The pre-Night of the Living Dead history of the zombie apocalypse has been thoroughly mapped – noting the influence of I Am Legend, The Day of the Triffids, Invisible Invaders and The Birds. It’s less often noted that zombie comedies have been around even longer, with 1940s outliers like The Ghost Breakers, King of the Zombies and Zombies on Broadway spoofing the likes of White Zombie or I Walked with a Zombie well before Shaun took up his cricket bat or Bill Murray played his zombie self in Zombieland. In the mix somewhere is Curtis Harrington’s 1975 TV movie The Dead Don’t Die, scripted as a sly spoof by Robert Bloch (adapting a dead straight pulp novella from a generation earlier) … which is name-checked only in the title (and the often-repeated title song) of writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s late-in-the-day zombie skit. Jarmusch essayed an on-the-nose vampire movie, Only Lovers Left Alive, which risked plunging audiences into the prettified ennui felt by languid vamps with too much time on their hands … and here he turns out a literal zombie movie, staggering and stumbling, repeating itself, mimicking once-meaningful actions, and foredoomed by the repeated mantra of ‘this won’t end well’.
This doesn’t so much retell the joke of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead – that zombies are mindless consumers – as explain it, with zombified small-town folks wandering about muttering ‘chardonnay’, ‘wi-fi’, ‘candy’ or whatever in the drawn-out tone used by the creatures in Return of the Living Dead mutter ‘brains’. It’s meta on meta to spoof a quote from a spoof mock sequel to the genre originator, but – like so much else here – too cool for school or indeed cinemas. The set-up is cartoonishly extreme, as ‘polar fracking’ has put the world off its axis, mucking up patterns of night and day (allowing cinematographer Frederick Elmes to create a gorgeously midnight-sunnish twilight throughout) and bringing back the dead of Centerville, USA. Sheriff Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and Deputy Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) are comically phlegmatic about the situation – getting past musing about attack by animal or animals (‘I’m thinkin’ zombies’) and greeting the undead forms of close friends or acquaintances with little more than a shrug. It’s an approach we’ve seen before – the Dragnet-skit cops in The Little Shop of Horrors did it in 1960 – but there’s a new, rather cruel wrinkle in having one officer (Chole Sevigny) not share her colleagues’ callousness and be increasingly upset by their attitude as much as by the escalating carnage.
The poster sells the film on its eclectic cast, which includes many welcome presences – some of whom get very little screentime (you can virtually see Carol Kane’s whole performance in the trailer) and most of whom blunder to their meaningless deaths as if they were in a tribute act for Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! The self-referentiality gets out of control as Ronnie admits he’s read the script and knows there’s a downer ending – even if he’s surprised by a late, tipped-in scene involving Tilda Swinton’s Scots samurai coroner-undertaker that counts as an almighty non sequitur. A graveyard setting and a classic Pontiac car evoke Romero’s 1968 nightmare and a few contemporary references – Steve Buscemi’s intolerant farmer Frank Miller (named for the comic book creator or the villain of High Noon?) wears a red ‘Make America White Again’ hat – try half-heartedly to update the political subtext, though it’s an act of wishful thinking that Miller seems to be the only Trump voter in a small town which sneers at hipsters (represented by Selena Gomez) but seems entirely populated by the likes of Tom Waits, Iggy Pop and RZA with character turns from Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones and (weirdly left off the poster roll-call) Larry Fessenden. It’s hard to tell whether the references are deliberately outdated or just clumsy – as when a comedy clueless local refers to The Great Gatsby as ‘that Robert Redford guy’ rather than ‘that Leonardo di Caprio guy’.
For a film that feels padded already, it’s strange that there’s a whole sub-plot about three inmates in a home for young offenders that never connects with the rest of the plot and is left up in the air at the end – as if Jarmusch forgot to include a post-credits tag scene to explain what that was all about. You couldn’t put all these people together without getting some quality – and, for all its affectlessness, The Dead Don’t Die is seldom dull, and whenever patience is stretched to breaking point it throws in a nice moment, line, image or beat … as when Tilda Swinton sizes up a female zombie in a fetish schoolgirl outfit and muses ‘that is not your tartan’ before decapitating her.