The Dead Don’t Die may work as a horror comedy but writer-director Jim Jarmusch ultimately aims for both meta and allegorical comedy.
“This is going to end badly,” police officer Ronald Peterson (Adam Driver) repeatedly tells police chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray). How does Peterson know this? He read the full script. Robertson on the other hand would only receive the pages with his scenes. While the joke may be self-referential, it ultimately pays off. Other jokes don’t quite hit the landing in this way. There’s a nice Easter egg with Peterson carrying a Star Wars Star Destroyer on his key chain. If only Ronald Peterson had a light saber, the zombie killing could be much easier. Force-choking just isn’t enough because you must kill the head.
Anyway, strange things are happening in the small town of Frank Zappa-inspired Centerville–population: 738. Daylight hours are all messed up but nobody really knows why. Even communication and electronics are all out of whack. Hardware store owner Hank Thompson (Danny Glover and “Keep America White Again” cap-wearing Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi) are regulars at the town’s diner. When two people show up dead, people realize something is serious. Could it be wild animals or several wild animals? Well, it’s not entirely impossible but Ronald read the script so he’s already certain of it being zombies. They may as well be in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. In all fairness, Jarmusch took inspiration from the zombie classic.
The big thing that works against the film is the large cast. It just adds too many stories to keep up with. We could have honestly done without the Centerville detention trio or the Cleveland trio. It isn’t just that cutting one out could shorten the running time but the information could easily come from another character. Take Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), for instance. Much of the film’s commentary, especially allegorical, comes by way of him alone.
Ultimately, the script has just enough funny to keep the film entertaining. Yeah, it’s both meta and allegorical at times but Jarmusch knows what he’s going for. Will this work for everyone? Probably not but this goes without saying. The script isn’t without pointed digs at the administration and those who are anti-science. Polar fracking leads to the earth going off its access and next thing we know, the dead are undead. It’s certainly an interesting choice but, again, Jarmusch goes with it because of course. Factor in the narration from Hermit Bob at the end of the film and well, there’s quite a bit to unpack.
Among the star-studded cast, funeral home operator Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton) is certainly the film’s MVP. Murray and Driver have great chemistry while also serving as the film’s heart and soul.
Once you read into the subtext, The Dead Don’t Die works as an allegorical film.
DIRECTOR/SCREENWRITER: Jim Jarmusch
CAST: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Rosie Perez, Iggy Pop, Sara Driver, RZA, Selena Gomez, Carol Kane, Austin Butler, Luka Sabbat, and Tom Waits