★★★★ - THE TELEGRAPH
- A winningly eccentric way to usher in the zombie apocalypse -
When word got out that Iggy Pop would be playing a zombie in the new Jim Jarmusch film, some of us found ourselves wondering how we would be able to tell. Not that there was ever any doubt that it would work: it takes a particular kind of actor to get on Jarmusch’s wryly ruminative, sleepily attenuated wavelength, but the cadaverous Stooges frontman had been a creative ally since the director’s early Coffee and Cigarettes shorts.
In fact, Jarmusch’s zombie ensemble piece – or enzomble piece – reunites most of the director’s informal repertory company, which includes Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Tom Waits, Steve Buscemi and RZA, the frontman and producer of the Wu-Tang Clan rap collective. They’re joined by some perfect-fit newcomers too: Chloë Sevigny, Caleb Landry Jones and the former Disney Channel princess turned Spring Breakers hellraiser Selena Gomez.
Yet despite its familiar faces and larksome trailer, The Dead Don’t Die is pure-bred Jarmusch – lighter on its feet than his last horror-themed project, the 2013 vampire romance Only Lovers Left Alive, but possessed of a despair so deeply felt, it echoes in your bones. It embraces the genre’s satirical heritage that dates back to George A Romero – some corpses stumble around gazing at their smartphones while croaking “Wi-Fi … Wi-Fi…”; others wash down meals of human entrails with cups of coffee. But the ramshackle carnage that ensues is no laughing matter, and the knowing smirk of Zombieland and scowling machismo of The Walking Dead are both chillingly conspicuous by their absence.
Even before the living dead rise up to devour their descendants, the pointedly named town of Centerville, USA is in a parlous state. Something called “polar fracking” has knocked the Earth off its axis: the sun no longer sets at the right time, and TV, radio and phone signals are scrambled. This causes confusion as the local police officers, Murray, Driver and Sevigny, make their rounds – and when the gory remains of two victims are discovered at a diner, Driver makes his diagnosis. “I’m thinking zombies,” he hums. “You know, the undead. Ghouls”, delivering the line with an unexpectedly low-key shudder. Another prediction of his – that things “aren’t going to end well” – becomes something of a catchphrase, and a factually grounded one at that.
In one of a handful of fourth-wall-breaking jolts that put Deadpool to shame, Driver announces to a much-chagrined Murray that he’s been privy to the film’s entire script. Not that it’s improved his hopes of survival. All anyone can hope to do under the circumstances is fight their corner until they’re subsumed.
You can’t watch small-town America turn on itself these days and not see political parallels, though Jarmusch doesn’t exactly conceal them, giving Buscemi’s nasty-piece-of-work farmer a red baseball cap with the borderline-illiterate slogan “Keep America White Again” stitched across the front. The safest place to be is sub-radar, like the teens being held in the local detention centre, or Waits’s Hermit Bob, a local chicken-snaffling vagrant who skulks in the undergrowth, narrating society’s downfall from a distance.
Failing that, you could just stick by Tilda Swinton’s Scots-accented mortician: the film’s biggest scene-stealer and a demon with a samurai sword, resembling Uma Thurman in Kill Bill crossed with a tranquillised chihuahua. “She’s strange,” says Driver, after watching her glide down a suburban road, lopping off zombies’ heads and lancing their bodies, which let out puffs of pre-cremated ash. “She’s Scottish,” Murray explains.
The Dead Don’t Die is derivative – and proudly so. But it captures something I haven’t yet seen in a zombie film: a true sense of apocalypse by sleepwalk, where the crisis at hand is almost amusingly slow and stupid, until it has suddenly somehow become an existential threat. This is a winningly eccentric film, as attuned in its own way to the rhythms of ordinary life as Jarmusch and Driver’s (even better) 2016 feature Paterson. But there is a pessimism gnawing away in its gut that can’t be laughed off. “I guess all those ghost people plumb lost their goddamn minds,” Waits wearily intones. Right on.
- THE TELEGRAPH
The Dead Don't Die is now playing at Light House Cuba!