Miller (no, really) that has a dog named Rumsfeld and a MAGA hat which reads “Make America White Again.” It’s a clear echo of Jarmusch’s politics but Buscemi makes it worthwhile.
The cast is great and makes the most of things. Bill Murray is in his element and you see more from Adam Driver than what average moviegoers know him for (and there is a wink at that). Dead Don’t Die should be enough to break you out of franchise fatigue — just beware of the gore you have to put up with, in case that turns you off.
- Chemistry of Murray, Driver, and Chloe Sevigny.
- Tilda Swinton.
- Use of genre tropes.
- Surprisingly gory in spots.
- Social commentary is over the top.
- A little slow at times.