Exit Poll: “The Dead Don’t Die” Smashes Pop Star Heads Like Pumpkins

Published June 20, 2019

Exit Poll is a series exploring the good, bad, and outright deranged films and events our editors are attending. This week: Associate Digital Editor Sarah Nechamkin heads to a screening of Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die, an ensemble zombie comedy that provides just as many opportunities for memes as it does heavy-handed political commentary.

A unique phenomenon of the digital-first age has been the advent of art that feels made to be a meme. There’s always a particular moment when that realization occurs—when, say, Meryl Streep abruptly shrieks on Big Little Lies, or when Lady Gaga bursts into a singsong wail at the emotional apex of A Star is Born. (To be fair, I was late to that train, and the GIFs had already littered my Twitter feed like Halal Cart drippings on Canal Street.) Nevertheless, it’s a disorienting thing, at once cynical, hilarious, and inexplicably moving. This, I say to myself, is too funny to be taken seriously, even as a comedy. This, I say to myself, will break the internet.

In the case of The Dead Don’t Die, Jim Jarmusch’s new ensemble zombie comedy, that moment came over and over and over again. There was the moment when Adam Driver (as Officer Peterson, a nod to his titular role in Jarmusch’s Paterson) rolls up to a diner in a red Smart car, only to find that two inhabitants of the eerily pleasant town of Centreville have had their innards feasted upon by a pair of coffee-guzzling zombies (played by Jarmusch’s wife, Sara Driver, and—why not?—Iggy Pop). There was the moment when Tilda Swinton, or “Zelda Winston,” is introduced to the audience while whipping a samurai sword, and painting the faces of the dead bodies she’s chosen to keep in Lichtenstein-ian drag. (Surprise: they’re not as dead as she thinks.) There was the moment when Driver holds the decapitated head of an innocent Selena Gomez by the ponytail; when a haggardly Tom Waits crawls through the earth beneath a purply mutant moon; when climate apocalypse expert Luka Sabbat … I’m not sure he says anything, though his presence in the film alongside his spiritual predecessor Chloë Sevigny has been enough to set the internet ablaze.

The Dead Don’t Die has all of this and more campy head-splicing, sword-wielding, and meta-commentating (“This is not going to end well,” Driver continually warns us—because, as he tells Bill Murray in a typically droll Bill Murray role, he’s read the entire script). While it makes for great fun, it becomes increasingly challenging to draw any sort of pathos from a film so chockablock with gastroenterological camp, heavy-handed political commentary—the zombie invasion is a direct result of “polar fracking”—and self-reflexive wit. From the first sight of Steve Buscemi in a red hat that reads “Keep America White Again,” the viewer is in on the joke, an ongoing one that’s laid on so thick that there isn’t really any payoff. But maybe, in our post-ironic, post-apocalyptic, algorithmically optimized digital hellscape, making a movie that aims for emotion is an exercise in quaintness. Maybe Centreville, in all its Lynchian rural horror, is the funhouse mirror inverse of our dystopian present, and maybe, like Adam Driver, we’re merely anticipating the end of the script.