It’s tempting to think of Jim Jarmusch as the pioneer hipster filmmaker. After all, it was Jarmusch who gave us Stranger Than Paradise — with its deadpan dialogue, non-sequitur plot, and Lower Manhattan punk-club aesthetic — way back in1984, and set the tone for his modern, termitically observed character studies. Never mind its stylistic similarity to Andy Warhol and the French New Wave. Jarmusch’s come-out roll won a slew of awards at trendsetting film festivals and established his brand. Midnight show audiences couldn’t get enough of those affectless characters going down to stare at the blank white expanse of Lake Erie in the wintertime.
When it comes to lack of affect, of course, zombies are in a class of their own. We’ve been racking our brains trying to figure out what attracted Jarmusch – in his new film The Dead Don’t Die — to the still-ubiquitous zombie horror subgenre, now a ripe 51 years old (if we date the stagger-genesis from 1968’s Night of the Living Dead). What could possibly be left unsaid about stubbornly undead human beings in various stages of decay, lurching down the street on their way to feast on the living?
Whatever his motivation, Jarmusch’s take on the subject is the epitome of slack, a wholeheartedly what-the-fuck redundant tribute-to/exploitation-of the sort of flick that usually fills out multiplexes in late August, after the superheroes and anthropomorphic Disney animals have finished grazing. Nothing especially new and improved about it, except perhaps in the casting department.
That said, at least the routines have a vaguely Jarmusch flavor. The zombies first appear in Centerville as a by-product of a shift in the earth’s rotation brought about by “polar fracking.” They get noticed by almost the entire Jarmusch stock company of players, beginning with Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), the type of woolly old coot/soothsayer who either functions as a disheveled one-man Greek chorus or else gets eaten in the first reel. Then the police department – Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloë Sevigny – swings into action.
The cops are so dumb we wonder at first if they’re already zombies, but no, everyone in town naturally acts as if they’re swathed in fiberfill insulation. Same story in the local café, where a red-capped deplorable (Steve Buscemi), his fellow customer (Danny Glover), and a waitperson (Eszter Balint, erstwhile star of Stranger Than Paradise) all catch the vibe. Something is rotten in Centerville. The concept of zombies as restless consumers on the prowl for bargains (every day is Black Friday when you’re undead) is successfully floated – anything to stretch out the action.
Jarmusch’s flair for eccentric characterization asserts itself in the smaller roles. Caleb Landry Jones (as a video store proprietor), RZA (a UPS driver), Iggy Pop, Sara Driver, Selena Gomez, and Carol Kane crop up as victims, with Rosie Perez as a TV news anchor – Jarmusch was casting overlooked B-list actors long before Tarantino. Never one to mouse around onscreen, Tilda Swinton nearly steals the movie as the town’s battle-ready funeral director, the samurai alien Zelda. Country music singer Sturgill Simpson contributes the catchy title song. Fans of cheapo/weirdo movies may recognize actor-filmmaker Larry Fessenden (Depraved, Stray Bullets) as Danny at the motel. The makeup effects are wonderfully high-gloss. Iggy should stick with the zombie look.
Long before the film’s continuity goes elliptical, we’ve learned to relax, let our eyes glaze over, and drift off into celebrity zombieland. There’s really nothing else to do. The Dead Don’t Die may be a complete waste of time, but it wears the trademark Jarmusch cooled-down menefreghismo proudly. It’s probably not going to be the last zombie movie, but it should be.