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Film Reviews Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die is a welcome return of the living deadpan

Adam Driver stars as Officer Ronald Peterson in writer/director Jim Jarmusch's The Dead Don't Die.

Credit : Frederick Elmes / Focus/Focus Features

  • The Dead Don’t Die
  • Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch
  • Starring: Bill Murray, Adam Driver and Chloë Sevigny
  • Classification: R; 105 minutes
  • Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars

“This is the final shootout scene,” says Forrest Whittaker’s out-of-time, culturally-crisscrossed urban-hitman-samurai, setting off the final shootout scene of Jim Jarmusch’s 1999 film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. It’s the sort of self-conscious, wink-nudge shtick that, circa the turn of the millennium, was very much on-trend and which now feels as hopelessly dated as spaghetti straps and Yankees caps.

Jarmusch’s latest, the zombie comedy The Dead Don’t Die, is shot through with this kind of stuff. When a small-town police chief (Bill Murray) asks his partner (Adam Driver) why a song on the radio, also called The Dead Don’t Die, sounds so familiar, his partner replies, in polished Jarmuschian deadpan, “It’s the theme song.” Later, Wu-Tang Clan doyen RZA appears as a deliveryman working for – wait for it – WU-PS. When a group of waylaid millennials roll into town in a vintage ride bearing Ohio plates, a snarling motelier (Larry Fessenden) derides them as “hipsters from Cleveland.” (Jarmusch, himself long-dogged by empty charges of “hipsterdom,” hails from Cuyahoga Falls, about 60-clicks south of Cleveland. But close enough.)

New movies on Netflix and in theatres this week, including Martin Scorsese’s Bob Dylan doc, Mindy Kaling’s Late Night and Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die

Where the characters in Ghost Dog merely had an intimation of their status as stock character archetypes in a genre picture, those in Dead Don’t Die are every inch aware of their function as fictional characters in a zombie movie. And, in particular, a zombie movie written and directed by Jim Jarmusch.

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All of this must sound very annoying. But Jarmusch’s crucial intervention into the meta-movie mode is his understanding that this is the only way to make a genre movie these days: wry, winking, entirely self-aware. He knows that postmodernism is not an approach or a framework, but a shared condition of lived experience. And what’s more, he understands this so fundamentally that he – like his expansive cast of Rust Belt yokels – is utterly bored by it. The film does not borrow from the mythos of living-dead movies so much as unfold across a cinematic scrapheap, where everything is a reference to something else: the existent canon of zombie movies, a given performer’s own career, the Wu-Tang Clan, the movie itself. It’s not about being “meta.” It’s about the “meta” being all there is.

Despite all this, The Dead Don’t Die feels the least of an intellectual exercise in genre than Jarmusch’s previous intellectual exercises in genre (Ghost Dog, yes, but also 1995’s revisionist western Dead Man, 2013’s boho vampire flick Only Lovers Left Alive and 2009’s The Limits of Control, which prods preoccupations of the abstruse arthouse puzzler). “Kill the head,” the film’s cast of survivalists repeat, when facing down the lumbering undead hordes. And indeed, what distinguishes Jarmusch’s latest is not its braininess but the manner in which it seems to proceed almost instinctually, as if the film were making itself up as it went along.

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Tilda Swinton is a standout in the film's strong cast.

Frederick Elmes / Focus Features/Focus Features

The stacked cast – Murray, Driver, RZA, Tilda Swinton, Danny Glover, Steve Buscemi, Chloë Sevigny, Rosie Perez, Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, Selena Gomez, etc. – play off one another intuitively, elevating the ostensible stiltedness of the dialogue and scenario to the realm of sublime comic absurdity. Swinton, as a katana-wielding Scottish mortician who dresses the departed in garish neon makeup, is a particular standout. As is Tom Waits, playing – what else? – a shaggy recluse named Hermit Bob. When the film settles into its lackadaisical, wearily surreal groove, it feels like an extended SCTV parody of a zombie movie, which should be taken as a high compliment.

Then there’s the zombies themselves – those decaying stiffs so often deployed to allegorize one or another pressing social concern. Despite some mutterings about consumerism, polar fracking and Buscemi’s character donning a Trumpian red cap bearing the grammatically confusing inscription “KEEP AMERICA WHITE AGAIN,” The Dead Don’t Die says blissfully little about the state of the world today. For its slightness and silliness, its concerns are grander. Here, the undead ghouls represent nothing but the cold prospect of death itself. “This isn’t gonna end well,” Driver’s omniscient copper keeps intoning. And it never does.

Legendary punk rocker Iggy Pop plays a zombie.

Frederick Elmes / Focus Features/Focus Features

Jarmusch meets this basic existential dilemma head-on by shoving his characters into the feast of flesh to meet their grisly – and wholly assured – fates. There’s no hedge clipper sharp enough to snip the head off death’s grim inevitability. There’s no postmodern meta-wink that can nudge past the ordinance of eternity. In the face of death’s surety, embodied in marauding corpses shambling through Anytown, U.S.A., all one can do is embrace the finitude of life. As the song goes: “If you’re gonna die, die with your boots on.”

The Dead Don’t Die opens June 14

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