There is a certain comfort to be found in horror. The kids are going to head out into the country and find the weird heart of rural America. There will be a diner with great coffee. Signs will accrue. The moon will be full; animals will act up. If you’re in a haunted house, each night will get be worse than the last, while the daylight hours will remain safe… for a while. If you’re in a rural horror, the locals will be friendly… at first. If you’re in a zombie movie, there will be at least one shot of an undead swarm. People will split up like idiots no matter how much you yell at them not to from the safety of your couch or movie theater. People will open up about their deepest fears or childhood memories while huddled together for safety. People will argue about which room/building is safest, with someone opting for basement and someone else opting for closet, and the really smart ones will head for the hardware store. There will probably be at least one reactionary asshole who thinks the whole thing is a hoax perpetrated by the government. (Watching that guy get eaten/murdered/haunted to death will carry a certain amount of satisfaction.) There will be at least one person who snaps and throws themselves to the Big Bad.
The Dead Don’t Die nods to each of these moments, subverting some, embracing others, but does it all with a sense of flat detachment that marks this as a wholly different beast that your Shauns of the Dead or your Tuckers and Dales Versus Evil, or even your Zombielands. The film also riffs on classics including but not limited to: Plan 9 From Outer Space, Night of the Living Dead, Evil Dead, Carrie, Nosferatu, and Scream.
Now, honestly, I don’t know if the movie works. I’ve been mulling it for a while. It’s not as funny as a few other zomcoms out there, because it’s that particular Jarmuschy humor that really pops if a member of the Wu-Tang Clan is onscreen, but that often feels overwritten in non-Wu moments. Bill Murray says all of Sheriff Cliff’s lines as a sigh, which on the one hand is exactly how this needed to be played, but on the other hand, isn’t exactly fun. Adam Driver as Deputy Ronnie is hilarious. Chloë Sevigny’s Deputy Mindy is perfect as the only person who reacts to this nightmare like a human, and Tilda Swinton is pretty incredible in what might be the most TILDA SWINTON role ever put on film.
There is a great moment when Cliff, Mindy, and Ronnie are all together in the station, staring out at the undead hordes. Ronnie says his signature deadpan line: “This is all going to end badly,” and Mindy finally snaps, yelling at him that his negativity isn’t helpful and begging Cliff to tell her everything is going to be OK. And he does, and he knows he’s lying, and she knows he’s lying, and it might not make anything better, but it’s such a great way to encapsulate three different ways of dealing with crisis. (It also lines up so perfectly with me and two of my fellow Tor.com writers, with Emily Asher-Perrin trying to find the hope in any situation, Natalie Zutter reacting with real human emotion, and me, predicting apocalypse and deflecting feelings with sarcasm, that I lost about five minutes of the movie laughing too hard to watch.) But of course the movie’s kick comes in the knowledge that no matter which of these perspectives you choose, there’s still a horde of ghouls at the door.
Horror is useful because it can deal with political situations in ways that are simultaneously oblique and harsh. If we want to talk about what this movie is about, it’s about a diverse group of people who all know, for a fact, that the world is ending. They cope with this in different ways, but none of their solutions work—the problem is too big, too terrifying, and even though they all agree that someone should do something, none of them can fully connect to what’s happening around them. No one is coming to save them. There is no government or superman or alien force that can help. Their pop culture ephemera, which seems at first like a survival manual, proves useless in reality.
The question here is whether the film twists the knife enough to work as cultural commentary. Jarmusch hangs a couple of lampshades on the film: here’s the pop culture nerd—but it’s 2019 and everyone else knows his references, too. Here’s the racial allegory—but he’s not really an allegory, just Farmer Miller, who nobody likes but everybody kind of tolerates because he’s part of the community. Here are the hipster kids driving in from the big city—except when the motel owner tries to say they’re from Pittsburgh (hat tip to Romero), Sheriff Cliff points out that their classic car (hat tip to Raimi) has Ohio plates. It’s like Jarmusch puts his characters in the same room with the pop culture he’s referring to, but then won’t look it in the eye.
Bill Murray and Adam Driver play their roles in matching deadpan voices, dead shark eyes, total detachment. Tom Waits provides a Greek chorus as Hermit Bob, who went to junior high with Cliff, but moved out into the woods years ago. Naturally, he’s the only one who seems to realize what’s going on, and he makes some on-the-nose points about how aren’t we really all just zombies, after all, enslaved by tech and pop culture and quick fun? And all of this would be so arch and twee and dreadfully ‘90s, except that a couple of the characters even comment on how the Hipster Kids From The City distance themselves from life through irony, so even that is lampshaded.
Because that’s not what Jarmusch is doing at all.
What’s undercutting the film’s “fun,” the real commentary that’s unspooling under the movie we’re all watching, is nodded at in a scene early on in the film.
When you’re doing horror comedy you have to make a choice about how to balance the “horror” with the “comedy.” With something like Beetlejuice the comedy is in the forefront. Even watching it as a Smol Leah, I didn’t ever think anyone was in real danger, and there was a little bit of gross-out humor, but actually not that much. But if you look at something like Dead Alive, the humor comes out of the gore—part of the point is to push the envelope and try to shock people into laughing during a zombie sex scene (for instance). In Shaun of the Dead and Scream, the meta commentary and snark is contrasted with scenes of people being terrorized and killed.
In The Dead Don’t Die the meta commentary and Jarmuschian deadpan just sit there, offering no salve or relief from the horror. The film’s first zombie attack makes it clear that the film isn’t going to resolve the tension. Iggy Pop and Sara Driver shuffle out of the woods and set upon the very nice diner owner and the very nice cleaning lady, who have been having a pleasant conversation about nothing. The diner owner dies quickly, with only a few shrieks and some amusing Peter Jackson-style dripping gore. But not the cleaning lady. Iggy Pop takes one terrible bit out of her stomach, then gets distracted by the coffee sitting on the counter. He and his partner growl “Cofff-EEEE” in the way that generations of zombies before them have growled BRAAAIIIIINNNSSSS and then they shuffle over to the coffee and start drinking. It’s hilarious.
Except that the cleaning lady isn’t dead. She’s not even close to dead. She’s lying on the ground, trapped, knowing she’s dying and unable to either escape or at least speed up the process. We listen as she gasps and moans below the shot, begging for help, in indescribable pain. And the scene just…plays out. For at least five minutes. The next time we see her she’s dead, yes, but we have no idea how long she lay there before Iggy finished her off—or, indeed, if she just bled out for hours, alone, a few feet away from the corpse of her half-eaten friend.
Not quite what you expect from your ridiculous indie zomcom.
Maybe each era gets the zombie film it deserves. Night of the Living Dead was a perfect attack on the myth of the nuclear American family, a great commentary on the country’s racism, and on its infantilization of women. Dawn of the Dead was a perfect slap to the rampant commercialism of the 1970s, while Return of the Living Dead is a low-budget schlockfest with one brief scene of true existential horror, as though the gleaming façade of the 1980s cracked for just a moment. Dead Alive was the early 1990s’ culmination of underground cinema in the 1980s, a beautiful shocking underbelly for the horrors of life. Shaun of the Dead was perfect for the early ‘00s, bathed in pop culture and conscious of its own legacy, while Zombieland and World War Z mashed up zombies with the trappings of a generalized post-apocalyptic landscape, out-sized and too terrifying to think about. Meanwhile, 28 Days Later and the remake of Dawn of the Dead inaugurated the “fast zombie”, mirroring the general sense that information and pop culture themselves were speeding up in the new millennium.
Now we get the deadened aftermath of it all, the post-post-apocalypse, if you will, where everyone knows the rules, they know they have to kill the head, they know they’ll have to deal with re-killing people they went to school with, and they even know why it happened, but they’re so assaulted by bad news and horror that they’ve gone numb. They couldn’t make the effort to stop the zombocalypse before it took over the world, and now most of them are so used to constant panic that none of it even feels real.
Like I said, this movie isn’t exactly fun. But I have to think that ten years from now, we might look back and realize that this was exactly the zombie move we deserved.
Leah Schnelbach is working on a theory that Jim Jarmusch is recreating the Universal Monster Movie Universe, one indie film at a time. She’s keeping her fingers crossed for a remake of The Mummy. Come moan “BRAAAIIIINSSSS” at them on Twitter!