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Credit: Focus Features

6 movies you should see to better appreciate The Dead Don't Die

Contributed by
Jun 12, 2019

Zombie horror is about to get a star-studded and idiosyncratic new spin with Jim Jarmusch's The Dead Don't Die. The acclaimed art-house filmmaker brings together big-name talent, small-town charm, a unique sense of humor, and plenty of gore for a zombie comedy that's fresh yet eerily familiar.

Set in a quaint American town, The Dead Don't Die stars Bill Murray and Adam Driver as a pair of police officers trying to beat back the apocalypse when the dead crawl out of their graves and prey on the warm-hearted locals.

To toast the film's theatrical release, SYFY WIRE FANGRRLS is looking back at the movies that paved the way for The Dead Don't Die, from highlights of Jarmusch's filmography to zombie classics, cheeky easter eggs, and less obvious inspirations.

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Coffee-and-Cigarettes

Coffee and Cigarettes (2003)

You might watch the trailer for The Dead Don't Die and marvel at the motley but remarkable ensemble Jarmusch has pulled together for this zombie horror-comedy, which includes Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny, Selena Gomez, RZA, Tilda Swinton, Iggy Pop, Carol Kane, and Tom Waits. But the acclaimed indie director has worked with many of them before.

This zombie romp marks Jarmusch's second feature collaboration with Driver, following 2016 dramedy Patterson. It's his fourth with Murray, fifth with Swinton, and twelfth with Waits! But to get a sense of Jarmusch's distinctive skill for pulling together unexpected but sensational ensembles, I recommend his 2003 offering, Coffee and Cigarettes. This anthology film boasts The Dead Don't Die's Bill Murray, RZA, Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, and Steve Buscemi, as well as Oscar-winning Italian actor Roberto Benigni, devotedly dry comedian Steven Wright, the White Stripes' Jack and Meg White, and the one and only Cate Blanchett. Made up of series of eleven short stories, the film is tied together by the titular vices and an earnest interest in the quirks and comedy of conversation. But chiefly, it's a great dive into the unique charms of Jarmusch.

Night-Of-The-Living-Dead

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Everyone making zombie movies today owes a debt to Night of the Living Dead director George A. Romero. With his original Trilogy of the Dead, which included 1978's Dawn of the Dead and 1985's Day of the Dead, he set up many of the zombie-horror subgenre rules still followed today. Specifically, Romero's movies made famous the mythos that a zombie bite would turn the living into the undead, that there's no coming back from zombiedom, and that to kill a zombie you must destroy its brain.

All these rules apply in The Dead Don't Die, but Jarmusch more acutely pays homage to Romero's work with ghoulish spectacle and a neighborly setting. Like the Trilogy of the Dead, The Dead Don't Die delivers gruesome gore, including spilled entrails, decapitations, and plenty zombies ravenously gnawing on human innards. Also like that iconic film series, its story is set in the heart of Pennsylvania, in this case, the peaceful town of Centerville. There are also mentions of Pittsburgh, where Romero shot several of his films, including parts of Night of the Living Dead. Plus, The Dead Don't Die delivers a grisly ending that seems a nod to Romero's ethos. 

Only-Lovers-Left-Alive

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

If you're thirsting for a richer feel for how Jarmusch plays with horror, check out his unusual vampire drama that’s basically a super-chill hangout movie with fangs. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton star as centuries-old vampires/lovers who spend much of the movie listening to music, philosophizing, cuddling, and suckling blood popsicles. There's little action — but set in a decaying Detroit, there are dizzying doses of mood and a musty sensuality that's utterly intoxicating.

Jarmusch uses the vampire's immortality as a device to explore the ache of ennui and the struggle to find hope and beauty amid rot and stagnation. You could get lost in the swoon of the visuals rich in rust and velvet or the breathy conversations between its stunning, otherworldly leads. But Jarmusch keeps his undead tale alive with a wry sense of humor that urges us to scoff at the darkness and look for the light. 

The-Force-Awakens

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens (2015)

Easily Adam Driver's best-known role to date is as Kylo Ren, a First Order baddie with a sharp mind, a raging heart, and the power to get fangrrls crushing hard! If you want a sense of his range, behold The Dead Don't Die, where Driver pulls a total 180 as mild-mannered Ronnie Peterson who's unflappably calm, even when facing down "ghouls" and the end of the world as we know it.

While Ronnie's not brooding or explosive like Kylo, the pair do share some similarities (beyond Adam Driver's face). First off, they're both badasses in battle, be it wielding a lightsaber at Rey or a baseball bat at the undead. And secondly, they both own a Star Destroyer. Sure, in the Star Wars movies, Kylo's got the real thing, big and mighty. But in The Dead Don't Die, Ronnie has one on his keychain! It's a fun Easter Egg which prompts Swinton's eccentric mortician to call Star Wars "wonderful fiction." 

Fargo

Fargo (1996)

This Coen Brothers classic might seem an unexpected inspiration for a movie about zombies running amok. But at their cores, these stories are pretty similar. In both, a bizarre and violent crime throws a cozy American town into a spin. While a folksy police officer tries to crack the case and steady the suffering community, the violence increases, leaving a trail of bodies, and no easy way back to the quiet lives they led before.

In each film, the audience is lured into loving our humble heroes and to laugh along with them at the perks and quirks of small-town life. But as blood is spilled, our affection is gnarled into concern, pushing us to hope for an escape from the doom that seems to be inevitable. Bonus: both movies co-star Buscemi as a loud-mouth who meets a bloody comeuppance! 

Zombieland

Zombieland (2009)

Though The Dead Don't Die's trailer might call to mind this wacky zombie comedy, Jarmusch's film has a more cerebral sense of humor. Less slapstick, twinkies, and double taps; more meta jokes and observational quips. But something these two American-made zom-coms have in common are some goofy/ghoulish gags. Where Zombieland had undead clowns and literal ankle-biting kids, The Dead Don't Die has fun with a samurai sword-brandishing Swinton and a particularly gruesome yet funny scene where one of our heroes casually swings around a disembodied head with a very famous face. And then, of course, there's Bill Murray.

The comedy icon played a playful version of himself in the former, and in the latter, he takes a crack at the good sheriff stock character with a spin that's uniquely Jarmusch. To say more would be to spill spoilers...

Discover all the secrets of The Dead Don't Die in theaters June 14.

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