It’s the end of the world as we know it—again. At the multiplexes at least.This time it isn’t Roland Emmerich-directed aliens coming to destroy the world and Will Smith coming to to save it. It’s an art-house darling Jim Jarmusch-directed zombie apocalypse and Bill Murray as a smalltown cop coming to, well, not. No need for a spoiler alert here. This isn’t that kind of movie. Adam Driver playing Murray’s partner says early and often that “This is going to end badly.”
“The Dead Don’t Die” is not so much about why the dead walk the earth (fracking) or even what to do about it—it’s more preoccupied with the sighing in between. Murray and Driver and Chloe Sevigny as the three cops faced with, meh, maybe patrolling the town after the dead start chewing on people’s intestines have the uncomfortable, stilted rhythm of characters in a B-movie that went straight to Troma video in the ’80s. Except in this case they’ve read the back of the VHS box.
It’s the kind of movie where when their patrol car radio crackles with alt-country crooner Sturgill Simpson intoning the title song early on, before a single a zombie has been spotted, Bill Murray’s character asks with considerable pique, “Why does this song sound so familiar?” and Driver responds, “Because we just heard it. It’s the theme song.” And indeed the track had just played over the opening credits a few minutes ago. These moments of breaking the fourth wall are rare though, and never threaten to weight the film with parody pretensions.
The self awareness comes in smaller doses, most often, and Jarmusch has sought to signify that his film is homage and an extended riff. Jarmusch is walking through the terrain of film history at large, but also his smaller, personal film geography. For starters the all-star cast, from Murray and Driver to Steve Buscemi and Tom Waits to Tilda Swinton’s turn as a Scottish-samurai-undertaker, is littered (literally, many make stumble-on cameos as reanimated corpses) with actors from Jarmusch’s previous films. And three young “hipster” road trippers driving into town from Cleveland led by Selena Gomez are a shadow of the trio in Jarmusch’s first film “Stranger Than Paradise,” a film’s who’s female lead Eszter Balint is one of the very first victims in a diner.
About that diner scene. This is where we first get the idea that these zombies aren’t exactly of the “28 Days Later” variety. After zombies, played by Iggy Pop and Jarmusch’s real-life partner Sarah Driver, make a meal of the staff, Pop cocks his head and says not “braaaaaiiiins” but “cooofffeeeeee” and proceeds to drag-leg it over to the coffee pots and drink up.
We see ourselves not in the hapless humans faced with fending off zombie hoards but in the undead themselves.
This bit, that the zombies as Driver puts it “gravitate toward things they did when they were alive,” is borrowed from the master George Romero, who Jarmusch lovingly references throughout the film. Here is one of the places where Jarmusch has the most fun though and lets us see ourselves not in the hapless humans faced with fending off zombie hoards but in the undead themselves. Just as Pop groans “cooooffffeee” there are groups of zombies banging on the door of a pharmacy bleating “oxycontin,” “xanax,” and “vicodin.” Carol Kane plays a “chardonnay”-loving corpse. And perhaps most pointedly we see a group of zombies stumbling though the streets hunched over illuminated phone screens moaning “wifi,” and “Siri.”
The easter eggs and callbacks are many layered and textured. Jarmusch is sampling here from film and pop-culture lore and history like an overactive hip-hop producer with a legal team on retainer. There are blink-and-you’ll miss them moments, such as when Murray stumbles into a newly empty grave with the headstone marked “Samuel Fuller,” the name of the revered renegade low-budget filmmaker. The there are the obvious homages, such as when a convenience store clerk calls tells Gomez and her hipster cohorts that their ’70s Pontiac is “very George Romero,” then a moment later tells them them to “Stay sick,” and another kid in the shop adds, “Turn blue,” with both phrases being pulled from The Cramps song “Surfin’ Dead” which appears on the soundtrack to the “Night of the Living Dead” follow-up “Return of the Living Dead.”
The world is perfect. Appreciate the details.
RZA, playing a WU-PS delivery driver, says “The world is perfect. Appreciate the details.” The same might not be said for the film, but it’s pretty darn good and you may revel in the details.
Through it all Murray plays it straight. As if he’s in one of Jarmusch’s Cannes-contending dramadies. And this is no “Zombieland” walk-on for him. He’s in the film from the first scene to the very last and provides its center. Stay sick, Bill.
“The Dead Don’t Die” opens June 14. Flag Day.