The Dead Don’t Die runs here at Storyhouse cinema from Friday 9 August- Wednesday 14 August. One of our Young Content Creators, Matt, gives us an insight into the deeper meanings behind this this star studded zombie comedy. Tickets are available to purchase now, click here.
To the untrained eye, zombie movies can seem a pretty lowbrow art form. The cheap thrill of seeing some grizzly corpses feed on the flesh of the living. A gory spectacle to enjoy with some popcorn. However, a zombie movie can do more than many monster movies can do. George A. Romero is the undisputed king of the zombie. He set the boundaries for everything we expect in a zombie film, taking them away from films about bizarre voodoo rituals in far away countries and placing zombies right in the heart of America. In doing so, he managed to cover a lot of ground in terms of socio-political ideas.
In Night of the Living Dead, Romero tackles civil rights, portraying a well-spoken, intelligent, black protagonist heroically defending white people, only to end up dead at the hands of local police who believe he is a threatening “zombie”. In Dawn of the Dead zombies plague a shopping mall, in a very clear set commentary on western consumerism habits. Day of the Dead looks at how much power we give our military institutions, forcing us to question who the real evil is. Even in his later works such as Land of the Dead, zombies are a vehicle to discuss a class divide, as the wealthy hide away in a purpose-built sanctuary, leaving the working class to fight for their lives. There are some deeply thought out social commentary throughout these films, but why the zombies?
In an interview with Rolling Stone , The Dead Don’t Die director Jim Jarmusch explains his admiration for Romero and why exactly zombies are the perfect tool to discuss some bigger problems.
“You can’t control the zombies. They are out of control. Generally, monsters — vampires, Frankenstein, Godzilla, whatever — they are outside the social structure. They are a danger to it, they are threatening it. With Romero, man, the zombies come from the social structure. They’re something that’s failed in the system. They’re the result of the social structure falling apart. They’re eating it from within”
Zombies aren’t monsters that have flown down to earth from outer space to wreak havoc. They are us. They are human beings destroying human beings. They are the true grotesque representation of the consequences of our own doings. So what better way is there to tackle the notion of climate change, racism and consumerism? The Dead Don’t Die does exactly that.
By now we all know what to expect from a zombie movie – the undead come to life in mysterious circumstances and pray on the flesh of the living, only stopped by destroying the brain. We know what zombie movies are, but rarely do the characters in a zombie movie acknowledge they know they are in a zombie movie. We are accustomed to seeing mass hysteria and confusion, failed attempts to remove of the undead until accidentally discovering how to dispose of the reanimated. Not in The Dead Don’t Die. We are told what is happening every step of the way, being spared the suspense of having to wait for plots to twist and things to be revealed. Every news report tells you; the Earth has fallen off its axis due to polar fracking. Adam Driver’s Officer Ronnie is particularly clued in regarding the situation. After one gruesome discovery of two locals deceased in the towns only diner, as the rest of the authorities in town suggest it may be “wild animals, or maybe two wild animals”, Officer Ronnie is “thinkin’ zombies. You know? The undead. Ghouls.”
He connects the dots in a particularly nonchalant manner that this crisis with the earths axis has caused the dead to rise and now they are in a zombie film, clearing this up for the audience, but mainly for his fellow cast. Throughout the film, he warns his partners Cliff (Bill Murray) and Mindy (Chloë Sevigny) that “this isn’t gonna end well.” But how does he know? Well, it turns out he’s read the script. Literally. Similarly, we’ve been given the script on climate change. Scientists and experts have preached at us for years that we are causing global warming with our actions, and that if we continue as we, that “this isn’t gonna end well”, yet we, much like Ronnie, are content to let the script play out.
It’s not the zombies that are the real problem in this movie, but more-so the fact that the living characters have accepted or would prefer to ignore their fate. They’re completely passive to everything happening. The zombies in The Dead Don’t Die aren’t the fast paced, menacing, running zombies that we have seen in the likes of 28 Days Later. They’re slow, lumbering zombies that can mostly be evaded by a brisk walk. We know how to stop them; you just destroy the head. Yet, the aptly named town of Centreville just lets the problem escalate until it is completely overrun. Because they let it happen, they don’t care enough to stop it and just let it happen. Much like how the “real zombies” of the world are content to ignore the problem of climate change. We know we know we can do things, yet we’re content to let the world slowly crawl towards its own demise than do something.
The zombies themselves are far more tragic figures rather than something to terrify you. “There is a sadness in the human behavior for me, and zombies are the most obvious metaphor you could employ.” Says Jarmusch for Vulture. The undead, much like in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, are drawn to the things they used to love in their previous life. The zombified Iggy Pop abandons munching on a corpse for the joys of coffee. Cliffs old flame Mallory doesn’t lunge towards his flesh, but rather longs for chardonnay. A group of teens groan for Wi-Fi. These are some of the distractions we look for. We could change things. But our heads are firmly in the sand, we have so many delightful distractions and things to consume, why would we even bother to look up to see the world is falling apart?
This doesn’t just speak for climate change; the idea of race is tackled. Steve Buscemi’s character, Farmer Miller, epitomises this. He is seen sporting a “Make America White Again” hat, a clear nod to the MAGA movement associated with Donald Trump and his presidency. Yet hilariously, he too is passive. We’re introduced to him at a diner, as he sits across from his friendly black Hank, portrayed by the brilliant Danny Glover. He blatantly displays his racist views on his head yet doesn’t alienate Hank. When he thoughtlessly complains to the waitress that the coffee is “too black” for him he awkwardly clears up to Hank that he means the it’s “too strong” and nothing to do with colour. This is a funny sequence, but dangerous too. It shows how there’s a trust building in institutionalised racism. Farmer Miller is in many ways, the modern racist. He doesn’t need to go around hurling abuse, because he trusts that the political institutions are on his side. He can simply vote for a racist agenda rather than having to get his hands dirty or even rise to confrontation.
As things begin to reach a climax, the overwhelmed, Prius driving Mindy seeks comfort and reassurance. “Shouldn’t we be telling each other it’s all gonna be ok and go away like a bad dream?”, she asks her deadpan partners Ronnie and Cliff, who have to break it to her that it’s probably not. There is hope, however. One group of teenagers at a youth correctional facility upon hearing a news report on the earth falling off it’s axis, reveal an encyclopaedic knowledge of the damage that this will cause. They escape amongst the zombie carnage, having the sense to simply avoid the undead. Their fate is left unknown, the last we see of them is as they head towards a safe place to hide. This is where Jarmusch lays out his admiration for the likes of Greta Thunberg, the young teenage climate change activist making waves around the world. These are the characters that might survive, they might work out the answer, they may act more responsibly than predecessors. Only as these older, ignorant generations pass over the torch, will this enlightened youth take the helm.
This may all sound rather heavy or even preachy, but it is important to remember than any messages in this film are balanced out by sheer absurd comedy. Jarmusch had admitted that he just wanted “to make something very silly.” And that is what he has done. Slaying zombies from a Smart Car. Tilda Swinton as a Scottish samurai mortician who is somehow even more than meets the eye (without going into spoiler territory). Inane wall breaking conversations. The Dead Don’t Die is a very funny movie. You do not need to be a diehard fan of zombie films in order to enjoy this film. It re-treads those ideas given to us by Romero, updating them for modern concerns, but it’s not a movie to terrify you. It feels far more apathetic, almost a lacklustre call-to-arms. As Jarmusch himself ages, he almost accepts his generation isn’t going to make the change but asks people to at least be aware of what is happening. The anger is there, but we aren’t shown any way out of what we have gotten ourselves into. This is a wonderfully silly film, that aims to leave you thinking; what a messed-up world. Don’t be a zombie.
by Matthew Beckett
For more zombies, you may be interested in The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue, part of the Our North season curated by Storyhouse Young Programmers.
This article was written by one of our Young Content Creators, an initiative ran in conjunction with Young Storyhouse to provide budding content creators paid opportunities to showcase their unique voices within Storyhouse’s digital channels.
Young Content Creators are supported by Film Hub North, awarding funds from The National Lottery.