Review: The World is Off Its Axis in Jim Jarmusch’s ‘The Dead Don’t Die’


The Dead Don’t Die played on June 8th at the Seattle International Film Festival, but will be making its return to year round SIFF on June 21st.

“The world is off its axis.” Though this tagline isn’t on the poster for Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die, it very well could be. You read the newspaper, check Twitter, talk to people outside and you begin to realize just how off-kilter the world is in 2019. This feeling of unbridled, societal chaos is at the heart of Jarmusch’s latest as it paints an apocalyptic world in parallel to our own.

Drawing from the well of 1950s and 60s B-rate horror films, the film focuses on the citizens of Centerville as they fight off zombies rising from their grave after a global incident. It’s a simple premise that lends itself to featuring the likes of Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Selena Gomez, and more in the film’s star studded cast, but in its simplicity lies the distillation of the genre it pulls from. There are no complex inter-character relationships, subtle themes, or logical developments, but that seems to be exactly what the film is going for. B-rate horror films are typically devoid of any of those, and in the pursuit of replicating that, Jarmusch created a genre film that evokes that whole aesthetic.

In the name of aligning itself with its influences, the film takes on a very literal, on-the-nose approach to its meaning, often resulting in the film’s driest and funniest lines. Jarmusch’s sense of humor is extremely self-aware and tongue-in-cheek, making self referential statements, commentary on the obvious, and fourth wall breaking jokes to play up the film’s B-movie vibe. It’s consistent and explicit in its intent, and believing other wise would be a tough sell given the poetic precision of Jarmusch’s last film, Paterson.

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The film is shameless in its overt meaning, but intentionally so. The film premises itself on the aforementioned idea that “the world is off its axis” in literal and metaphorical terms. After a fracking incident causes the Earth’s to be knocked out of alignment, polar fields are disrupted, day and night cycles are out of wack, and zombies start rising from the grave. With nods to climate change, societal trends, political unease, and the like, the film sets its apocalyptic world in a very realistic setting. Everything is one rung higher than our own reality, making for scenarios where we can laugh at slightly hyperbolic situations that bear truth after we leave the theater. The Dead Don’t Die is B-movie genre film that doubles as a poignant social commentary about the dismay in society. Where we see regressive decline all around us, we too may enter a world where zombies roam amongst us and society is brought to an end.

The cast is laden with stars, and luckily each one gets their own moment to shine. Murray, Driver, and Chloë Sevigny play a trio of semi-capable officers patrolling the town, stopping in on the film’s supporting characters periodically. Steve Buscemi plays a conservative farmer with an attitude, Caleby Landry Jones plays a rest stop clerk with an inkling for horror films, Tilda Swinton plays a coroner with hidden talents, and the list goes on and on. All these characters excel within the film and have at least one moment where they take center stage. 

Full of great moments and characters, The Dead Don’t Die is another great outing by Jarmusch that distills the essence of its influences for a comedic zombie flick about contemporary problems. Keenly aware of its effects, the film hones in on genre tropes and plays with them to both pay homage to its influences and generate tongue-in-cheek humor about the world we live in. By presenting the end of society, it seems as Jarmusch is reconciling the insanity he sees around him. His answer: have fun and laugh at the madness, cause in the end, we’re probably all doomed.