the dead don't die restricted trailer

(Welcome to The Unpopular Opinion, a series where a writer goes to the defense of a much-maligned film or sets their sights on a movie seemingly beloved by all. In this edition: The Dead Don’t Die has been critically panned, but it’s far more insightful than it’s being given credit for.)

I get it, okay? The Dead Don’t Die can be a really hard film to like. It’s a bitter, cynical, downright abrasive film that takes more pleasure out of being smug about zombie films than it does about being a zombie film. It’s understandable that it’s going to turn a lot of people off with its extensive-bordering-on-excessive commitment to deadpan humor and its absolute disdain for what is surely a large portion of its target audience. It’s a comedy that is hostile and bleak, paradoxically playing off our collective despair in a way that only a fraction of the audience was ever going to be able to laugh at.

But I am more than happy to be in that minority of folks who can enjoy it.

This post contains spoilers for The Dead Don’t Die.

Deconstructing the Decomposed

It’s no big secret that The Dead Don’t Die is a self-righteous allegory for climate change. In the film, news reports tell us in no uncertain terms that the polar fracking that has started at the North Pole coincides with strange happenings that start to happen in Centerville (and presumably everywhere else on Earth). These reports are always followed with assurances from the government and the energy companies that the strangeness has nothing to do with the fracking, yet the small town denizens recognize that the day-night cycle has been corrupted, animals are fleeing human-populated areas, and the moon has begun to rotate and shine a purple penumbra. The causality is obvious, yet the residents of Centerville scratch their heads and avoid piecing cause and effect together, not that there’s much that they can do about it at this point anyway.

Of course, zombie films have always been politically charged, ranging from the racial and commercialist allegories of George Romero’s films to the arguably unintentional anti-immigrant subtext of The Walking Dead. Part and parcel to having monsters that were once and still appear human is that an author necessarily says something about human nature through their existence and interaction within a fictional world. Inevitably, whatever plot is used to show off zombie spectacle is going to have a story that extends beyond the bounds of the narrative. Jim Jarmusch’s zombies are of a consumerist bent, obsessed with the material possessions they used to cope with living, whether it be coffee, toys, music, or, most tellingly, anti-depressants. It’s worth noting that while this is on one level a judgment on capitalism and the value our possessions have over our lives, it’s also presented as a somber demonstration of people finding comfort in their interests or, as is particularly the case with mental health medication, in treatment for how the world has forced them to cope.

But Jarmusch’s zombie tale goes one step further than others, sledgehammering the sub away from the subtext and reveling in making its social messaging as blunt and as unambiguous as possible. The deadpan, borderline bored way in which nearly every character delivers their lines feels like the actors are just going through the motions of another zombie movie, yet the performances and dialogue are specifically delivered to highlight the absurdity of going through those motions. Repetition of phrases –like everyone’s mutual obsession with the film’s titular theme song, the hilarious question of whether it was an animal or a bunch of animals killing people, or Officer Ronnie (Adam Driver) continually asserting that things will end badly – demonstrate the absurdity of people’s unwillingness to accept what is obvious, both in terms of a zombie apocalypse and a literal environmental collapse. The running gag is that everyone seems to be vaguely aware that they’re in a zombie movie, or at least that their reality is defined by motifs, tropes, and routines, but no matter how much reality becomes heightened or how much their world threatens to implode under the weight of absurdity, people are locked in the inevitable dance of their own destruction. This culminates with Officer Ronnie’s fourth-wall-breaking revelation that he’s read the script, yet he too is powerless to do anything but give it his best shot prior to his ultimate demise.

Contempt for the Living

Now, while this is all well and good as an exercise in genre deconstruction, satirizing zombie tropes and conventions is really only a stylized means to an end. Jarmusch’s deconstruction holds a mirror up to our own understanding of popular culture, drawing the line between the shambling deceased and the imminently predeceased. He does this through his expansive cast of characters, almost none of whom actually exhibit any intellectual or emotional depth but are symptomatic of human beings’ willingness to be willfully ignorant to consequences greater than their individual control, particularly if they live in rural American communities that have rejected the world’s social, political, and scientific progress.

It’s no coincidence that Fern (Eszter Balint) and Lily (Rosal Colon) are the first victims of a zombie attack after having spent an entire conversation trusting that the government wasn’t responsible for the day’s strange daylight hours; it’s their willful ignorance that leaves them unprepared and ultimately kills them. This textual disdain extends to Farmer Frank (Steve Buscemi), whose unsubtle “Keep America White Again” cap belies a paranoia against other races – notably and inconsistently tolerated in Black fellow café patron Hank (Danny Glover) – yet that paranoia turns out to be cathartically inadequate as he is torn apart by the undead members of his own community. Intriguingly, the actual immigrant to Centerville, Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton), is a bizarre mishmash of Scottish and Japanese clichés and stereotypes, emblematic of a small town’s confused notion of foreignness, but she is the most competent player at protecting herself and others from the undead in a town full of incompetence. Furthermore, her ethnic incongruity is shown to be the result of her extraterrestrial origins, so to her, all of humanity is foreign, equally strange, interchangeable, and, as demonstrated by her unceremonious departure via UFO, utterly disposable.

Reflexively, one might think that Bobby Wiggins (Caleb Landry Jones), Centerville’s resident horror geek, might be somewhat more heroic as an audience surrogate in a film about deconstructing horror tropes, but his knowledge of zombies is only sufficient to stave off inevitability in a gambit for self-preservation by locking himself in Hank’s hardware store. Pop culture has given him the tools to appreciate his circumstances and defend himself up to a point, but his response to the real deal is to hole up and die surrounded by the weapons he think will save him, which ultimately kills him faster than if he’d been as proactive as Sheriff Cliff (Bill Murray) and Officers Ronnie and Mindy (Chloë Sevigny).

All three officers are reluctant heroes of their community, mostly no more prepared to the coming storm than their civilian counterparts, but each deals with their responsibilities with varying degrees of decorum and retention of cool. Mindy displays the worst of it, constantly on the verge of mental breakdown and paralyzed by the prospect of actually having to deal with the fallout of circumstances larger than her individual control, ultimately giving herself willingly to her ravenous zombie grandmother. However, Cliff doesn’t fare much better, resigned to a position of authority he was incapable of retiring from and now utterly unequipped to effectuate, completely dependent on Ronnie’s affectless guidance to navigate the end of humanity. And the only reason Ronnie has any strength to keep going is because he knows his end and is nihilistically resigned to his fate as written in the script. He has the most knowledge of any character, but even that is insufficient to save him from the plot’s set course for him. Things are doomed to end badly, but he embraces his role in the literal script through comically odd inflection, inappropriate exclamations, and acting choices that embrace having fun before necessarily coming to a tragic end.

Hope Waits For Us

The Dead Don’t Die is a bleak experience, and your ability to appreciate its humor is going to depend entirely on how willing you are to embrace its nihilism. The joke is ultimately on us as the human species, doomed by our willful ignorance of imminent calamity and our embrace of comfort and parable over actual outrage and action. However, there is hope for humanity in Jarmusch’s tale, and it’s not where you might think. The obvious conclusion is that Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), the mouthpiece who monologues Jarmusch’s blunt philosophy over the deaths of his fellow citizens, is the successor to humankind, as his wisdom in shirking materialism and human connection is what allows him to survive the end of the film. And while it’s tempting to view Hermit Bob’s closing monologue as vindication for his rejection of humanity, he’s not the only survivor.

One of the film’s many disparate subplots revolves around a trio of teenagers (Maya Delmont, Taliyah Whitaker, and Jahi Winston) in their time at a correctional facility, watching the world fall apart on a television screen but unable to affect anything due to their age and their imprisonment. By extension, they are imprisoned by the coming apocalypse they were born into, but in the wake of their physical prison’s collapse, they exhibit the resourcefulness and cunning to escape the prison’s zombie infestation to confront the decaying outer world they’ve been shackled to. They observe Zelda decapitating a zombie, and one of them tells the others that she knows a good place to hide. That’s the last we see of them. Every other character besides Hermit Bob has been visibly killed by this point, so the implication is that these kids survive the end. That’s a sliver of hope for the future.

Even if you aren’t on board for the nihilism of knowing that you and your contemporaries are doomed by our collective complacency, perhaps take solace in the next generation’s ability to survive our mistakes. According to The Dead Don’t Die, our only other solace is to snicker at our own demise.

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