The leading cause of death is life, or so Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die would posit. Jarmusch, whose previous work dabbled in ironic nihilism, amplifies his concerns to a volume that his prior films never did reach. In our current Trumpian dystopia, Jarmusch suggests that the end-all to our passivity is certain death. And he’s not glib or insincere about it either. It’s not as if Jarmusch hasn’t addressed our cultural passiveness in some tangential way, with films like Broken Flowers and Stranger Than Paradise examining characters in a state of stagnation more or less secluded within themselves. But The Dead Don’t Die is much more overt about his preoccupations. It’ll be described as meta or self-aware. It can be more accurately described as blunt. Ultimately, Jarmusch is speaking the language of the disenchanted; the language of a generation prone to skimming over specifics. As a character cites early in the film, “The world is perfect. Appreciate the details”. In the world we live in now, a world where our day-in-day-out interactions can take place exclusively behind a screen, it’s easy to defer importance to our phone battery than our own internal-gratitude battery.
Jarmusch’s approach is a comic sans rendition of George Romero’s canonical Night of the Living Dead. The characters are all familiar tropes, with much of the action pivoting around the exploits of Centerville’s police department. Headed by officers Cliff Robertson and Ronnie Peterson (Bill Murray and Adam Driver), the duo take notice of the tiny changes leading up to a the rise of the dead; it’s getting late but the sun’s still out, Officer Peterson’s watch ceases to work, animals are behaving strangely, etc. The townspeople of Centerville barely notice, and if they do, it doesn’t demand their concerns; the prevailing sentiment being that it doesn’t immediately affect them. Such passiveness results in forced action, with a variety of the townspeople including a gas station cinephile (Caleb Landry Jones) and a sword-donning mortician (Tilda Swinton) attempting to combat an army of the undead.
The parallels here are unmistakable. What Romero did in his zombie films, addressing civil rights, consumerism, the U.S. military complex, and socioeconomic class (Night of, Dawn, Day, and Land… of the Dead), Jarmusch does to examine Donald Trump’s ascendancy in U.S. politics. The world around us crumbles but we’re too busy reciting our consumer allegiances, becoming walking billboards for brands that have become our identity. What comes from this absent-minded embrace of consumerism is living life in a fugue state; our bodies left to become hollow vessels intended to recite how we correspond life with things.
So clearly The Dead Don’t Die spoke to me. Its worldview mirrors my sensibility, insofar that it’s so easy to revert back to a cynical default setting when the world around us seems to be crumbling. And what Jarmusch implores his viewers to do is to consider the world, to actively participate in it. Technology has automated critical thinking to such a degree, intensified the speed in which we experience anything that it falls on us to slow it down. Like the main character of Jarmusch’s previous film, Paterson, the discomforts of modern living can only be remedied by disconnecting from its quote unquote comforts – tech, social media, commercialization, etc. A well-rounded existence means putting on the brakes and giving life meaning that extends beyond the superficial.
I could complain about Jarmusch’s straightforwardness. Or the over-the-top absurdity of some of his humor. It doesn’t always land. And it was a problem I had with The Dead Don’t Die while I was watching the film. But I’ve had the luxury of letting this film settle in my marrow for a couple of weeks and its problems seem significantly less important to me now. Or maybe it speaks to how we tend to digest the world around us now. Everything is reactionary. Like so many of Jarmusch’s films, The Dead Don’t Die feels like something that will only age better with time. You just have to afford it the consideration, the time. It’s banal to suggest that time is our most valuable commodity, but when you really sit down and consider how we spend every waking second of our lives, I think we could probably give Jarmusch more credit than a cursory glance.