By Afra Nariman
The Dead Don’t Die (2019)
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
Stars: Adam Driver, Bill Murray, Steve Buscemi, Tilda Swinton, Danny Glover, Rosie Perez, Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, RZA, Selena Gomez, Austin Butler
In a quiet small town called Centerville, weird things are happening. Before the locals know it, they need to worry about the dead rising from their graves and causing havoc in their otherwise uneventful town. The living battles the dead over the course of a couple weird days in the town of Centerville.
A zombie movie straight from the mind of Jim Jarmusch. Although it isn’t his best film, it has been criminally underrated. Early in the film, RZA’s character gives a town gas station attendant some knowledge:
“The world is perfect. Appreciate the details.”– RZA
Not long after, the world will approach its end, but “appreciate the details” is also extremely relevant advice on how to approach watching this film. There are two things that stand out from his 2019 comedic rendition on the classic “zombie” genre. First — and this is evident before you ever start watching — the incredible, All-Star cast, featuring many actors and actresses whom Jarmusch has previously worked with. Headlined by Bill Murray and Adam Driver, The Dead Don’t Die also features Tilda Swinton, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Rosie Perez, Tom Waits, RZA and even Selena Gomez. I mean… that’s an insane cast. In fact, having such a well-known cast of characters probably increases the film’s effectiveness and overall enjoyment level. For the purpose of this review, I’ll be using the actors and actresses real names when referring to their characters.
Driver and Murray are two cops who are at the center of the entire uprising of the dead. Swinton is the strange, otherworldly new town coroner. Buscemi is a racist farmer (more on that later). Glover is the town’s handyman. Perez is the news anchor that is seen on television. Waits is a hermit who has lived in the woods for years and is now observing from a distance, as his town get overrun by zombies. RZA is a delivery man for “Wu-PS,” a clever spin on UPS that plays homage to his 90’s rap group, Wu-Tang Clan. And Gomez is a young woman passing through town with her friends on their road trip. This colorful cast of characters add a certain level of fun to the movie. What makes it even better, is that there are many moments in which the characters break the fourth wall, and you suddenly have Adam Driver and Bill Murray essentially aware that they are in a movie, and consequently playing themselves in a way. This adds a level of improvised comedy and separates the film from reality, which allows us to then focus only on the film’s story and the subliminal messages that Jarmusch communicates to us — which brings me to…
The second great thing that stands out about this film is its subtle social/political commentary that it makes. It is a satyrical social critique on today’s times. There are plenty of examples of Jarmusch communicating a social critique or political statement throughout the film, so you should keep your eyes and ears peeled for all of them. One of the more blatant ones is Steve Buscemi’s character as the Trump-supporting farmer. He is seen wearing an alternate MAGA hat, that reads “Make America White Again,” rather than it’s original message of “great.” This is an obvious statement that Trump’s “goal” or “effect” is not about making America great, because it’s not great if it isn’t inclusive to all. What the new statement on the hat signifies is that many people support him because they are racist, and they believe that Trump will make America “white” again. The real goal for Trump and his supporters is hidden behind the MAGA statement. Jarmusch has the farmer wear this alternate version of the hat to bring to light what Trump and his supporters really mean.
Additionally, another example of social commentary comes from the environmental conversations ushered in by the radio stations speaking about the dangers of fracking and the effect that it could have on the planet — which coincidently is the assumed reason for the zombie apocalypse. The radio features people speaking against the fact that fracking is dangerous, adding to one of the constant themes of the film, which is people who speak against science. The film focuses on science immensely, both through environmental advocacy and as the reasoning for the unusual events that occur in the movie.
Now to the story of The Dead Don’t Die. Centerville is a small town, with just over a 730 person population. Nothing happens much in this town. Theres one hardware store, one gas station, one diner, one motel, and only three cops. It’s a quiet, uneventful town where everyone knows each other. If you were to see it, or drive past it, you might think to yourself; wow it’s a classic, small American town. Or you might think… wow, what a perfect little town for a zombie film. If you were to think the ladder, then you would have thought the same thing as Jim Jarmusch — so congratulations on that.
The Dead Don’t Die is a calm adaptation of a zombie movie, although it still features a few subtly gory visuals, that are accompanied by Adam Driver’s character commenting, “Yuck.” It takes a comedic perspective on the genre, the way that only Jarmusch could. One of the more unique things about the film is perhaps, as I mentioned earlier, it breaks the fourth wall. Driver and Murray talk about “the script,” Driver continually says that “this is going to end badly,” which he knew, because in a “fourth wall-shattering” moment at the end of the film, he admits that he’s read the entire script. Following this confession, Driver and Murray’s characters give us a subtle, but hilarious moment that will be especially enjoyable for Jim Jarmusch fans:
Murray: You read the script. The whole script? All of it?
Driver: Yeah, Jim gave me the whole script
Murray: He only gave me our scenes. I never saw a complete script. After all I’ve done for that guy, and it’s a lot that you don’t even know about. What a d*ck.
The Dead Don’t Die is filled with hilarious scenes like that one. Following that exchange, Murray asks Driver what they do next. Driver responds that they have to do the best they can, and fight. In the background of their staged final battle, Tom Waits’ Hermit Bob, who is watching everything transpire from a distance, provides us with a long, last monologue:
This final message brings to light some of the negative effects of capitalism, denouncing consumerism and the materialistic habits of people today — likening real life people to “zombies” or “ghosts” — similar to a subtle detail found in his film Only Lovers Left Alive, where centuries-old, intellectual vampires also refer to humans as “zombies.” This is the most blatant social critique of the film. Jarmusch’s more subtle critiques of Trump, his supporters, and his MAGA slogan; the film’s critique of energy companies and the politicians who ignore science when it comes to environmental issues such as fracking, and his overall message of “trusting science, or else;” now combined with this final monologue that encapsulates a bigger-picture perspective on every aspect of the film’s social critiques, leaves us with clear messages that linger. Similar to one of his previous films, Ghost-Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Jarmusch subtly inserts social/political commentary throughout the story, and ends his film with a more clear, emphatic final message to hang on to.
This a movie that Jarmusch likely had a lot of fun making. It features tons of ironic comedy, yet still manages to have a certain depth to it, as all of Jarmusch’s films do. It’s strange, it’s funny, it’s random, but it’s also political and serves as a median for him to express himself in regards to the world’s current status. And again, one of the best aspects of the film comes from the electric All-Star cast of actors and actresses who he was able to gather together to make this wildly unique film. The Dead Don’t Die is not a film that everyone will love, but if your’e a fan of Jim Jarmusch, satirical comedies, or a fan of the film’s various stars, you will enjoy watching this movie. It does so much that can easily go unnoticed, but if you listen to RZA’s advice from early in the film — if you “appreciate the details” — you’ll realize just how precise and metaphorically relevant Jarmusch’s 2019 zombie-comedy is. It has much in common with films that have become cult-classics, such as Fight Club, in that it satirically critiques and communicates a message regarding a political/social issue, yet tells it through such an unexpected, hilarious and somewhat outrageously fictional story, causing many people to not fully grasp or appreciate the subliminal messages interwoven into the core of the film. Perhaps, The Dead Don’t Die, will be revisited and eventually be appreciated as a sort of cult-classic.