PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


'The Dead Don't Die' Confronts Climate Change with Deadpan Whimsicality

(© 2019 Image Eleven Productions, Inc. / IMDB)

With The Dead Don't Die, Jim Jarmusch deliberately deprives his latest film of the propulsive terrors innate to most zombie films, instead using the genre to matter-of-factly rhapsodize about consumer culture and the inevitability of the apocalypse.

The Dead Don't Die
Jim Jarmusch

Focus Features

14 Jun 2019 (US)


Leave it to one of the modern masters of independent cinema to find an entirely fresh way of confronting the apocalypse. That world itself — apocalypse — has almost become antithetical to innovation over the years; it's a topic that, understandably, demands artistic treatment, but its proliferation in genre films for several decades has somewhat cheapened it. In other words: How do you do something well if it's already been done to death? The stakes are especially high if you're Jim Jarmusch, whose claim to fame is that he's never made an uninteresting film.

The Dead Don't Die, Jarmusch's 13th film, does it by making a zombie film so tensionless and mundane as to almost be purposefully trivial. What's the point of a zombie movie without the ultimate terror of gruesome death? But the problem isn't that there isn't terror or gore (there's plenty, especially of the latter), it's that both things are foretold and matter-of-fact. He subverts our expectation that zombies will act as a device for cathartic horror safely outside the bounds of real life and instead sets the action so close to home and with such obvious ties to the climate change crisis that he manages to locate a new and dementedly mundane form of apocalyptic terror. It isn't an escapist horror, but one of plain confrontation.

And yet it isn't actually scary at all. The film begins as police officers Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) chase down Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) in the woods outside Centerville, Pennsylvania ("A real nice place," says the town's sign). The officers are tracking down a stolen chicken belonging to farmer Frank Miller (Steve Buscemi), a curmudgeonly old man who blames Hermit Bob for his missing livestock. They find Bob shrouded in bushes and trees (he's apparently been living in the woods for several years) and ask him about the chicken, but Bob shoots at them and tells them to go away. Ronnie thinks they should take him into the station, but Cliff decides to let him be, and the pair drive off. On the way back, they notice that it's still light outside despite it being around 8:20pm and that their phones and radio are acting up. They head back to the station to meet up with their partner, Mindy Morrison (Chloe Sevigny).

Tom Waits as Hermit Bob

(© 2019 Image Eleven Productions, Inc. / IMDB)

The Dead Don't Die is a comedy, though it's not all that funny — at least not in an obvious sense (the funniest bit in the film is that Farmer Frank's dog is named Rumsfeld, after the two-time US Secretary of Defense). Hermit Bob, who long ago decided to spurn polite society and make it on his own in the woods, tethers the audience to a philosophical point of view, and although most of the townspeople are simple and kind, it's not hard to imagine why he would want to separate himself from the real world and its modern ills. In fact, when the zombies do rise, Bob is the only one who remains safe and untouched, removed as he is from the action.

Cliff, Ronnie and Mindy, and other townspeople like hardware store owner Hank Thompson (Danny Glover), kitschy gas station attendant Bobby Wiggins (Caleb Landry Jones), Farmer Frank, motel owner Danny Perkins (Larry Fessenden), waitress Fern (Eszter Balint), juvenile delinquents Stella (Maya Delmont), Olivia (Taliyah Whitaker) and Geronimo (Jahi Winston) and out-of-town "hipsters" Zoe (Selena Gomez), Jack (Austin Butler) and Zach (Luka Sabbat) are all doomed for death from the start, regardless of their quirks and virtues.

The first to go are Fern and Lily (Rosal Colon), who stay late at the local diner after Hank and Farmer Frank (who wears a hat that says "Make America White Again") head out for the night. Two zombies, played by the musician Iggy Pop and Sara Driver, Jarmusch's wife, come into the diner, guzzle coffee straight from the pot and kill Fern and Lily. The next day, Hank, Cliff, Ronnie and Mindy all assess the situation in turns ("Was it a wild animal? Several wild animals?" each character asks, as if connected to a hive mind) and take in the reality of the situation. It's zombies, says Ronnie. Ghouls. We later learn that he's been given the script ahead of time and knows for a fact that it's all going to end badly.

Tilda Swinton as Zelda Winston

(© 2019 Image Eleven Productions, Inc. / IMDB)

Because we, like Ronnie, know that zombies are destined to take over this world, Jarmusch's film is oddly free of the expectations and propulsive tensions of most zombie films. It's not just Ronnie, though; each character confronts the apocalypse in their own way, but there's no question that each will meet their grim, fated end. Unlike in Jarmusch's Paterson (2016) where the title character played by Driver, his wife, and his neighbors all have poignant internal lives, the personalities in The Dead Don't Die show little depth. The actors play to type, hitting their marks and performing stilted, whimsical dialogue, but they're even in the end, destined to become one with the undead.

Only two characters escape this fate: One is Hermit Bob, whose disillusionment with modern society has insulated him from its wrath, and the other is a Scottish undertaker named Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton), a strange woman who's deadly with a katana. (That the character is essentially an incarnation of Swinton's own mystical reputation will not be lost on most viewers.) But these are fringe characters, and ones who can rightly claim remove from traditional human behavior. This is key — as the zombies first start to reanimate, a news anchor (Rosie Perez) informs the town that polar fracking has altered the Earth's rotation, taking it off its axis and occasioning several impending natural disasters. This is a blatant reference to climate change, and Jarmusch has no qualms with blaming human behavior, whether nice or cruel, quirky or straight-laced, on the inevitable disaster. It's Bob and Zelda's tenuous connection to humanity that saves their souls.

The rest are toast. "What a fucked up world," Bob says after the fact, and it is, even if Jarmusch's mellow approach helps us take it down easy. There's no escape from punishment as a human, he seems to say, even if a person's only fault is a consumerist appreciation for kitsch or a penchant for Chardonnay. The Dead Don't Die is far from a call-to-arms even as it makes an overt political statement. It is, itself, a piece of digestible genre content, filled with beautiful actors from various Disney properties and plenty of traditional gore, and it allows itself to be such a product without resorting to cynicism or cutting satire. It's a curious

film, one that acknowledges the end of the world blatantly without once forgetting to be steadfastly, almost dementedly, silly. It's a smart if minor work from a masterfully innovative director.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.


The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.


Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.


15 Overlooked and Underrated Albums of the 1990s

With every "Best of the '90s" retrospective comes a predictable list of entries. Here are 15 albums that are often overlooked as worthy of placing in these lists, and are too often underrated as some of the best records from the decade.


'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.


20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.


Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.


The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.


Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).


Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.