Hipster filmmaker Jim Jarmusch buys into zombie mythology with The Dead Don’t Die. He brings “cool” — the shrug of apathetic acceptance, the impassive monotony of Zen — to cultural apocalypse. Even the small American town Centerville, where Police Chief Robertson (Bill Murray) and his sidekick Peterson (Adam Driver) patrol familiar neighborhood squabbles, is affected by disastrous climate change and fracking. These events cause the dead to climb out of their graves, reanimated into materialist greed and munching on ordinary citizenry as their capitalist right. The only way to stop them is to go for the head. Yes, Jarmusch has made the first Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez comedy.
The Dead Don’t Die laughs at “total destruction of the earth” — and the slow but inevitable dissolution of human relations — as a consequence of middle America’s non-sophistication. Centerville may as well be Hicksville (or Mayberry, to non–New Yorkers) because it personifies banality: It has no Starbucks, and no one reads the New York Times.
But in a barista mood, Jarmusch serves up doom for characters who are indifferent to “climate change.” Partly repeating the hip nihilism of his vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch moves on from that alienation to post-2016 election disapproval. News reports warn that “polar caps are shifting,” and so the fragile ecology of civilization gets flipped. Tom Waits as Hermit Bob, a long-hair dropout resembling Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion, is a homeless scavenger and community pet who embodies the oxymoron Democratic Socialist. He steals chickens from right-wing farmer Frank Miller (comically querulous Steve Buscemi) who wears a red baseball cap bearing the motto “Make American White Again.”
That MAWA cap reveals Jarmusch’s failed humor. It’s lazy political animus compared with Nelson DeMille’s recent pop novel The Cuban Affair, in which a character’s T-shirt logo — “Guns Don’t Kill People. I Kill People” — signifies a personality and political type without simple demonization. But MAWA not only defames the Make America Great Again (MAGA) movement, it mischaracterizes national dissatisfaction and virtue-signals to hipster filmgoers that Jarmusch is on their ill-considered side. In indie film culture, making enemies is more important than brotherhood — or citizenship, or entertainment.
Jarmusch isn’t a politically conscious filmmaker (he’s simply trendy, as in his hip-hop exploitation film Ghost Dog), but this slip into animosity (Miller is one of the first to be gobbled up) shows that he isn’t above politics, either. His hipster’s detachment indulges a certain perspective. When Centerville’s animals sense trouble and scatter, Miller calls out for his dog Rumsfeld, a lame joke worthy of the character-assassination film Vice.
Fans of zombie movies will be disappointed that Jarmusch ignores the genre’s scary points. His only commitment to the genre is to divert from its essence with cute asides, such as the title song by neo-folkie Sturgill Simpson, a recurring motif that divides characters through their musical taste. (It’s not cleverly meta like the theme-song variations in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye.) The zombies themselves are jokes, so that their kills — and their killing — is affectless. Jarmusch dispatches a pair of luscious teens (Selena Gomez and Austin Butler) to show his contempt for the zombie film market. Yet, when Deputy Mindy (Chloë Sevigny) panics upon seeing her dead grandmother zombified, Jarmusch even dead-pans her pathos. The one survivor is Tilda Swinton as a Scottish samurai and mortician with the only funny routine, turning corpses into glam-rock mannequins.
The clash of temperaments between the police chief and his sidekick is supposed to show common, working-man responses to social calamity, but it’s just another in-joke: Murray and Driver cast as old and new hipster icons making silly references to the film’s script as well as Driver’s Kylo Ren Star Wars role.
Perhaps Jarmusch should have implicated more of himself in this film’s evident derangement syndrome. In publicity photos, Jarmusch suggests Lee Marvin wearing a David Lynch haircut, and that silver-gray glamour might have worked perfectly in Jarmusch’s latest White Negro gambit, complimenting his casting of RZA as a Wu-Tang Clan delivery-truck worker who speaks in dialect (“Da whirl is perfick. Appreciate da details.”) before he gets zombified. In The Dead Don’t Die, Jarmusch’s hipster sense of brotherhood is an assertion of perpetual liberal schmaltz.
Editor’s Note: The spelling of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s name has been corrected.