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The Nightmare Coming

With a nod to global warming, “The Dead Don’t Die” is a rueful and beautiful horror poem of modern America.

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The reaction to Jim Jarmusch's "The Dead Don't Die" has largely been negative, especially from critics reporting on this year's Cannes Film Festival. Reviews have homed in on the film's obvious textures, such as Jarmusch's use of zombies as a symbol of American commercialism, which of course comes from George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" and "Dawn of the Dead." What critics seemed to have missed is the piercing pastoral beauty and rhythm of "The Dead Don't Die." In some fashions, this film recalls the existential rapture of Jarmusch's masterpiece, "Paterson."

"The Dead Don't Die" is set in the sort of idyllic American Nowheresville that David Lynch loves, which is called Centerville. This is a cheeky name for a town that doesn't appear to be in the center of anything except woods, which Jarmusch films with a lush and eerie intensity that evokes, yes, "Twin Peaks." The cinematographer here is Frederick Elmes, who shot Lynch's "Blue Velvet" as well as "Paterson." Like many of Lynch's settings, Centerville seems to be composed of exactly the shops that are necessary to evoke a fading American past. There's a diner, a gas station, a police station, a hardware store and an institute for children, all of which appear to belong to the 1950s.

It takes a while for the zombies to arrive in "The Dead Don't Die," as Jarmusch spends quite a bit of time working up a steam of absurdist dread. Our heroes, as such, are Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver), who are first seen arguing with Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) out in the woods. Murray, Driver and Waits are all Jarmusch veterans, and they're masters of the stoned pentameter that the filmmaker has spent the last several decades perfecting. If you're on Jarmusch's wavelength, the matter-of-factly befuddled alienation of this film's opening scene is hilarious, and illustrates that these cops are essentially hall monitors.

Jarmusch, hipster royalty, has assembled a hell of a cast in "The Dead Don't Die," even by his own standards, and he drinks them in. Danny Glover, as the hardware store owner, is paired with Steve Buscemi, who plays a racist farmer who wears a hat that says "Keep America White Again." You get a single guess as to the color of the hat. Caleb Landry Jones is the gas station owner, who runs a horror memorabilia shelf that allows Jarmusch to namecheck his various influences. Cult horror filmmaker Larry Fessenden runs the motel, while RZA delivers the mail. Comely Selena Gomez whisks into the town to offer ingénue spark, Chloë Sevigny is Centerville's third police officer, and Carol Kane lays in a cell dead. Iggy Pop eventually sprouts out of the ground, and Tilda Swinton appears just as you're wondering where Tilda Swinton is.

At times in his career, Jarmusch's penchant for assembling his favorite actors, and for making reference to his favorite music, movies, novels, and poetry, has felt more like cultivation than actual filmmaking. In "The Dead Don't Die," however, this cast is urgently in sync, and the actors collectively embody two nearly opposing ideas: of the every person, and of an elaborate fantasy, pop culture incarnate, that distracts us from real-world concerns. "The Dead Don't Die" is very consciously a movie, a critique of itself that's nevertheless overflowing with heartbreaking characterizations, especially by Sevigny.

Jarmusch expands on the social protest element of Romero's films and adds a meta-textual wrinkle to it. In this film, polar fracking has knocked the world off its axis, screwing up day and night cycles and causing animals to go into hiding as well as the dead to rise. Somehow, the idea of animals hiding is scarier than the zombies; it has the weird ring of reality.

Ronnie knows that this story isn't going to end well because he's read the film's script, which suggests how we read the script of our world's demise every day without facing it. Later, Sevigny's character, right before death, asks if this nightmare will end. Jarmusch forces us to imagine ourselves asking the same question in a few decades, as global warming continues to ravage us. Acknowledging its own distracting and soothing fakery, "The Dead Don't Die" offers itself up both as part of the problem and as a futile attempt to sound a cultural alarm.

When it arrives, Jarmusch plays the violence shockingly straight, unleashing two brilliant sequences. When two zombies attack the diner (one of them is Iggy Pop), the male zombie looks to the female zombie as she descends on a human, seemingly learning the rules of the hunt from his partner. The intimacy of this gesture is surreal, ghastly and poignant. Later, when Cliff and Ronnie survey the carnage at the diner with other characters, Jarmusch follows each person as they look upon the corpses, contrasting their various reactions, which run the gamut from deadpan to earnestness to authentic revulsion. It's a miniessay on how people process death, complemented by a dark joke, a recurring phrase about the potential perpetrator that becomes an evasive refrain. Don't believe the hype. "The Dead Don't Die" is a triumph—a rueful and beautiful horror poem of modern America.

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