On a hot Tuesday afternoon, four days following the North American release of Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die in June 2019, we entered the Erie Cinemark Tinseltown USA multiplex for a showing. Seven people were quietly seated in the audience, and after 20 minutes of advertisement-soaked trailers, the film began.

As generational peers of Jarmusch, we recognized his friends—featured character actors who have worked closely with him for decades. Having seen several of his films, we were familiar with his style: slow moving imagery, minimal dialogue, and dry wit. It was painful to hold back laughter at the obvious jokes, the use of irony, and characters self-referentially breaking the fourth wall, while the rest of the audience watched silently, zombie-like. Perhaps the other audience members were seeking another type of zombie horror film. Or perhaps the horror of climate destruction and human extinction was too much for them to face.

Figure 1: Sheriff and Deputies surveille zombie apocalypse from office window.
Figure 1: Sheriff and Deputies surveille zombie apocalypse from office window.

The plot of The Dead Don’t Die is simple, and we will not go into much detail here.  The zombie apocalypse is sparked by “polar fracking,” which causes the earth’s axis to change its tilt and extend daylight. Oddly enough, this occurrence is already happening. Because ice caps are melting, there is less ice to reflect sunlight, and thus the sun appears to now be rising and setting in different locations than it has for thousands of years.

In the film, the change in length of daylight causes the dead to rise from their graves.  Zombies roam Centerville, USA, searching for the addictions they held when alive. Beyond murmuring coffee, chardonnay, free cable, or Wi-Fi, their main activity is to amble grotesquely through the streets while killing the remaining humans, who then join the zombie pack.  Centerville Sheriff Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and his deputies Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) and Mindy Morrison (Chloë Sevigny) do their best to combat the zombie invasion (Figure 1), but as Ronnie frequently foretells, the film does not end well. One character does escape. Katana-wielding mortician Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton) decapitates several zombies, then rises into a flying saucer hovering over the graveyard, leaving behind the horror taking over Centerville. The spaceship is only one of many popular culture references that occur and recur as the film mocks mindless consumption, bigotry, and xenophobia.

Figure 2: Mortician Winston practicing martial arts.
Figure 2: Mortician Winston practicing martial arts.

We suppose that Jarmusch and his friends who appear in this film are well aware of popular memes and the politics of culture. The Dead Don’t Die humorously offers a cultural critique of the climate crisis as the elephant-in-the-room. Conversely, reviewers in corporate media have woefully overlooked the climate critique that Jarmusch presents. Through parody, Jarmusch’s art is political and prophetic. When using a lens of awareness, a viewer can recognize a call to act heroically in the face of despair and hopelessness. Sheriff Robertson and Deputy Peterson represent such heroes when they virtuously combat the zombies who overtake them in a swarm.

If you have seen the film, we now invite you, the reader, to participate in this review with the following multiple-choice question for “extra-credit.”

Figure 3: Deputy and Sheriff investigating in cemetery.
Figure 3: Deputy and Sheriff investigating in cemetery.

The film best typifies which of the following statements about the climate situation:

  1. Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.
  2. Carpe diem.
  3. It could be worse.
  4. This is not going to end well.

Choices A, B, and C might appeal to optimists. Typically, ardent climate deniers will most often choose the wrong answer.

In fact, D is the best answer.  Scientists and activists from all over the world are agreeing that there could be only a few more years before humans become extinct. Ten days after the release of the film, on June 24, 2019, conservation biologist and climate observer Guy McPherson testified at a hearing held by the New York City Council Committee on Environmental Protection. He declared that it is time for planetary hospice to ease functional extinction of the human species. The hearing resulted in a resolution of a climate emergency.

Jarmusch and his friends made a funny film as a way to cope with the disaster. Other than futuristic dystopias and documentaries, there are few fictional films addressing the inevitable with humor. It is disturbing that many mainstream reviewers of The Dead Don’t Die appear to be oblivious to the inevitably of climate collapse. Just as sad is the fact that so many audience members remain zombie-like in the presence of looming catastrophe.

Capitalism has created a movie industry that provides escape for consumers, distracting us from cooperation on survival. Capitalism has also promoted media giants and conglomerates that further mask the truth with petty criticism and identity politics. And perhaps most importantly, capitalism has driven the human heat producing machine that is warming the planet toward the level of extinction. Jarmusch’s aesthetic sensibilities should be recognized in all their appropriateness for the subject. 

Author Biographies

Eleanor Weisman is an associate professor of Dance & Movement Studies and Community & Justice Studies at Allegheny College. Jay Hanes is an organic gardener and retired associate professor of Art Education. They recently collaborated on editing the text The Role of the Arts in Education: Cultivating Landscapes of Democracy (New York: Routledge, 2018).