Reel Talk

The Dead Don’t Die and the Mundanity of the Apocalypse



If there’s one subgenre of film that I really have hit my limit on, it would probably have to be zombies. I’ve never been the biggest fan of zombie stories, but for a shockingly long time it felt like they were suddenly one of the biggest forms of narrative in the world. I tried dipping my toes into some of these, checking out some older Romero flicks, reading the Walking Dead for way longer than was called for, and picking up the occasional video game that attempted to do something new and fun with the genre. But, most of that was from almost ten years ago, at the height of this fad. We’ve since had damn near a decade of increasingly stale zombie media, just really driving this thing into the ground. So, as someone who has never been the biggest fan of the genre to begin with, and then a solid ten years of mediocre to bad zombie tales on top of that, there has to be a pretty damn interesting hook to get me interested in a new zombie story. And, weirdly enough, we just got something that was able to pique my interest. Because when I heard that there was a weird comedic zombie movie with a staggeringly strange cast directed by famed indie film-maker Jim Jarmusch, I was at least curious about what in the world that would be. I honestly have almost no experience with Jarmusch, but this movie seemed too weird to not at least check out. And, well, it’s certainly unique.

The Dead Don’t Die takes place in a small midwestern town known as Centerville. It seems like a pretty standard day, beginning with police officers Cliff Robertson and Ronnie Peterson going to deal with a weird hermit named Bob. But, gradually, things start to feel a little strange. Electronics are misbehaving, it’s broad daylight at 8 pm, and animals all over the area have begun disappearing. We then begin being introduced to various characters in Centerville, like the strange new operator of the funeral parlor, the racist farmer everyone hates, the awkward guy who runs the gas station, the kids at a local juvenile detention facility, and a group of hipsters who are on a road-trip and who have decided to spend some time in Centerville. And, while meeting all of these oddball characters, we slowly begin to learn about some strange events going on in the world, which appears to have been caused by America’s decision to begin fracking on the North and South pole, which has potentially caused the planet to tilt off of its axis. And, that’s the explanation given to why that night several corpses are reanimated in the local cemetery. The zombies wander the town and end up brutally killing two people in a local diner before wandering off into the night.

The next morning Cliff, Ronnie, and their colleague Mindy arrive at the diner to investigate the crimes, and Ronnie immediately starts talking about how it’s clearly the work of zombies. This assertion begins spreading all around Centerville, with various characters getting ready to handle the impending zombie outbreak. Which, does end up happening that night. For whatever reason this night triggers every other dead person in the city to come to life, and a full-blown zombie apocalypse begins. Cliff, Ronnie, and Mindy begin killing zombies before fortifying themselves in the police station, while the strange funeral director Zelda also begins walking the streets and killing them with her katana. She offers to watch the station while the officers investigate the problem and try to figure out how to save people, revealing that there is something going on with Zelda. Cliff, Ronnie, and Mindy then begin travelling around Centerville, slowly establishing that everyone else we’ve gotten to know has already been killed by zombies, leaving them essentially alone in the cemetery. Mindy ends up being killed by zombies while Cliff and Ronnie hide in their car, where Ronnie explains that he’s been so calm this entire time because he read the movie’s script, and knew what was going to happen. Which is when Zelda is revealed to be an alien, and is flown out of the doomed planet by her kind, throwing Ronnie for a curveball. But, he and Cliff decide to enact the end of the movie, and go out in a blaze of glory, fighting as many zombies as possible before being subsumed.





The Dead Don’t Die is a very strange movie. As I said earlier, I have next to no experience with the films of Jim Jarmusch, but I’ve generally gotten the feel that he kind of tries his hand at everything, telling stories as varied as emotional stories about prison convicts to tales of love-lorn vampires. So, I guess it’s not too weird that he decided to try out a zombie story, and I really don’t have enough frame of reference to know if the tone of this film falls in line with the majority of his work. But, I will say that I found the tone a little inconsistent. The entire movie had a deadpan sense of humor that I really did enjoy, and the for the most part really worked with the film. But, I really found the end of this film to be a little too much of a swerve. They did a few things throughout the film, like Ronnie recognizing the theme music, but to have it go full-blown fourth-wall breaking and weird just felt a little out of nowhere. Honestly, I’d have been fine if the film had been just deadpan and weird the entire time, or fourth-wall shattering the whole time, but it felt like too little of the later to blend together in a cohesive way. The cast is great, and everyone seems to be having a hoot playing around with this silly zombie story, and Jarmusch was actually able to film some really funny and gory zombie stuff, it just felt a little too scatterbrained.

There was one thing that really stood out to me about the movie though, and it ended up being the most consistently entertaining element of the film. I’ve seen some people identify this as a loving critique of the Midwestern sensibility, but I really adored the way that the public was portrayed reacting to this horrible event. Ronnie is a little different, since he apparently knows he’s in a zombie movie, but everyone else just kind of reacts to the news that polar fracking has thrown the earth off of its axis and resulted in a zombie apocalypse as a mild inconvenience. Everyone watches the news and just kind of shrugs, figuring that there’s nothing they can do about it. The entire movie is saturated in a weird deadpan sensibility that just kind of makes everyone feel resigned to their fate. The weirdest and most horrific thing imaginable is happening to them, and they just kind of see it as a peculiar event. And, sadly enough, I feel like it’s probably a pretty accurate representation of what certain swatches of people will be like in a real apocalyptic situation. It’s just a mundane and terrible thing happening, no cause for real alarm, because there’s nothing you personally can do to stop it. It’s already in motion, might as well just see how it plays out.


The Dead Don’t Die was written and directed by Jim Jarmusch and released by Focus Features, 2019.




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