It’s the end of the world as we know it, and we say, ‘Fine.’ That’s the criticism that cuts through Jim Jarmusch’s star-stuffed zombie-comedy The Dead Don’t Die, where the undead not only feast on human flesh but also gravitate toward the distractions they were obsessed with in life, be it coffee, cell phones, or Chardonaaaaaaay! It’s a strange journey that is savagely funny, sophisticated and unnerving.
In a nod to the George A. Romero classic Night of the Living Dead, The Dead Don’t Die is set in a small Pennsylvania town where an array of colorful characters will face off against ravenous “ghouls.” Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloë Sevigny star as the entirety of the local police force, which struggles to solve why a beloved waitress has been savagely ripped into ribbons. Other returning Jarmusch collaborators include Iggy Pop, Steve Buscemi, RZA, Tom Waits, and Tilda Swinton, who play a shirtless zombie with rocker edge, an ornery farmer with a “Make America White Again” ball cap, a WU-PS deliveryman (wink wink!), a wily hermit who suffers no fools, and an eccentric mortician with a deep passion for martial arts. Also on board are Selena Gomez as a chipper day-tripper, Caleb Landry Jones as a surly nerd, and Carol Kane as a wine-craving zombie.
Within The Dead Don’t Die, Jarmusch has plenty of nods to Romero’s works, from its zombie mythos and setting to its unrepentant display of ghoulish gore. Also like Romero, Jarmusch’s zombies carry on their rotting shoulders a message of condemnation against consumerism. However, Jarmusch isn’t interested in working up scares as much as dread, relating his fictional apocalypse to a real-world crisis.
Before the dead rise, there are ominous signs. Daylight stretches into night. Domesticated animals turn feral then flee the quiet town whose motto is “a real nice place.” TV news chatters about how “polar fracking” has pushed the earth to catastrophe, which terrifies three local children (Maya Delmont, Taliyah Whitaker, and Jahi Winston) who discuss what this means for their now uncertain futures. But the adults in the town barely raise an eyebrow to the news that the world as they know it is coming to an end. Much like the zombies who shuffle about staring at cell phones or groaning for coffee, these grown-ups are too caught up in their self-centered desires to look at the world around them, or realize how their apathy is contributing to its destruction. “This won’t end well,” Driver’s bat-wielding deputy warns. And it’s easy to believe him.
Amid this grim political commentary, Jarmusch laces a wry sense of humor. There’ll be no slapstick or zaniness on the level of other zom-coms like Zombieland or Shaun of the Dead. Jarmusch’s brand of comedy is more urbane and subtle. It comes in the gentle absurdity of a character named Hermit Bob, who sputters cryptic poetry as he encounters signs of apocalypse. It’s in the ease that Swinton swiftly slices down the undead with a samurai sword and the awkwardness in which she asks if Driver’s character is single. It’s in the meta jokes that cheekily reference Star Wars as well as Jarmusch’s previous collaborations with Driver and Murray. For some, the humor may not be enough to balance the harrowing dread of The Dead Don’t Die. But for me, the grimness and levity played together divinely, spinning into a finale that is bit bonkers, unapologetically bleak, and yet oddly inspiring.
Driver warned us “this won’t end well.” But because it’s a comedy, perhaps we’re waiting for the army to arrive in the nick of time or a charming romance that might help us forget the hellscape of a zombie-plagued planet. The Dead Don’t Die refuses such a pandering deus ex machina, and Driver, despite acknowledging things won’t end well, nevertheless leans in full swing with a heartening, “We’ve got to give it our best shot.” And as he storms in the climactic battle, I thought of the band on the Titanic, who played even as the ship went down. They were not ignorant of the disaster around them. They recognized it and played on, doing what they did best to contribute what they could to what was left of the world they loved. And so is Jarmusch. He may not be able to save the planet, but maybe he can make us laugh as we travel down the road to apocalypse.