Jim Jarmusch – The Dead Don’t Die

The Dead Don’t Die (2019) carries a wayward restlessness reminiscent of improvisational noise-rock. To trace this aesthetic lineage, recall Jarmusch’s debut Permanent Vacation (1980); Jarmusch captured downtown New York’s then No-Wave atmosphere, presenting the city as a bombed out and empty playground for poets. The connection becomes more established through Chloë Sevigny, who co-stars in The Dead Don’t Die, and whose early career began with appearances in music videos for Sonic Youth. But how can this initial connection to noise-rock help us understand The Dead Don’t Die, specifically, the film’s politics?

The Dead Don’t Die could best be described as an anti-zombie or anti-comedy film. Like Throbbing Gristle’s 20 Jazz Funk Greats (1979), Jarmusch presents established tropes of the genres and doesn’t subvert but rather negates them. The film then becomes a fuck-you to those looking for sense, and herein lies a mistake—searching for sense in a nonsensical world. The Dead Don’t Die is absurd. It’s Lynchian.

In an interview with Vulture, Jarmusch expressed that Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) was the best American film of the decade. Jarmusch’s opinion on Lynch helps in understanding The Dead Don’t Die, because long-time Lynch cinematographer, Frederick Elmes, also shot this film.

Like Blue Velvet (1986) and Twin Peaks (1990-1991), The Dead Don’t Die takes place in a small-town: the fictional Centerville, Pennsylvania. Further like Lynch, Jarmusch devotes a significant portion of time to world-building. Before zombies ever attack, Jarmusch introduces a large cast of characters across the smaller settings of a diner, a morgue, a juvenile detention center, a gas station, a hotel, and a police station.

When the zombies finally attack, they siege the diner late one night, not only for human flesh but for coffee. They amble about the diner, glass kettles in hand, moaning, “coffee.” The next morning, the police arrive, and here, Jarmusch demonstrates his Lynchian quality for writing. Ronald Peterson (Adam Driver) arrives to the scene in a smart car, clearly too small for him. Minerva Morrison (Sevigny) soon follows in a Prius. As each officer enters the diner, the camera cuts to the victims’ torn bodies. It’s a grisly sight and although Morrison vomits from disgust and horror, through dialogue, Jarmusch establishes a dead-pan and absurdist atmosphere. The running quip of the scene is that each police officer, one after the other, blames the attack on a wild animal, or perhaps, several. Finally, Peterson admits he believes the attack to be zombies, and Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) takes it in stride.

The diner scene here recalls David Foster Wallace’s definition of “Lynchian.” In his essay for Premiere magazine, “David Foster Wallace Keeps His Head,” Wallace puts forth, “An academic definition of Lynchian might be that the term “refers to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.”

Once the police warn everyone in town of the zombie threat, the rest of the cast arm themselves with shotguns, sears, and swords, and things proceed as normally as they could in a zombie apocalypse. But although Jarmusch does expose the macabre within the mundane, here, he lacks Lynch’s deeper insight. There’s no moment in The Dead Don’t Die, such as the opening to Blue Velvet, where Jarmusch burrows beneath the layer of the characters and setting he’s established. Everything remains on the surface.

The Dead Don’t Die is about many things concerning the current era, both domestically and abroad. For example, Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi) sports a red hat with the emboldened white words, “Keep America White Again.” Geronimo (Jahi Winston), a male inmate at the juvenile detention center, is scolded by the quasi-fascist security guard for constantly being on the women’s floor. Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), lives in the woods, and survives the apocalypse for his refusal to participate in consumer society. Finally, we learn, the zombies awaken, because polar fracking has thrown the Earth off its axis. Yet, unlike Lynch, Jarmusch never sets out to make audiences uncomfortable. There’s no moment of reflection.

Despite its topical matters, then, The Dead Don’t Die is ultimately, a comfortable film whose politics fall more in line with Hollywood than Jarmusch would like to admit. In a 4th wall-breaking scene, Peterson hands his car keys to Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton), the sword-wielding operator of the morgue. Zelda notes that the keys are adorned with a Star Wars keychain and calls it, “good fiction,” an obvious and wry nod towards Driver’s role in those films.

But despite the high-horse moment here, think of how both The Dead Don’t Die and the superhero film, Logan (2017) treat its adolescents, all people of color. Aside from Farmer Miller, the three juveniles at the detention center, also seem to survive the apocalypse. They escape the center, and Stella (Maya Delmont) remarks that she knows a safe place. The trio run off-screen and are never seen again. Similarly, Logan also takes place in a post-apocalyptic world. In short, the plot of that film follows Logan (Hugh Jackman) escorting a group of Latinx children to the Canadian border, so they may escape their White captors.

This isn’t to say Jarmusch is no longer a radical figure—he’s still one of the most important American filmmakers working today and will forever be so. Rather, I’m arguing The Dead Don’t Die’s politics aren’t as radical as the film presents them. It’s not very punk. In another scene early on, Farmer Miller refuses to take his coffee to go, because “it’s too black for me.” Hank Thompson (Danny Glover) raises his eyebrows, and Miller clarifies what he meant. The moment serves as an example of the script’s anemia. Another wry joke to raise a few giggles in the audience, but what about Thompson’s interiority?

Thompson is the only Black man in a majority White, rural town. Racism here shrinks to a hat and a paranoid farmer. Jarmusch present Centerville as a utopia with no conflict, save for Morrison who suffers from the moral quandary of having to kill zombies who she still sees as people and not monsters. Could the zombies then be righteous figures bent on destroying this false utopia? No.

For Jarmusch, the zombies are akin to the citizens in John Carpenter’s, They Live (1988). These zombies may be monsters, and thus, seemingly “othered,” but they’re still trapped by the ideology of consumption. Zombie children wander a gas station, crying out for skittles. Other zombies hold their phones to the sky, groaning, “wi-fi.” Hermit Bob hides where he can, watching from afar, and passing judgement. The film ends with a monologue by Hermit Bob decrying society for becoming too attached to their material goods—one of those goods being a “Nintendo Gameboy,” which gave me a hearty chuckle.

In that same Vulture interview, Jarmusch mentions the obvious inspiration for The Dead Don’t Die, George A. Romero’s, Night of the Living Dead (1968). Yet there’s another film prior to Night of the Living Dead that The Dead Don’t Die can be compared to: Jean-Luc Godard’s final film before breaking away from the studio system, Week End (1967).

Week End stars Jean Yanne as Roland and Mireille Darc as Corinne, a bourgeois couple on their way to murder Corinne’s parents to secure an inheritance. As in Wonderland, the world of Week End is askew. The film takes place in an apocalyptic countryside, littered with overturned cars and splayed corpses, all treated with the same manner you’d give to garbage on the street. For example, in one scene, Roland and Corinne crash into another car, killing the passengers. Corinne, however, can only help but cry for her Hermes bag which has been destroyed in the wreckage.

Like The Dead Don’t Die, Week End concerns itself with the end of the world brought about by the selfishness of capitalism. The difference between the two films, however, is that Godard went much further with the topic. Godard wasn’t only interested in critiquing capitalism but also in exploring new aesthetics and concepts with which to do so. For that reason, time became of the utmost importance to Godard as it seemingly does for Jarmusch in The Dead Don’t Die. In The Dead Don’t Die, the polar fracking has caused the zombies to not only awaken, but time to dilate. Peterson notes that although it’s 8:30 PM, the sun is still out. The past for Jarmusch comes to the fore—as in when Robertson’s lover comes to life—but it bears no psychic, symbolic, or aesthetic reckoning as it does in Week End.

Roland and Corinne’s picaresque misadventure through the countryside also becomes a misadventure through time and space. The two meet Emily Bronte, Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, and Alexander Dumas’ Joseph Balsamo, who purports to also be God. These characters are more than just references for Godard, but also consequence how Week End is watched. When the couple meet Bronte, an intertitle declares, “The Lewis Carrol Way.” Bronte picks up a pebble, and Godard cuts to a close-up of the rock. Bronte then delivers a lecture on how the pebble pre-dates man, and thus embodies its own form of time and memory. By pointing this out, however, Godard forces the audience to reconsider how the past not only exists with the present, but how it influences both the latter and even the camera. At a later moment, the camera spins around a farmland to a Mozart harmony.

In The Dead Don’t Die time doesn’t take on the same consequence. Returning to the moment in the diner when Thompson merely raises his eyebrow at Farmer Morrison, Jarmusch not only robs Thompson of his more complex interiority but shies away from America’s grimier past. The zombies that come to life bear no issues. For Jarmusch, the zombies are indeed just a reference point.

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