It’s a generally accepted truism that a great many zombie films — you know, one or two of them, not all of them — are about consumerism. You wouldn’t want to overload the metaphor too much beyond the sheer obviousness of the imagery of a dead-eyed revenant enslaved to its need for more blood, catatonic with lifeless need for more. And yet Jim Jarmusch, for his first foray into the zombie genre, sees fit to ram this home — either for the benefit of spectators so clueless that they couldn’t grasp it of their own volition, or to mollycoddle his audience with the knowledge that they, the geniuses, have perceived the analogy. “Fashion… fashion” he has one model-zombie croak; other zombies lurch about muttering “wi-fi” or “bluetooth”. This is the sort of lumbering and effortful old-hatness that Woody Allen routinely gets mocked for these days, but when it’s Jim Jarmusch contorting himself with laughter because he created … a … zombie … hipster, he gets a pass. Enough with the double standards! Jim Jarmusch, with The Dead Don’t Die, has created a smirking riff on the zombie film that’s every bit as cloying as you could fear, combining the smug references of Only Lovers Left Alive with the sexism and self-satisfied zen preachiness of Paterson.
The film, about police officers investigating an outbreak of zombies after the earth has spun off its axis following extensive fracking — takes place in a stereotypical little town in the United States of America called Centerville. With its little diner, its motel and its morgue, you could see the town as a microcosm of small-town America — and sure enough, Jarmusch squeezes in some easy broadsides at Republicanism that play to his gallery. So Steve Buscemi plays a hick in a KAWA (Keep America White Again) cap, whose dog is called Rumsfeld. At the same time, Jarmusch seems intent on subverting the format — so in addition to his film never being even slightly frightening (the zombies are mostly the subject of Jarmusch’s trademark deadpan quipping, dialed up to eleven), he constantly breaks the fourth wall to signify the artifice of his set-up. When Clifford Robertson (Bill Murray, sleep-acting) asks why the Sturgill Simpson song playing on the radio sounds familiar, his partner Ronnie Peterson (played by Adam Driver) remarks laconically that it’s “the movie’s theme tune”. Later, Robertson asks Peterson (please note the winking names!) how come he had foreseen certain elements, and Peterson observes mildly, “I read the script.”
These instances of self-congratulatory chortling accumulate throughout the film — Tilda Swinton plays somebody called “Zelda Winston” (prompting one of the film’s ignorant hicks to posit that she’s named after “the Great Gatsby’s wife”), and Adam Driver gets shanghaied into a clunking joke about Star Wars. In a shocking break with Jarmusch’s previous oeuvre, women are consistently underwritten (Chloe Sevigny plays a shrieking cop with a weak stomach; Selena Gomez a hot hipster in jean shorts; while ‘Zelda Winston’ exists almost totally as a kind of extended riff on the idea of how thrillingly idiosyncratic it would be to have Tilda Swinton playing a Scottish undertaker-cum-samurai).
All of this emptiness and posturing is a shame because when Jarmusch focuses he can be a poet of the loopy and downbeat: a scene in which Adam Driver arrives at a crime scene in a tiny, speeding Smart car is immaculately conceived and executed, wringing as much dry hilarity as you could hope for from that imagery. Driver in general is game and good in the film, bringing a welcome offbeat quality to his character. Iggy Pop is fun as a zombie, while Tom Waits gets landed with a tiresome role as a wise old outcast who lives in the woods. The film writes itself — except when it doesn’t, and Jim Jarmusch forgets all about his token younger characters, who are never seen again after a certain point in the film.
Music is appealing throughout — the Sturgill Simpson song, which gets repeat mentions and plays, is very fine, and the score is lightly wielded. But nothing comes to compensate for the script’s tired routines, neither in terms of visual spectacle, or wit, or insights. Where Jarmusch’s script could hit hard — namely, its discourse on the ecological disease of our world — it merely hints at evils that are subsequently shrugged away by the film’s tirelessly drawling tone. Comparing this to Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, which had an urgency and rage to its take on the environment and the end of the world, does the film no favours. Does anything here matter, really? It’s hard to care when everything before you is winks and irony.
‘The Dead Don’t Die’ screened at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. You can follow Caspar on Twitter.