The Dead Don’t Die is – in a manner of thinking – Jim Jarmusch’s second zombie film. Technically, Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) is a vampire film, but its central character, the depressively immortal Adam (Tom Hiddleston), lords it over ‘the zombies’, his term for the human population, whose ignorance he resents and whose degradation of Earth he fears.
Adam’s suicidal outlook is connected to some vague catastrophe stalking the horizon. He wonders if the ‘oil wars’ have ended and the ‘water wars’ begun. He and his lover, Eve (of course), played by Tilda Swinton, worry about a summer mushroom growing in the cold dirt of Detroit. Similarly, in the opening moments of The Dead Don’t Die, zombie survivor Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) discovers an unseasonable fungus growing in the forest. ‘You shouldn’t be here,’ he says. What might we conclude from Jarmusch’s self-citation? Perhaps that while The Dead Don’t Die is not a sequel per se, it is the second horror to grow up out of the rhizosphere of his political anxiety.
Set in the town of Centerville, population 738, The Dead Don’t Die is both a nervous portrait of an American small town, with all the Lynchian menace, and a local take on planetary collapse – think Roland Emmerich writ small. Centerville’s welcome sign says it is ‘A Real Nice Place’, and it would be – if it weren’t for some real weird shit going down. The sun won’t set. Watches stop. Pets run away. And, of course, the dead don’t die. ‘This isn’t going to end well,’ repeats officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) in the face of each new anomaly. Yet there’s nothing the good people of this real nice place can do about it. A field of energy distortion has enveloped the moon – on account of the Earth being ‘off its axis’ on account of the ‘polar fracking’.
Jarmusch has now directed more than twenty films, ensuring that he will always be more than twice as prolific as that other nerd of the Miramax generation, Quentin Tarantino, who has promised to stop at ten. While Tarantino enjoys the status of a must-see showman with a mass audience, Jarmusch has never courted one. The Dead Don’t Die is as close as he’s come: it’s a quirky but palatable genre pic with a fine ensemble cast. Its environmental subtext aligns it with the politically progressive role that Robin Wood long ago afforded horror films. Somewhat conclusively, Jarmusch’s late political impulse – best expressed in The Limits of Control (2009) – offers an antidote to the reactionary revenge fantasies of Tarantino, increasingly stoked by the great yes-man of the box office.