Jim Jarmusch has been making films exactly as long as I've been reviewing them. I've reviewed a fair share of his, Stranger Than Paradise (1984), Dead Man (1995), Broken Flowers (2005) and the masterful Paterson (2016) among them. He's one of the world's most distinctive, intelligent and original cinematic voices. Though he would doubtless disagree.
In 2004, Jarmusch wrote in MovieMaker: "Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems ... Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent."
The latest from the tinsel-topped auteur steals from an outré potpourri of pop culture. People around my age — like Jarmusch — were raised on Cold War-fueled sci fi, low-budget horror and, thanks to the late, great George Romero, zombies. The Dead Don't Die pays homage to these influences and more with the story of a small-town police squad that finds itself on the doomsday beat.
Bill Murray reunites with the director to play Cliff Robertson, chief of the Centerville PD. Adam Driver reunites with him to play officer Ronnie Peterson; and Chloë Sevigny, officer Mindy Morrison. Think Mayberry with less fishing and more gut munching.
What is a sleepy burg's law enforcement unit to do when polar fracking knocks the planet off its axis, days start staying light late into the night, and the slumber of the dead is disturbed? That's the question posed by the script. The answer consists of an hour and 45 minutes of wry commentary, pithy banter, indelible characters and meta mind games.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about Brightburn: "Fictional characters ... strangely, never seem to have seen even one well-known film in the genre they inhabit." Thanks to Jarmusch, that's no longer the case. Everyone in this movie knows their Romero.
When night finally falls, the dead begin rising from their graves. The first two we meet are played by Iggy Pop and the filmmaker's significant other, Sara Driver. They set the tone for the horde to follow — slow walkers with one thing on their minds, whatever fixated them in life. Pop and Driver want coffee; a crowd huddles outside a pharmacy dreaming of Xanax; reanimated kids invade a candy store mumbling, "Skittles." True to tradition, all hunger for human flesh.
"This isn't going to end well," Ronnie repeatedly predicts, to Cliff's consternation. The core joke is the mixture of familiar tropes (phones stop working; TV newscasts fill in narrative blanks) with Jarmusch's signature low-key whimsy. Tilda Swinton reunites with the director as a sword-wielding Scottish mortician. When she asks Murray's character for his plan, the answer is a classic: "Patrol."
Which the officers do, maneuvering around some undead neighbors and happily decapitating others (Steve Buscemi plays a racist Make America Great Again type). It's a surreal ride to ... well, you heard Ronnie. There's a reason it's called the zombie apocalypse.
Along the way, the director is generous with oddball moments of understated humor, even poetry. RZA reunites with Jarmusch as a deliveryman who's asked by a customer to "drop some wisdom." "The world is perfect," he offers. "Appreciate the details."
There are countless details to appreciate in The Dead Don't Die. It's a modest, unassuming, angry fable that uses gore and goofy effects to make palatable a warning of the real horror on humanity's horizon: Earth, because of our carelessness, coming to a dead end.