Zombies have long been our most versatile movie monsters. From their first screen appearances -- influenced by the Western world's myopic glimpses of Haitian folklore -- to George Romero's more politically-minded spin on the genre, the lumbering ghouls have been convenient metaphorical stand-ins for the societal fears du jour. Over the decades zombie stories have been used by filmmakers to comment on atomic destruction, capitalism, xenophobia, racism, global contagion, and so much more.
But the new zombie comedy "The Dead Don't Die" suggests that it's society itself that's currently making writer-director Jim Jarmusch most apprehensive, and the film ultimately offers up his rather bleak appraisal of the modern world.
The story takes place in the small town of Centerville ("A Real Nice Place"). It's a peaceful community, but one that shows subtle signs of discord even before the undead start popping from their graves. From the outset, its citizens are aware strange things are happening, repeatedly commenting to one another that nothing is normal anymore, though none seem particularly motivated to do anything about it.
The plot centers on the members of the Centerville police department: Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray), his second-in-command Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver), and officer Mindy Morrison (Chlöe Sevigny). As we follow Cliff and Ronnie on their rounds, we're introduced to many more of the town's inhabitants, including comics store clerk-gas station attendant Bobby Wiggins (Caleb Landry Jones), sweet-natured mechanic Hank Thompson (Danny Glover), and Zelda Winston (a delightfully daffy Tilda Swinton), the new town mortician with an odd curiosity and a way with a samurai sword.
Tom Waits also pops up as an unruly oddball known as Hermit Bob. And RZA stops by as a delivery man for Wu-PS, who advises the characters that the world is perfect, and reminds them to "appreciate the details." It's a message that most of its characters remain oblivious to. Jarmusch populates the rest of the town with recognizable faces, though many of their appearances amount to little more than cameos. These early scenes maintain the director's typical affection for his characters, making it both absurd and deeply troubling when their existence turns into a waking nightmare.
The script provides the obligatory half-assed reason for the dead suddenly rising again -- in this case due to Earth shifting off its axis as a result of polar fracking -- but for the most part, Jarmusch sticks with established mythology. The adherence to genre tropes is slightly disappointing coming from a director who so skillfully managed to put a unique stamp on the vampire movie with his wonderfully odd 2013 feature "Only Lovers Left Alive."
He does put a slight twist on his vision of the living dead: Aside from their hunger for human flesh, the mindless hordes maintain an obsessive desire for whatever worldly pleasures served as their preferred distraction while they were still alive. One groans for "Xanax," another for "chardonnay," a group of children wail about "toys." For all its gleeful affection for the genre, there's an underlying melancholy to the sight of these lost souls clinging desperately to the last vestiges of their former lives.
The script is peppered with clever details and offbeat meta-humor, from Driver's character carrying a "Star Wars" keychain to the diegetically-heard title song leading one character to ponder why it seems so familiar. Like most of the film's low-key comedy, the response he gets -- "It's the theme song." -- is enough to earn a chuckle. Along the way, Jarmusch takes aim at some easy targets, including the sight of Steve Buscemi's dickish Farmer Miller sporting a red cap with the phrase "Make America White Again."
Namechecking Romero among countless other in-jokes and references, the entire film is as much a loving homage to the horror genre as it is a lament for a civilization on the brink. But I admit to having a hard time wrapping my head around seeing Jarmusch move from the gentle humanism of "Paterson" to a worldview so despairing about human nature just three years later.
That last film was an ode to the understated beauty of a life lived simply. Like RZA, "Paterson" wanted us to appreciate the details; meanwhile "The Dead Don't Die" seems resigned to the idea that even those simple pleasures ultimately don't matter in a "fucked up world" like ours. Seeing that shift made my heart hurt. But then, maybe that was Jarmusch's intention: if he can make it hurt, it's a reminder we're at least still feeling something.