The Dead Don’t Die: panic and impotence in 2020

Jim Jarmusch’s latest film The Dead Don’t Die (2019) is a “satire” zombie film exposing our consumer-driven and helpless culture in the face of an ongoing disaster. It’s not subtle, it doesn’t feel clever, innovative or self-aware enough to warrant much of a closer look. It was, however, along with most of Jarmusch’s films, what I needed in 2020. I gravitate towards all of Jarmusch’s films, especially at a time like this when everything makes me feel, and yes I had to say this, like a zombie.

Spoilers for The Dead Don’t Die (2019)

The small town of Centerville is rocked by a gruesome murder at the local diner. Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) is pretty certain who the culprit is: zombies. Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) is more sceptical, while Officer Mindy Morrison (Chloë Sevigny) is our horrified straight-man witnessing the absurd existential horror of the dead rising. The film follows the small-town police officers, along with the Scottish, katana-wielding funeral director Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton) as they attempt to fight the inevitable. Also in town is a group of young students on a road-trip, a couple locals who work at the hardware store, and a trio of young offenders escaping from the youth correctional facility. Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) espouses the film’s message from the woods as he watches the poor consumerists die at the hands of the real zombies.

The film has been described as a satire of zombie films, or even a deconstruction, but I don’t really find that reading compelling. Many zombie films are commentaries on consumerism or modern society’s lack of empathy and community. None of them are subtle, and don’t need to be. The protagonists’ reactions to their new horrifying reality, and how they deal with the pandemic guides how we read this commentary. Like the original Dawn of the Dead (1978) the zombies gravitate towards what they enjoyed in their consumerist lives, going to the stores they used to frequent when alive. Jarmusch’s zombies are taking over a small town, not a mall, but the effect is the same. Hermit Bob is the only (assumed) survivor, and the only one removed from modern society.

The zombies aren’t just our inner brain-dead consumerist, but explicitly the coming disasters that our society has caused, be it climate change, the current pandemic, or any preventable disaster. In 2020, it allows me to laugh at the tragedy we are in the midst of. I was afraid at first that it would fill me with “climate grief” (as described by the amazing PhilosophyTube on YouTube), but only by going through this dreadful grief can we begin to become something productive. Perhaps we’ll start by putting on pants.

Jarmusch adds commentary and humour through how the horror and characters’ reactions are framed. It’s definitely not for everyone, but apparently me and Jim find the same things hilarious, because I laughed throughout the film. It is an uncomfortable laugh. The grotesque gore allows an existential dread to creep into every absurd interaction. Officer Morrison reacts as any reasonable person would: she throws up at the sight of the first zombie attack and continuously questions why the others aren’t freaking the fuck out. Contrasted with the others she becomes both hilarious and uncomfortable, because… shouldn’t we all be asking that very question? Shouldn’t we all be freaking out at every waking moment? That’s impossible of course, and your journey through climate grief might follow the types laid out in The Dead Don’t Die.

Jarmusch’s storytelling always has a rhythm I enjoy. Every scene is cut in such a way as though you feel it might be too long, but then it’s just right. My brain walks in step with every character, allowing me to almost become them, even the absurd ones. The first character we are introduced to is not the one we become, but the one we all hate, Hermit Bob. He thinks he knows better. He judges us all. Like the Enemy of the People, he is easily despised, like a preachy vegan, and ignored because he is clearly unhinged.

How do you react to a disaster? Perhaps at first you’re Chief Robertson. A little befuddled, a little unsure what to do about this new information. Is it really bad? Perhaps we’ll wait for the experts to weigh in, someone higher up must know what to do. Then, as the true scope of the threat settles in you become Officer Morrison, horrified. You can’t believe everyone isn’t freaking out about this! We need to do something now.

Nothing is done of course, so inevitably you become the know-it-all Officer Peterson, tired of everyone’s obliviousness. You’ve read the script, the warnings, the projections, and you know how it’s all going to end. It’s going to end badly, as Peterson says endlessly in the film. The meta parts of the film came as a slight surprise. It’s hinted at in the beginning with a comment about how the radio keeps playing the theme song. Then it goes full meta at the end. It all serves the same purpose: making the message obvious. Because the oncoming disaster is obvious. We can all see it, we have all read the script. What else can you do but laugh?

The tragedy is that even if we’ve read the script, we can’t change it. At the end the only option is to go out in a not so much “blaze” but more “flicker” of impotent glory. Our individual actions are a drop in the ocean compared to the coming apocalypse. The young offenders plotline is left unresolved, just as the future is for the next generation. The group of students are cut down off screen, their deaths just as important as the millions already dead due to our ongoing multiple crises. Perhaps you end the film wishing you could be Zelda Winston, the Buddhist, Scottish funeral director cutting zombies down with her katana, and then calling her aliens friends to come and get her. She’s what we all wish we could be during a crisis, detached from it all, weird and aloof. It was fun while it lasted, but I’m done with the crazy people. Thanks for all the haggis.

As I said, the film isn’t trying to be subtle, but that’s why it appeals to me right now. The time for subtlety is over. Every character feels like a caricature, except for the fact that I’ve been every one of them (except Zelda unfortunately).

The last stand is impotent and laughable. It’s strange that it therefore feels cathartic in 2020. I laugh at my own impotence in the face of such huge problems. But don’t be fooled, this is not despair. It’s a recognition of cause and effect. I did not bring about the apocalypse because I alone bought too much plastic. I can no more stop the dead from rising than I can stop carbon emitting. So, what can I do? Not walk out with a katana and a quippy remark, obviously, but vote and give well, and pay attention where my attention is most useful. I can support the people working for big change, to develop strategies that will stop a zombie apocalypse.

Jim Jarmusch’s films often give me the feeling of being led into a story with a human rhythm even in supernatural situations, be they zombie or vampire. Please don’t let the take away from long walkthrough of The Dead Don’t Die be that his films are flawless. Obviously no film is, but they give me a feeling of being able to draw breath, and that’s what I need right now. If zombies aren’t your thing, I highly recommend Paterson (2016). It’s divided into days, with a title card. Watch one “episode” every day, and enjoy it like a poem at the end of another long 2020 day.

Dice roll: 4

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