Things just aren’t the same in Centerville. Or really anywhere else in the rest of the world. Prominent scientists and government authorities insist that there is no evidence that polar fracking endangers the earth shifting on its axis, but strange things have been happening. Ordinarily obedient dogs are ignoring their masters’ commands and fleeing, exclusively indoor cats panic and hide under the houses that they live in, and by midnight it is still broad daylight.
Jim Jarmusch’s comedic zombie thriller The Dead Don’t Die opens to the idyllic scenery of just your average small-town USA, where townspeople wear red ‘Keep America White Again’ baseball caps. Where the local police force patrols the town, debating whether or not they should be stopping for coffee and donuts. Where Sturgill Simpson croons The Dead Don’t Die, as Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) breaks the fourth wall of the film’s comedic sensibilities and identifies the country ballad as the titular theme song for the movie. This joke, like many others, is repeated several times, and it quickly becomes clear that repetition is going to emerge as one of the major themes and sources of comedy.
As daily life changes for the people of Centerville they begin to observe strange phenomena. Early in the film, there is a mass exodus of all the town’s dairy cattle to the safety of the forest. And the appearance of Zelda Winston, the (sometimes poorly) Scottish-accented, katana-twirling Buddhist new owner of the Ever After Funeral Home (unsurprisingly casting Tilda Swinton in the role) who insists on referring to each character by their title and full given name, is just another reminder that times are ‘a-changin’, with little to no explanation as to why.
When night appears to fall (though, who is even able to keep track of what time of day it is anymore?), the moment we have all been waiting for comes as a pair of limbs burst through the ground, and two zombies (one of whom is a biker-styled Iggy Pop) emerge from their graves and stumble across town with far less agility, speed and dancerly grace than the specimens in Michael Jackson’s Thriller. The two zombies barge into Centerville’s diner and stage the first of many subsequent attacks, feasting on two of the diner’s employees’ abdomens (even though zombies are supposed to go straight for the brains, first) until they spot something that triggers an even stronger reaction than the compulsion to engorge in human flesh: “COFFEE!”
Having abandoned all but any of its politically prescient social/environmental commentary shortly after the zombies begin to terrorize the citizens of Centerville, The Dead Don’t Die’s biggest asset quickly becomes its large, star-studded and character actor-rounded ensemble, which also includes Chloë Sevigny and the elusive Jarmusch perennial Bill Murray as officers in Centerville’s averagely-abled police force; Caleb Landry Jones as a gas station owner and self-avowed expert of the undead, who has watched “just about every zombie movie there is;” Selena Gomez as a Daisy Dukes-clad young adult (presumably a “hipster from Cleveland” according to one character) on a road trip, who just happens to love Sturgill Simpson’s The Dead Don’t Die; Steve Buscemi as a cattle farmer who doesn’t like it when his coffee is “too black;” Carol Kane as the corpse of (cheap) Chardonnay-loving Mallory O’Brien; and Rosie Perez as the self-referentially named newscaster ‘Posie Juarez.’
Ultimately, while the first act of The Dead Don’t Die features strong atmosphere-building, and while its sardonic irony earns more than a few belly laughs, its initially heavy-handed political messages do not really lead to any satisfying culminations in theme. But the film has more than its fair share of fairly memorable, if often too self-referential, jokes that should especially appeal to the deadpan, sarcastic sensibilities of American millennials. While many of the elements in The Dead Don’t Die feel like familiar tropes of the zombie genre, the humour that lands and the strength of the cast are reliably strong, and after all there are certainly worse terrors that a film could commit than being just another good time of a night at the movies.