YIN/YANG REVIEWS: The Dead Don't Die / Dead to Me

By Derek May:

YIN: The Dead Don't Die

The word “eccentric” is often bandied about in relation to artists, but in writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s case, it fits like a well-worn glove. His sensibilities run a large gamut, everything from the dry intellectual to the hilariously absurd. His previous film works have been largely ignored by mainstream audiences and either beloved or derided by cinema aficionados. I myself find his pieces intriguing if often overly esoteric at times, and thus he’s been hit or miss for me over the years. So his choice to craft what seemed to be a silly-but-typical zombie comedy with the recent The Dead Don’t Die had me equal parts bewildered and excited.

The trailers portrayed a tongue-in cheek, fast paced, gag-filled farce with a superb cast, including perennial Jarmusch compatriots Bill Murray and Tom Waits. I was dying (get it!) to see how such a conventional film—the only one to receive a proper wide release in his 35-year career—might have sprung forth from such an auteur mind. In truth, the trailers were about half-right, as the film is very likely the most commercial and accessible work of his to date, but it’s also definitely a Jarmusch film and chock-a-block with his unique perspective and social insights.

The film is as much a homage to the zombie genre as it as a parody. It’s lovingly crafted to hit every trope while attentively subverting them at the same time. The film follows the befuddled attempts of a small-town police force in way over their heads after a shift in Earth’s axis causes the dead to return to life and feed on the living (as tends to happen). There’s plenty of gory, flesh-eating feasting and machete chops to the head, but Jarmusch prefers to layer in a heavy dose of social-satire. If Romero’s Night of the Living Dead has been cited as a commentary on consumerism, Jarmusch takes that ball and runs it the full hundred yards. While monstrous, the zombies here are often hilarious, mindlessly adhering to their social defaults even in death, such as obsessions with glowing phones, selfies, coffee, and, of course, chardonnay. Along the way, the director weaves in cautionary tales of environmentalism, comments on the roles and expectations of the genders, and even our current Trumpian issues with racism.

It all comes together a neat little subversive package that is highly aware of itself and what it’s trying to accomplish. In addition to the on-the-nose recurring gag of the film’s theme song, the catchy “The Dead Don’t Die” by Sturgill Simpson (who cameos as an undead guitarist), there are several fourth-wall breaks that only add to the wonderful absurdity of the whole affair.

The assembled cast seems to be reveling in the chance to add a little meat to the genre’s undead bones. Bill Murray shares most of his screentime with Adam Driver, already a veteran now of many a surrealist independent film. The duo both play it pretty straight, but somehow still complement each other rather than just cover the same ground. Murray plays Cliff Robertson, the out-of-his depth Chief just trying to hold it together while Driver portrays Officer Ronnie Peterson, the confident young buck with a coldly detached perspective. The pair set each other up for some gut-busting laughs, especially Driver who decidedly holds his own with the comedy legend. Chloë Sevigny plays the third member of their ranks who has a decidedly less-controlled reaction to the situation, leading to her own fair share of laughs along the way.