What exactly are you supposed to do with zombies in a movie in 2019? We've already covered zombies as "stand-ins for political or economic turmoil," zombies as metaphors for "the emptiness of contemporary culture," and zombies that "represent us, living a life of endless, mindless consumption of media and products." If you want to find a trope that has been completely rung out, you could do worse than the living dead.
The Dead Don't Die, out Friday, lands somewhere between using its zombies as consumer culture critique and climate change metaphor — nothing radically new as far as the genre is concerned. But it isn't the zombies that make this zombie movie worth watching. Rather, it is the ensemble cast, who essentially play exaggerated versions of themselves to blur the lines between what is fictional and what feels real.
On a typical day, the biggest trouble for the police in The Dead Don't Die's Centerville might be neighborly disputes between Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) and Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi). Problems cease to be quaint, though, when the Earth's axis is thrown off tilt by "polar fracking," causing the dead to rise as singularly-focused versions of the people they were when they had a pulse. Iggy Pop plays a zombie in deadly pursuit of coffee while others groan after WiFi, Snapple, and "Chardonnaaaaay." Left to deal with this apocalyptic mess is Centerville's police department, staffed by Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray), Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver), and Officer Mindy Morrison (Chloë Sevigny).
The Dead Don't Die culminates in a meta moment in which Driver and Murray despair over the end of the script; it also begins by blurring the lines between its own fictions and truths. Driving back into town after confronting Hermit Bob in the movie's opening scene, Cliff and Ronnie put on the radio. "The Dead Don't Die," a song written specifically for the movie by Sturgill Simpson, begins to play. "Why does it sound so familiar?" a baffled Cliff asks, to which Ronnie matter-of-factly replies: "Well, it's the theme song."
Cliff, in fact, spends much of the movie being baffled, a trait that comes with particular ease to Murray, who's played bewildered characters throughout his career. His deadpan delivery of lines typically exudes the same enthusiasm as Centerville's welcome sign ("a real nice place"), and even a massacre at his favorite diner elicits a monotone "maybe the worst thing I've ever seen." Tellingly, when Murray demands Driver spoil how The Dead Don't Die's script ends during a pivotal scene toward the end of the film, his breaking of character is indistinguishable from his portrayal of Chief Cliff Robertson. Annoyed with how his fate turns out, Murray even knocks the director, Jim Jarmusch: "After all I've done for that guy — and it's a lot you don't even know about," he fumes. Just writing about the scene presents a conundrum: Is it Murray I'm really talking about here, or his character?
Another such embellishment of an actor's character comes in Tilda Swinton's portrayal of the mortician Zelda Winston. If The Dead Don't Die were your first time ever hearing of Swinton or seeing her in a movie, her remote strangeness might seem out of place. What she is really doing, though, is embracing her reputation as being mysterious and "out there," complete with overdoing her Scottish accent and playing up her distinctive appearance with only 90-degree turns. Her punchline — I almost feel compelled to add "of course" — is that she turns out to be a literal alien. It's extremely self-aware: In 2012, Complex included her on a list "exposing famous women who might be aliens," and as recently as last year the The AV Club called her an "alleged alien" in a headline.
Other actors' personas are also similarly embedded in their characters, giving the film a consistent meta bent. Jarmusch's decision to cast former Disney Channel darling Selena Gomez as a wholesome "Cleveland hipster," for example, comes complete with intentionally cheesy digital sparkles when she bids goodbye to the awkward comic book store clerk. Adam Driver riffs on his perceived oddball personality, with Ronnie having read ahead in the script; one of the movie's jokes, which has him zip up to a crime scene in a tiny electric car, is predicated entirely on his often-remarked-upon gigantic stature. The script isn't always careful with letting reality bleed: Driver has a Star Wars keychain; Rosie Perez plays a newscaster named Posie Juarez; and the already-scraggly Iggy Pop being a zombie is amusing in and of itself.
Although The Dead Don't Die's premise is goofy and nonsensical, having actors in exaggerated roles of "themselves" makes it feel more like an alternate universe than just another zombie movie. Everything is oh-so-slightly off-kilter; we might not have polar fracking in this existence, say, but it sounds like something we could. People in our universe don't wear red hats that say "Make America White Again," at least not literally. And while Iggy Pop isn't really the living dead and Swinton is not really an alien, are those so far from associations you've made? Through actors playing caricatures of themselves, The Dead Don't Die comes to resemble "real life," albeit never quite the same.
Like all great zombie movies, this one has a message, one about the planet and lives we're destroying with our mindless consumption. Rather than heaping another zombie metaphor on the pile, though, The Dead Don't Die's actors hold up a fun house mirror. Even laughing at the goofy images they throw back, we might still catch a glimpse of someone we know.