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SYFY WIRE The Dead Don't Die

Remembering Bill Murray in The Dead Don’t Die: Jim Jarmusch’s Funny Fright Flick

What could be causing all this mayhem? “I'm thinkin' zombies!”

By Benjamin Bullard

Thanks to 2009’s Zombieland, everyone has a pretty clear idea of what Bill Murray will look like if he ever joins the ranks of the undead. Fast forward 10 years, and another movie came along that posed a different sort of zombie-centric question: What would it look like if Murray ever had to play for the human home team, take up arms, and actually fight the shambling hordes?

Watching Murray and other A-list stars beat back (or get beaten by) cadavers with cravings for brains is just part of the fun of The Dead Don’t Die (streaming here on Peacock!), director Jim Jarmusch’s funny little 2019 horror reverie that tracks a slice of life in a sleepy Pennsylvania town — billed on highway signage as “a real nice place” — before the world goes all wonky on its axis and the dead start leaving their graves.

The Dead Don't Die: There's no other zombie movie like it

As laconic local police chief Cliff Robertson, Murray’s only part of the star power rolling through the docile streets of rural Centerville, the kind of quiet hamlet just big enough to have only one of everything, no matter if it’s a diner, a youth detention center, a motel, or a convenience store. Right by his side are fellow cops Adam Driver (as the equally deadpan officer Ronnie) and Chloë Sevigny (as officer Mindy, who’s hilariously less unfazed by all the reanimated bodies that somehow don’t seem to stir the right amount of panic in her unflappable cop colleagues).

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Like fellow low-fi director Wes Anderson, Jarmusch is the kind of filmmaker whose zany creative brain attracts just about every big-name actor in Hollywood — even if the budget isn’t necessarily there to pad their personal trust funds. On that count, The Dead Don’t Die boasts (and deftly juggles) a staggering roster of A-list talent. In addition to Murray and his police-playing peers, the movie’s cast includes (deep breath) Tilda Swinton, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Iggy Pop, Selena Gomez, Austin Butler, the RZA, Rosie Perez, Carol Kane, Caleb Landry Jones, Tom Waits, and — lest we forget — country artist Sturgill Simpson, whose bespoke eponymous theme song serves as a kind of recurring meta-trigger at multiple points throughout the film.

You’ve seen zombie movies and played zombie video games, but it’s safe to say there’s no zombie movie quite like The Dead Don’t Die. From the disheveled streets of Memphis in Mystery Train to Detroit’s derelict vampire haunts in Only Lovers Left Alive to the pigeon-fouled rooftops of Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, Jarmusch has been fascinated by dilapidation his whole career — so it’s probably fitting that his sci-fi horror-comedy is preoccupied with unexplored territory not only in decaying spaces, but in actual rotting human bodies.

The zombies are coming! — So why are we laughing?

The Dead Don't Die poster

Outside of Murray, Driver, and a small handful of contrarian observers, just about everyone in The Dead Don’t Die ends up as a zombie at some point. That’s not much of a spoiler thanks to the movie’s focus, which isn’t so much about the story (which mostly follows a conventional “the zombies are coming!” thread) as it is about spending quality time with a ridiculously varied array of interesting characters, all thrown into truly extraordinary circumstances.

If you’ve seen other Jarmusch films, you’ve already got a pretty good idea of how deeply he adores his characters and the actors who play them. It’s a fondness that’s on even greater display here, where every second spent with Murray feels like an intimate hangout with an actor who's clearly having fun, while also throwing tons of meta-nods to the absurdity of both the story itself and the material-obsessed world that’s made these people famous. (Here’s zombie Iggy Pop stalking the streets for coffee! Adam Driver is in danger — but he has an Imperial Star Destroyer on his keychain!)

The Dead Don't Die Adam Driver

The Dead Don’t Die may be a comedy, but Jarmusch — whose genre affections in this one movie alone shout out everything from George Romero to Kill Bill to Star Wars and more — does his diligence when it’s time for the zombie body horror to finally enter the picture. Blood gets spattered, guts get eaten (watch for Driver’s hilarious reaction after surveying the scene in a carnage-strewn diner), and every conceivable head-severing weapon gets deployed in the film’s ultimately futile effort to stave off the inevitable undead swarm.

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You’re not really supposed to be scared, though. This is the kind of zombie movie that wears its terror heavily on its sleeve, all the better to set viewers up for the laughs it’s really here for. Zombies stagger around muttering materialistic one-word mantras (like “Skittles” and “Xanax”) in search of the last living treasure they cherished; Swinton’s quirky Scottish undertaker battles like a Beatrix Kiddo samurai while having choice words for Driver’s sci-fi filmography; and Waits’ character, a binoculars-toting wild man of the woods, gets a final last laugh as the jerky local farmer (Buscemi) succumbs beneath an inhuman wave of hungry shamblers.

The Dead Don't Die screenshot

All through the movie, officer Ronnie (Driver) peskily keeps mentioning that things probably aren’t going to end well — and when the actual ending comes, it turns out he’s right. The Dead Don’t Die almost intentionally closes on a dour, anticlimactic note of glib, head-shaking commentary… but after the day these folks have had, Waits’ final summary of the events he’s beheld — both recent and otherwise — is pretty much all that’s left to say.

Sure, it’s a sorry shame that the Moon’s gone all purple, the clocks have stopped working, and some big-business global exploit like “polar fracking” has inadvertently respawned every buried bygone body — from yesteryear’s village idiot right down to the former local tennis star. But if there’s a bigger message in The Dead Don’t Die than zombies can be funny, it’ll probably stay buried somewhere out in Centerville’s pockmarked graveyard… under a festering mound of headless corpses.

The Dead Don't Die is now streaming on Peacock.