I appreciated Broken Flowers, enjoyed Coffee and Cigarettes, have a copy of Paterson that remains unwatched — and loved Only Lovers Left Alive. I was thus incredibly excited to see that Jim Jarmusch was exploring the horror genre again in The Dead Don’t Die, playing now at FilmScene. I was pleasantly surprised to see that Jarmusch has created the ultimate summer movie, one that dethrones both Oceans 12 and Mission Impossible 3 in its ability to point to the pointlessness of blockbuster movie entertainment in an effortlessly cool way. The movie is absolutely worth watching in the big screen, so long as one is willing to embrace its acceptance of its over-the-top, superfluous essence.
The movie takes pains to flaunt its own superficial nature, beginning with the cast — basically the go-to A-List of pop culture weirdos: Bill Murray (who previously explored the genre in the similarly over-the-top Zombieland), Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, RZA (whose role seems mostly to be a sight gag that the movie takes great care to ensure viewers don’t miss), Steve Buscemi, Chloë Sevigny and Tilda Swinton. Adam Driver, Selena Gomez and Danny Glover fill out the main attractions.
Iggy Pop plays a zombie (spoiler alert: barely). The rest of the characters are about as fleshed out as the zombies are. They’re each given a slight distinguishing attribute that allows them to become a caricature (Buscemi is a white supremacist farmer, Swinton is a sword wielding Uma Thurman-esque undertaker with a Scottish accent, Waits is a hermit who lives in the woods, Carol Kane is a dead drunk. Murray, Driver and Sevigny play police officers in Centerville, “A Real Nice Place.” The movie is the cast list come to life, more or less as one expects — but it succeeds at this brilliantly.
The consequence is to make a movie that is simultaneously super cool (starting with the bass line from Jarmusch’s band SQÜRL, responsible for most of the soundtrack) and thrilling to see — whose story is totally beside the point. More than that, the movie is an indictment of the trivial pointlessness of everyday life that fuels modern society, reducing humans to a series of object-based drives whose powers of temporary distraction — at least during times of what Waits’ hermit calls “toxic lunar vibrations” — are able to reanimate the dead. If the point of Only Lovers Left Alive was the pointless boredom of immortality, then the point of The Dead Don’t Die seems to be how we mere mortals needlessly put ourselves in a similar position.
The movie is hilarious, if one is inclined toward very dry, deadpan humor. I laughed out loud more during this movie than I have during most. I appreciated its odd, quirky moments throughout. The flagrant absurdity of the movie, its willingness to engage in whimsy instead of following a formula (note: such things also are ultimately pointless), the importance of discussing the characters in terms of actors, even the simple humor of Adam Driver driving a smart car — it’s great. Like every great summer movie, it isn’t supposed to make any sense; the stakes are supposed to be absurd. That Jarmusch has the audacity to attempt to make a point about the vapid pointlessness of blockbusters is genius.
The main action of the movie moves small duos and trios of actors — the cops, a group of teenagers driving in a classic car, convenience store clerks, teenage delinquents — all of whom confront the horror of a zombie apocalypse. News reports contain frequent reference to “polar fracking,” which “officials” deny is related to shifting the earth’s rotation. Nonetheless, the days go on interminably, and the nights fall swiftly. Strange things abound: pets disappear, clocks and phones stop, Sturgill Simpson’s song “The Dead Don’t Die” keeps playing. Throughout, Driver’s character continues to say, “This isn’t going to end well.”
At one point, Waits’ Hermit Bob, searching through discards in the forest, finds a copy of Herman Melville’s 1851 masterpiece Moby Dick; or, The Whale. The movie, which offers the wisdom “appreciate the details” seems to point toward examining this text, especially as Ahab’s speech in the book seems like an important touchpoint to Jarmusch’s attempt to continue Romero’s legacy in using the figure of the zombie as a way to comment on capitalist (or post-capitalist) malaise. Here’s Ahab:
All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event — in the living act, the undoubted deed — there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.
Jarmusch’s world is filled with the same emptiness as ours: Adults in that world listen to “experts” who advise that there’s nothing to worry about. In this world, like ours, everyone (or at least mostly everyone) is doomed. Everyone dies. The problem isn’t death, or finitude, but the malice behind the unnecessary devestation that attempts to profit on reducing humans to beasts.
This movie, as much as anything else, is Jarmusch’s attempt to strike through the mask at the “inscrutable thing” that exists behind the “unreasoning mask.” It is this “unknown but still reasoning thing” that seems to almost break through the television screens during the banal local news cast. It is the reason for the hipster-esque irony behind the self-referential dialogue: Perhaps only in pointing to the pointlessness of how we’re enculturated to live can we embrace living well.