"This Is Fine": The Dead Don't Die is a Portrait of Modern Complacency
The decade is over, war is ever looming, the planet is dying, and Jim Jarmusch can’t understand why we’re all sitting here proclaiming “this is fine.” So in order to get your attention, The Dead Don’t Die (2019) has Jarmusch pulling out every stop. He’s using one of the trendiest genre films, throwing in dozens of self-aware pop culture references, and then stacking it with a star-studded cast, from Bill Murray to Selena Gomez, that appeals equally to all age ranges. And he’s doing all of this just to tell you one thing: wake the hell up. In fact, Jarmusch seems downright mad about our collective complacency and emotional compartmentalization towards the state of the world. In The Dead Don’t Die he’s hoping that if he dresses it up real nice in a fun, mainstream package, then maybe you’ll finally get it.
Despite the fact that we’re continually bombarded with information on our phones, on the news, on radio, in movies, and in experienced catastrophic events, our ability to actually hear anything seems to be at an all time low. With trust in our government and media down, the public response to navigating potential “fake news” is just to stop listening. The Dead Don’t Die plays out the final hours before a zombie apocalypse, in which the world seemingly just rolls over and lets it happen. The film takes place in the sleepy but slightly off town of Centerville (think an east coast version of the town of Twin Peaks), where the majority of its residents have only dimly noticed a barrage of ominous signs; the sun is lasting long into the night, animals are running away en masse, and the moon is glowing a sickly green. Yet nobody seems terribly disturbed by it all until the dead start to show up at their door.
Only a handful of the town’s largely middle-aged residents have drawn the line between these phenomena and the messages repeating unconvincingly on the radio that “polar fracking is perfectly safe.” Instead, their response is just to shrug it off as a weird temporary coincidence. Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) is observant enough to realize something is not right, and yet he doesn’t fully take heed as his partner, Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver), continually proclaims “this isn’t going to end well.” It comes as no surprise then that the first two people to die by zombie had not only already ignored all of the red flags on the radio, but had also been shown barely comprehending the media that they did enjoy digesting (“You know, Zelda, the Great Gatsby’s wife!” “Who?” "Y’know, the richest man of the 1920s… Robert Redford!”).
The only residents who aren’t surprised, and take these threats seriously, are the young people of Centerville. Not only are they worried, but they’ve seen it coming a mile away. The teens in a juvenile detention facility (Maya Delmont, Taliyah Whitaker, Jahi Di’Allo Winston), symbolically and literally powerless by age and circumstance, are alarmed and horrified by what they’re stuck observing. Resident nerd and gas station owner Bobby Wiggins (Caleb Landry Jones) seemingly has waited his entire life to get his hands on some zombie action–his store is full of horror film paraphernalia and he instructs several people on how to “kill the head” to survive. Then there’s Officer Ronnie, who immediately recognized what was coming before it even happened. Unlike Chief Robertson and the older crowd, Ronnie easily fingers zombies as the murder culprit. In one of the film’s many meta moments, Chief Robertson asks Ronnie how he could have known from the start that this would not end well, and Ronnie simply replies that he’s read the whole script. Like the topic of global warming, the writing is and has been on the walls for decades; yet the older generation in power doesn’t seem bothered to actually do the research.
Beyond his critiques of generational gaps and climate change, Jarmusch leaves no political types unscathed. MAGA-man caricature Farmer Frank Miller (Steve Buscemi) is openly contemptuous to not only the situation around him but to his neighbors as well. When zombies start to come for him he’s almost thrilled to finally have a chance to shoot the (undead) people at his doorstep. When Office Ronnie reminds Chief Robertson they need to go warn Farmer Frank about the impending apocalypse, Robertson dismisses him with an “honestly, fuck that guy.” On the other end of the spectrum, Prius-driving Officer Mindy Morrison (Chloë Sevigny) is positively useless in this time of need. She’s so shocked by the betrayal of government and overwhelmed by the violence necessary to stay alive that she’d rather curl up and die than face reality. Somewhere in the middle, the hipsters from Cleveland (Selena Gomez, Austin Butler, Luka Sabbat) court their own demise by not taking the threat seriously enough.
Then you have the two outliers, Zelda (Tilda Swinton) the undertaker and Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), who figure further into this scattershot satire. Zelda, a Scottish-accented, sword-wielding Mary Sue, is all at once a Marvel superhero stand-in meets an Asia-styled action hero. She seems to promise wisdom and protection, yet–I won’t spoil it entirely but lets just say even Jarmusch thinks she’s a bit too unrealistic. Hermit Bob, on the other hand, is the true heart of the film. While the zombies overwhelm the town, haunting the places they enjoyed when they were alive, he’s safely observing from the woods where he lives outside of society. Bob acts as the voice of God, and in turn the voice of Jarmusch, musing philosophically while he watches everything crumble through his binoculars. He’s frustrated and sad to see what’s happening, but he’s also blameless enough that he gets to stand there and mutter “what a fucking world.”
Which begs the question: can’t we be both? Jarmusch seem to think society at large is incapable of both enjoying distractions and being politically active. This broad dismissal also seems to be the main point of contention for most critics who disliked the film. I have to admit, I hardly think rolling your eyes at pop culture or action-horror movie fans (or more realistically, the “intellectual” Jim Jarmusch fans who are the true draw for a film like this) will change the hearts and minds of America. Like Hermit Bob, Jim Jarmusch strikes me as somebody who’s far too disconnected from everyday society to preach to the masses. Dude’s too busy being an indie filmmaking darling and hanging out with Bill Murray and Tom Waits. I have a hard time believing he truly has his finger on the pulse of America. Besides what does it matter at this point–like Hermit Bob, he exists outside of the mainstream to begin with because it was a dumpster fire. It’s only now that the fires are spreading into his neck of the woods that he’s feeling the need to speak out publicly.
All of that said, I personally appreciated Jarmusch’s commentary and his trademark sense of humor. I also got a good chuckle out of that damn theme song. The Dead Don’t Die was both slick and dry enough that I enjoyed it for what it was: a critique and an indulgence in shrugging and accepting our fate. Jarmusch doesn’t seem to have much in the way of solutions himself, other than “give the kids a chance,” but that’s enough of a positive endorsement to me. Otherwise, it seems like all that’s left to do is now is die. But, you know, do our best to kick some ass on the way out.