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Carnage with courtesy: ‘The Dead Don’t Die’

By Annabel Brady-Brown
Jim Jarmusch on his philosophical take on the zombie apocalypse

Iggy Pop and Jim Jarmusch on set for The Dead Don’t Die. © 2019 Image Eleven Productions, Inc

“I give them everything I can. As of this week, I’ve been working on this film for over two years. Every day this is all I’ve done,” says Jim Jarmusch. The Dead Don’t Die, his mannered but affecting take on the zombie apocalypse, has just opened the Cannes Film Festival. “I’m so sick of zombies, man.”

In 2019, you’d hope the ghouls had finally been put out to pasture. The spectacularly inane zombies vs vampires debate spread like a weed through millennial pop culture, and even Jarmusch – an idiosyncratic filmmaker who’s always coolly distanced himself from the herd – had already tapped in, with Only Lovers Left Alive (2013). A foil for his peacocking vampires, Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, “the zombies” then were the baleful, beastly masses, aka humanity. “It’s these zombies and the way they treat the universe,” Hiddleston moaned, considering suicide over another century of watching us ruin everything.

The zombie-as-metaphor intensifies in The Dead Don’t Die. Thanks to polar fracking (read: human greed) the world’s been tilted off its axis. And so the dead rise, lit by a bugged-out purple moon. This time his zombies look a lot more like, well, zombies. With mottled skin, glassy eyes and a club-footed gait, the reanimated corpses shamble about the fictional town of Centerville, hoeing into the populace like guests at an all-you-can-eat Sizzler buffet. The town’s three police officers (Jarmusch favourites Adam Driver, Bill Murray and Chloë Sevigny, headlining a boutique ensemble cast) investigate the carnage with sublime courtesy, but the end is nigh. Tellingly, there’s not a vampire in sight.

Jarmusch’s idea for the zombie comedy grew out of his earlier vampire ode – a tantalising pairing for a director whose best work is dotted with doublings and variations. (His last film wrung symphonies from following Adam Driver as a bus driver named Paterson, in a town named Paterson, to work each day.) The Dead Don’t Die feels just as personal, but it’s clear where his monster loyalties lie.

“I’m a fan of all forms of movies,” he says diplomatically, behind signature dark sunglasses, “but as far as so-called horror or monster movies, zombies are not my favourite… Except George Romero. Romero for me is the postmodern zombie master because he changed what zombies are. Earlier in cinema and in mythology, zombies come from Haitian voodoo. They are a zombie, and you can say, ‘You can go now and kill Donald Trump,’ and then he’s under: [zombie voice] ‘I WILL GO KILL’. But now this is not the case. With Romero, the zombies are not controllable. They come from within a social order – they are not Godzilla, Frankenstein. They are us.”

Romero’s phenomenal Night of the Living Dead (1968) was a sad howl for the failed dreams of the ’60s, and the first movie to take zombies to middle America. It was also the first to give zombies a taste for brains, spawning the senseless bloodletting that marks the genre today. (For $9 a bottle, meatheads can even enjoy a Night of the Living barbecue sauce.)

It’s a nightmare culture that Jarmusch’s predictably quiet, careful film removes itself from, using a canny twist. “My zombie movie is the first I’ve seen where they’re just dust,” he says. Whenever one of his ghouls is decapitated – by Tilda Swinton, as a mortician expertly wielding a samurai sword, or Danny Glover, a hardware store owner endearingly jabbing at a corpse with a pair of garden clippers – a puff of black dust escapes into the air. “When you die, you’re desiccated, and you have no fluids,” Jarmusch explains. “So when I was writing this script, I stopped to take a walk and I thought, ‘I’m half water balloon… and half sausage. Well, that’s weird.’ Then I went back,” he grins. “‘They’re going to be dust, baby, they’re just dust.’”

This is more than a loophole for a self-professed dilettante to use to avoid getting his hands dirty. The tweak to zombie lore spiritually anchors the film in the Romero era, when zombies were still sympathetic, almost camp, and, crucially, moved slowly – a prerequisite for a filmmaker like Jarmusch who finds beauty in downtime and drift. A postmodern debt colours the script itself, which is draped with light-hearted, if sometimes hokey, nods to Romero’s films, among others (Driver’s character owns a Star Wars keychain; Samuel Fuller’s name is chiselled into a headstone), and meta-references that flip back to poke fun at the film itself.

“Oh I was just amusing myself while writing,” laughs Jarmusch. “As Nick Ray once said, ‘If you’re just going to film the script, why bother?’ A script is the beginning point, it’s a map. I put these self-referential things because they were making me laugh, for myself. My thought was, ‘I’m going to collaborate with Adam Driver, Bill Murray – if I can trick them into being these people – and they’re going to tell me this is arch or pretentious or if it’s funny and working.’ They thought it was funny so it remained in the film. It was not, ‘A-ha, I will break the fourth wall!’”

Jarmusch has nearly always written roles for particular actors, musicians or friends. A product of the No Wave scene, his picaresque debut Permanent Vacation (1980) worshipped the skinny 15-year-old Chris Parker (playing “Allie” Parker), who used to sneak Jarmusch into CBGB through a back-door entrance, and was immortalised in a Richard Hell song. These days, having been a fixture in the independent scene for four decades, Jarmusch’s stars are likely to recur through his filmography and boast a cool-dad pedigree. The first pair of zombies are Sara Driver and Iggy Pop, dressed as if headed to the old punk club themselves. They attack the town’s only diner and merrily gnaw on the waitress’s intestines.

“It was hard on [Iggy] because he had to eat that stuff, and it almost made him vomit. But he’s a trooper, man,” says Jarmusch. “All these people, why do they all agree to do this film? No matter what anyone tells you, the budget was very restricted. They were paid very little; my joke is they were paid with oatmeal. Really, they did this because we are in a tribe together. They were like, ‘Okay, Jim’s calling us in.’ Which is so moving to me. These incredible people that I admire, all of them.”

He invited Chloë Sevigny with a handwritten letter. “Because I don’t have email. I do send texts a lot. I like emojis. I love the pirate flag; I like to sign off often with that.” Also in the gang – pop star Selena Gomez, heading up a “hipster” trio from the city, and Steve Buscemi as the token redneck-incarnate. “I wrote this part for Steve to be a racist asshole because he is the kindest, least prejudiced person I have ever known. And I have known him for many years, we first met in 1978, right?”

Buscemi wears a “KEEP AMERICA WHITE AGAIN” cap, but the film observes troubles that extend way beyond an election cycle – the deadening effects of consumer culture, the erosion of empathy, collective deafness to environmental destruction etc. It could land like a crude and cranky indictment, were it not for the ironic distance that lies between the film and each of its characters, resisting easy identification. Instead, The Dead Don’t Die slides between Arendt-style moralising about resistance and collaboration, and the realisation that it’s just a silly zombie movie.

Even when the zombies seek out past addictions, each cartoonishly moaning the name of their crutch ad infinitum – “coffee”, “Valium”, “wifi”, “guitar”, “fashion” – the scenes are loaded with self-critique. “Someone asked me what I would go for,” Jarmusch says. “At first I thought a musical instrument, but then I thought probably a bookstore, so I’d be, [zombie voice] ‘RIMBAUD’,” he laughs. “But it’s a vestigial memory, it comes from Romero’s Dawn of the Dead [1978], where the zombies go to the shopping mall because that’s what they remember. I always thought that was brilliant.”

The antithesis to the deadhead swarms is the equally frightening spectre of Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), who lives in the woods, communing with ants and cows. He’s something of an extreme alter-ego for Jarmusch, who splits his time between New York City and his home in the Catskill Mountains, but would never be seen in such rags.

“I’m living much more in the woods, because it makes me healthier. It makes me enjoy being alive and awake. And the city’s just full of these zombies. They’re not even there, they’re walking down the street with their fucking phone. I just want to take it and say, ‘Wake the fuck up!’ Because they don’t even realise they’re in your way, there’s another person. But that’s just one thing, that’s [zombie voice] ‘CONSUMERIST CULTURE’,” he says, with a wry laugh.

Like Jarmusch, Hermit Bob cherishes his self-imposed exile – and also literature, swooping up a copy of Moby Dick like it were an old friend. “When the financiers saw the cut of the film, they were asking, ‘What’s the thing with Hermit Bob and the Melville book? That has nothing to do with anything, can’t you remove that?’ But it has something for me, because human expression is not lost on Hermit Bob, you know? He’s not a troglodyte.”

Driver’s hilarious “Yuck” comes in a close second, but the film’s most compelling form of human expression is the line of wisdom spoken by RZA: “The world is perfect. Appreciate the details.” It’s got a clear appeal for Jarmusch, who says he’s “not a Buddhist, because it involves too much discipline,” but that he does tai chi and meditates. “I try to keep a very strong appreciation for having a consciousness.” The philosophy can be traced through Jarmusch’s hyper-attentive films, which riff on and around the belief that (good) people and art can make the rubbish days worth sticking out.

“There is a very dark side of this film,” he reflects, “but it’s not fatalistic, to me. So the RZA line is the counterpoint. I wrote it but it sounds like something RZA would say. And I believe that very much. As much as I believe Hermit Bob saying, ‘What a fucked up world.’”

Annabel Brady-Brown

Annabel Brady-Brown is a founding editor of Fireflies magazine and film editor at The Big Issue. @annnabelbb

Iggy Pop and Jim Jarmusch on set for The Dead Don’t Die. © 2019 Image Eleven Productions, Inc

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