We think of the end of the world in terms of TV and movies. We’ll die by robots, or aliens, or environmental catastrophe, or nuclear threats of our own hubristic creation, or capitalistic overconsumption.
Or, of course, zombies.
The prospect of being turned into a soulless, mindless shell of your former self is particularly frightening, which is why zombies have been a mainstay of apocalyptic entertainment for decades. The grandaddy of them all was George Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, which created modern zombie lore. It told a simple story: A house full of the living try to survive the slow but unyielding onslaught of the undead, but their arguments about just how to do that spell their doom.
That basic template has been reanimated over and over again, in everything from Zombieland to The Walking Dead to Game of Thrones to Get Out, all of which have something to say about how societies of people do, or do not, sustain themselves in the face of imminent threats. Though Romero denied that he was trying to make a big point, it’s not hard to read Night of the Living Dead as a critique of Cold War politics, a metaphor for 1960s American society, or a story about race.
And Jim Jarmusch certainly agrees. The director’s star-studded zombie film The Dead Don’t Die, which opened the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, draws heavily on Romero’s movie but drags it into our own age of weary dread. The movie is gentle, almost sluggish, and takes some weird left turns — in other words, it’s a Jarmusch film. Zombies suddenly turn up. People are dying. The world is ending. And by now, we’re more or less expecting it.
The Dead Don’t Die is one of the more lumberingly weird zombie movies ever to be made
The Dead Don’t Die is ostensibly named for a Sturgill Simpson country ballad by the same name, which Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) explains early on to Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) is “the theme song.” (The song was written for the film, and Simpson shows up in the credits as “Zombie Sturgill.”)
That the movie knows it’s a movie — Ronnie tells Cliff that “Jim” gave him the “whole script,” and Cliff complains that he only got the scenes he’s in — is important for this film. It’s a zombie film that both leans on and subverts previous zombie lore. It’s the end of the world, 2019-style.
Ronnie and Cliff are cops in Centerville, a kind of Anywhere, USA, where a sign on the road entering town tells visitors that it’s “A Real Nice Place to Live,” with a population of 738. They work with a third cop, Officer Mindy Morrison (Chloë Sevigny), to keep the sleepy town safe. Bobby Wiggins (Caleb Landry Jones) operates a gas station/convenience store on the edge of Centerville and sells Sturgill Simpson albums from the front register to whoever’s passing through, including a visitor named Zoe (Selena Gomez). Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi) wears a red “Make America White Again” hat and casually spouts racist rhetoric down at the diner to Hank (Danny Glover). Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton) is the eccentric local undertaker, and also wields a saber for some swordfighting practice in her spare time. A drifter named Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) lives in the woods and watches it all.
One day, the sun seems like it’s been up for an abnormally long time, and it turns out that polar fracking has shifted the earth off its axis. This, for whatever reason, has brought on the zombie apocalypse.
These zombies move slowly, and crave whatever it is that they wanted when they were alive, from coffee to Xanax, chardonnay to Snapple. You can only kill them by taking out the head, maybe with a shotgun or a sword. Once the zombies start to outnumber the living, a voiceover sleepily muses on whether the undead brought the apocalypse upon themselves with their mindless consumption during their lives.
In The Dead Don’t Die, it’s finally the end of the end
In fact, the biggest place in which The Dead Don’t Die’s zombie lore departs from tradition is in what the zombies want to eat in the humans. They don’t go for the brains; tellingly, they go for the stomach. They want, and they want, and they want.
Man-made environmental catastrophe, mindless hate, selfish narcissistic pleasure-chasing: The reasons for the apocalypse seem abundant, and the living in Centerville seem, for the most part, almost relieved that it’s finally arrived. They defend themselves against the zombies swarming their cars and homes, but it starts to feel like succumbing to the apocalypse is the only possible outcome.
It’s a thoroughly 2019 take on the end of the world, one where the zombies might as well just be the endless stream of headlines and Trump tweets that pile into our consciousness from the moment we wake up until we go to bed. There are plenty of times when checking out seems not just pleasant but like the only remaining survival technique, a way to remove oneself from a zombie-infested world.
In fact, within that metaphor, the title of The Dead Don’t Die seems vaguely menacing. You can swipe the news alerts away, uninstall the Twitter app, stop paying attention to the guy in the White House and the people parroting his conspiracy theories and inanities. You can fact-check and debate until you’re blue in the face. Or you could disconnect, float away into another universe, bury yourself in a novel, pick up a hobby, take yourself completely off the grid.
But in the end — at least according to this movie — they’re gonna getcha. They are not dead; they’re just braindead. And though The Dead Don’t Die feels like a gently resigned take on the apocalypse, what lurks below is a pessimism and maybe even nihilism that feels very much of a piece with our time. If Romero captured the paranoia of the 1960s, Jarmusch just reconfigures it for an era steeped in dread.
If The Dead Don’t Die has a point of view on the whole matter of the apocalypse, it’s the one Ronnie utters several times: “This isn’t going to end well.”
The Dead Don’t Die opened at the Cannes Film Festival on May 14 and will open in theaters in the US on June 14.