There is a subgenre of cult films affectionately known as hangout movies. They have a passionate niche audience, but there is also a laid back vibe or attitude that make them fun to revisit. The narrative is in no rush to get anywhere, leaving characters time to shoot the shit. The Big Lebowski is a hangout movie, and so is the Western classic Rio Bravo. Director Jim Jarmusch borrows from both in The Dead Don’t Die, a zombie comedy whose true destiny won’t be felt until the film is readily available for home viewing. Its deadpan performances are amusing enough on the big screen, but eventually, fans will be obsessed with it.
Thirty minutes unfold before we see the first zombie. Until then, Jarmusch introduces us to the mild-mannered residents of Centerville, Pennsylvania, a small town that it seems time has forgotten. There is one restaurant, one gas station, and one motel. Our heroes are police officers Cliff (Bill Murray) and Ronnie (Adam Driver), who grow increasingly aware that something is amiss. The town’s denizens all appear genteel enough, except for Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi) who is a Trump-supporting redhat prick. Recent politics are a heavy influence here, serving as an allegory about modern ignorance and complacency. Through his long and varied career, Jarmusch has never been this despairing.
Long, strange scenes unfold where characters have no purpose but to wait for the zombie horde to arrive. This may sound boring, except every performance is attuned to Jarmusch’s low-key comedy. Many lines are repeated, to the point where the film is almost testing our patience. Since the film does not take itself too seriously, it invites us to relax and let its worldview wash over us. At one point, a song comes on the radio and Cliff remarks to Ronnie that he cannot place where he heard it before. Ronnie’s reply effectively breaks the fourth wall, and ends the illusion that we are watching anything typical. The horror is not all that gory, either, with Jarmusch always cutting away before we see anything too bloody.
Before we see the title card, Jarmusch takes his time to introduce every member of his ensemble, even the unknowns. This kind of equality is generous—Adam Driver’s name gets as much prominence as RZA’s, who only has a handful of lines—and suggests everyone had fun on this collaborative effort. Still, it is inevitable that some actors will leave a stronger impression than others. Tilda Swinton is terrific as Zelda, a Scottish undertaker who knows how to wield a samurai sword. Tom Waits plays Hermit Bob, an outsider who serves as a Greek chorus over Centerville’s rising body count.
Like George Romero in Dawn of the Dead, Jarmusch uses the zombies as a blunt, effective metaphor. Traditional zombies represent the fear of death or aging, but this horde is not so decrepit and have no interest in brains. Instead, they prefer to indulge their favorite vice, whether it’s coffee, white wine, or their smartphone. Jarmusch is warning us that our vices heighten our sense of complacency, only the film can’t get too worked up about it, either. This film is resigned to its central calamity, and the shaggy-dog ending only drives that point home.
In between the physical comedy and references to Jarmusch’s earlier films, two characters in The Dead Don’t Die have an allegorical purpose. On one hand, we have Hermit Bob, whose detachment from society is so complete that the undead ignore him altogether. On the other, we have Mindy (Chloe Sevigny), a fellow police officer who cannot cope with how society slowly falls into utter chaos. How they react to the events of the film—and their fates—is where we can find the key to contentment (but not survival).
The happiest characters in The Dead Don’t Die are not the smartest or the most resourceful. They accept that our world is circling the drain. If it isn’t zombies, it will be something else. So we might as well make the most of it, whether it’s taking a stand against the horde or watching hangout films for the umpteenth time with our like-minded friends.
The Dead Don’t Die opens Friday in theaters everywhere.