“The World is perfect. Appreciate the details,” says rapper RZA early in Jim Jarmausch’s new zom-com, and there are many to covet. Welcome to Centreville, a town of 738 people that randomly contains a Juvenile Correction Centre, in which Rosie Perez plays a news anchor named Posie Juarez, Steve Buscemi owns a cat named Rumsfeld, and RZA himself plays a courier for ‘Wu-PS’. Do these details make up for a narrative with criminally little meat on the bone for a zombie flick? Not quite, despite a great ensemble cast and Monty Python-level meta-humour.
Centreville is solid Romero territory as the dead crawl out of the grave and begin to chow down on the town’s quirky residents. The cause is a shift in the World’s axis cause by polar fracking. As Adam Driver‘s impassive cop says repeatedly, “This is not going to end well.” Of course, unlike Romero’s protagonists, the good people of Centreville are armed with fifty years of zombie knowledge and a well-stocked hardware store. It isn’t long before they adopt ‘Kill the Head’ as their mantra.
Jarmusch has made a long career from the surgical eye he directs at small-town life; its rhythms and idiosyncrasies in ways that are both very specific and oddly universal. His recent Paterson is a good example of this. He uses the same palette here, albeit using much broader strokes of characterisation and with none of the underlying melancholy seen in the likes of Broken Flowers. The end result feels like a companion piece to James Gunn‘s witty alien splatter debut Slither. Unfortunately, the cinematic winking smothers the picture, even before it crumbles under its own self-reflexivity.
That isn’t to say there is nothing beneath its postmodern skin. Although the backwoods setting evokes Night of the Living Dead, Jarmusch bares his political teeth at Dawn of the Dead. The ghouls of Centreville lurch towards old haunts and habits; sports pitches, coffee, chardonnay, Xanax and fashion are all still mindlessly coveted. Several can be seen clutching the glowing screens of mobile phones. Old habits, like Centreville’s deceased, die hard.
A zombie flick is nothing without some undead carnage, and there is something strangely subversive about a a cast of impeccable indie cred getting stuck into some full-on genre action. Seeing the likes of Driver, Bill Murray, Chloë Sevigny and Caleb Landry Jones dispatching zombies with shotguns and machetes is undoubtedly a lot of fun, even if the actors themselves seem to be coasting in neutral. The exceptions are Tilda Swinton (apparently still dizzy from Suspiria) as a weirdly formal Scottish undertaker-cum-Bushidō warrior, and the great Tom Waits as Hermit Bob, a Herman Melville-quoting Greek Chorus apparently immune to the horde by virtue of his rejection of all consumerist trappings. Special mention to Iggy Pop as a coffee-swilling zombie, although how much makeup was required is up for debate.
As fun as it is, it’s difficult not to see The Dead Don’t Die as a slight disappointment. It’s loaded with incidental pleasures such as the neat ash effect as the zombies lose their heads, and the lonesome country theme song that is acknowledged as the theme by the characters. However, there is a lack of direction and an apparent belief that momentum and goodwill can be sustained entirely through the wattage of the cast and the barrage of fourth-wall breaking. It will become a favourite to some, but others will see it as a rough curio among Jim Jarmusch’s work.
UK Premiere screenings at Vue Omni Centre Fri 21 and Sun 23 Jun 2019.