"The Dead Don't Die" Excerpt
Josh: With "The Dead Don't Die," Jim Jarmusch doesn't exactly do for zombies what he previously did for vampires. "Only Lovers Left Alive," with Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as the title bloodsuckers, use such archetypal figures to anchor an existential tone poem about the death of imagination. "The Dead Don't Die," is much more of a straightforward genre piece. Or is it? Set in the peaceful, All-American town of Centerville, the film follows law man Cliff, played by Bill Murray and Ronnie, played by Adam Driver, as they casually patrol their Norman-Rockwell-by-way-of-David-Lynch community.
Adam: There's definitely a little bit of that, and I believe you're obligated to say, "Centerville – a real nice place."
Josh: [Laughs] It is quite a nice place. Something though does seem off, including the fact that the sun refuses to set. But it isn't until a couple of locals are found disemboweled in a diner that Cliff and Ronnie suspect zombies. Jarmusch has some fun playing with the genre. "Night Of The Living Dead," is the fountainhead he probably sites the most, but is something else going on here? I'm going to argue that there's something deeply political at work, for reasons beyond the fact that Steve Buscemi shows up as a farmer wearing a red "Make America White Again," baseball cap.
Adam: Actually, it says "Keep America White Again."
Josh: Does it say "keep?".
Adam: Which doesn't make any sense at all, and I think that's another layer to the joke.
Josh: [Laughs] See, I'm glad you just came from the screening so you can clarify those things. Thank you. It doesn't take long to realize that "The Dead Don't Die," is bloody disgusted about the state of affairs in 2019 America. Now, since you just came from that showing Adam – I was able to catch it a few weeks back now – I don't expect you to have a fully formed breakdown of the movie as a political allegory.
Adam: Oh, a challenge?
Josh: If you have such thoughts...
Josh: ...I'm happy discuss the ways the movie is political, or maybe what we see the zombies symbolizing. But first, let's just zoom out and ask a broader question. If you don't agree with the movie's assumption – which I took as the fact that 2019 America is going to hell in a handbasket. The zombie apocalypse is upon us. If you don't agree with that, is there anything here for you to appreciate? Has Jarmusch's political angst energized him, or do you feel like it has maybe paralyzed him?
Adam: Hmm. No, I would definitely say more the former, and we can maybe talk about the meta elements to this film and whether that ends up being successful as comedy or satire or anything else. But I do think there's enough deadpan charm and humor here to say the movie's worth a look. And we could probably – because I think you like the movie too...
Josh: Definitely, yeah.
Adam: We could probably sit here and share our three or four favorite jokes from the movie at least. I didn't laugh out loud a ton but I was amused the entire time by this movie. And there's an extended bit that I do not want to spoil at all, when the police officers and a character named Hank, played by Danny Glover, discover the first set of bodies...
Adam: ...at a diner. It's just a very Jarmusch slow burn that also is kind of rooted in our sense of these characters, even very early in this film, and their relationships and their dynamic. It just all makes such perfect sense in this world. So I loved that. It may be my favorite joke in the film.
Even if you didn't know anything really about Jarmusch and his point of view though, you should probably expect some kind of political satire from a zombie movie or most monster movies. You touched on this, and I remember prompting our discussion of "Only Lovers Left Alive," mentioning how if you google vampires as metaphors you'd see the results ranging from the very specific to the abstract throughout history and all forms of art. And Jarmusch explicitly said at the time that he thought vampires– he was using vampires here as a resonant metaphor. And we talked about "Night of the Living Dead," just a few years ago here on the show – "Halloween," was a Sacred Cow (episode 654 if you want to seek it out) and we spent a ton of time on the zombies as metaphors in that film for Vietnam, for race relations, for a whole lot about the state of America in the late '60s. And especially in "Dawn of the Dead," the follow-up from Romero, he really focused on consumerism. So here we are back to "Fight Club," a little bit, and that element is definitely at play here, especially when you see the first pair of zombies show up at the diner and immediately go for the coffee. It's not a Starbucks, but they have to douse themselves in coffee. And we see the zombies later just kind of loitering around, and they're asking for Wi-Fi and Skittles. [Laughs]
Josh: [Laughs] That's what they're moaning about.
Adam: Yeah, they just fall into all of their old habits, the same way they all go to the mall in "Dawn of the Dead." So that's here definitely. To get back to your question though, Josh. I queued in pretty quick to the idea of this being some version of Trump's America because of that Buscemi red hat, and a little bit of talk early on of distrust of government and its agencies. But you could almost just dismiss that as a sort of backdrop and maybe even a little bit of an inside joke.
Until it finally really hit me, which is when they keep reinforcing the idea of the earth being completely off its axis, that this reanimation is happening because everything that we thought was normal is now abnormal. And I do feel this way every single day for especially the past three years. I feel like the Earth has shifted its axis. We no longer have any norms to rely on. Night is day, day is night, and the dead are living. The metaphor absolutely holds up. But I'll push it one step further, and maybe I'm reaching here a little bit, but for the obviousness of the metaphor here, there's one subtle aspect to it, I thought – or at least it seemed subtle to me. I do feel like Jarmusch might be kind of slyly posing the question, "What kind of citizen are you then when those norms break down? When the world is turned upside-down, how do you respond to it?" Do you, as one of the characters — one of our main characters we see — succumb to the terror? Just give in to it? Do you just observe, as one of the characters does through binoculars most of the film? Do you fight back? Or, I think maybe we see a little bit in the Adam Driver character of the police officer he plays, Ronnie Peterson... do you fight back, but along the way kind of lose a bit of your humanity? I think we see that maybe in his willingness to embrace a certain bloodthirstiness. And he's not doing it in a way that suggests that he's enjoying it. But nevertheless, he has a very quick willingness to be brutal, to do whatever is necessary that does actually shock and really surprise his fellow officers, Chloe Sevigny and Bill Murray. So that was something that did kind of stand out, even beyond the obvious Trump metaphor at play here.