A case can be made for the zombie art house film. Slow paced, shot with a deft hand, full of esoteric dialog delivered by deadpan performers, Jim Jarmish's The Dead Don't Die checks many boxes for the art house crowd while giving into the violent mass appeal. Prone to the odd tangent, the film is a mixed bag of unexpected and traditional.
Officers Cliff (Bill Murray) and Ronnie (Adam Driver) start off their day by meeting up with Tom Waits in the woods. So banal is there existence that when the singer turned hobo fires off a shot at them, they just shrug and let the man off with a warning. Driving back to town, they begin listening to the radio talking about polar fracking and comment on how the days are lasting longer than usual.
A song comes on the radio that Ronnie likes, The Dead Don't Die by Sturgill Simpson. Cliff asks what it is. Ronnie says, well, it's the theme song.
So begins the slow death of a small town and the story of a few officers trying to keep their shit together long enough to maybe live. The self awareness of the story is off-putting yet charming. The aw shucks humor mixes with the violence to create an hour and forty-five minute tale that might have something to say if it ever got around to saying it.
Our officers tour the town. There's another officer, Mindy (Chloë Sevigny) guarding the body of the soon to be risen zombie cameoed by Carol Kane. Steve Buscemi and Danny Glover play an asshole racist farmer and a nice old black man about town who are given little to do but say some lines before the zombie horde pulls them into the ranks. One could go along with calling them caricatures if they were playing any type of characters.
Strangers make their way to the motel driven in a classic car by Selena Gomez. They are warned about the zombies. Close your doors and lock your windows and all that. In what could be an avant garde act, they are killed off screen, much like Josh Brolin in No Country For Old Men but without the impact. The strangers are given a scene in a convenience store and another at the motel and then death. Their only contribution other than the random futility of life seems to be a stab at the commercialism and to re-introduce the theme song after Gomez purchases a Sturgill Simpson CD.
I guess that leads us to the zombies. Most zombie movies are commentaries on the world that created them. George Romero's slow zombies are ravenous killers based on our own prejudices and consumerist ideals. The fast runners of 28 Days Later exemplify the ability of modern life to overwhelm and consume the individual. Jarmish's zombies eat and destroy sure enough but when they are not they chant the desires of their simple lives. Dead kids stumble around candy ailes chanting brand names. It's enough to make me wonder if the metaphor of the walking dead has been played out.
Well aware I have not mentioned Tilda Swinton's Scottish Samuri Funeral Director, I simply do not know how. What well of ideas this creature came from I will never know. She's a delight and steals the movie from her first scene painting corpses to her last… well, even I won't spoil that. It really has to be seen. It's fucking nuts.
In the final scenes, Cliff snaps at Ronnie after the younger man utters his catchphrase: this is all going to end badly. Where does he get this phrase? It's somewhat of a callback to Ronnie listening to the Sturgill Simpson song, but overall it is a comment on the state of the world. It's all ending badly and the movie The Dead Don't Die is no different.