Ever since George Romero's 1968 Night of the Living Dead, zombie movies have taken place in a world that's exactly like ours, except that none of its denizens have ever seen a zombie movie. The audience always knows what's going to happen, but it would ruin the action and dramatic suspense if the characters in the movie were also to know what was in store. As a result, every zombie movie invents new names for its apparently sui generis monsters: Romero's living dead were "ghouls," 28 Days Later made them "the infected," and in The Walking Dead they are "walkers" or "biters" or any number of other ad-hoc names. This coyness around the word "zombie" has become such a well-known trope that Shaun of the Dead made it into a joke. "Don't say that," Shaun chides, when his friend uses "the Z-word," as he calls it. "It's ridiculous."
In its broadest outlines, Jim Jarmusch's The Dead Don't Die is a predictable zombie movie: A quiet, unsuspecting town is going about its quiet, unsuspecting business, when the dead suddenly begin to rise and eat people. But after briefly examining the horribly disfigured first victims of the living dead, Adam Driver's character identifies the culprits immediately: "It's zombies," he says. Everyone understands what he means, because everyone in this world has heard of them. The town's gas station sells zombie-themed toys and merchandise, and the station attendant even describes an old Pontiac as "very Romero." And as the things that happen in every zombie movie happen in this one, the movie gets overwhelmed as much by its own self-awareness as by the living dead. After having repeatedly announced that "it's all going to end badly," Driver eventually explains that he knows this because he read the script (provoking Bill Murray to complain that he hasn't been given a full script, and deliver a delightful rant about what an ungrateful asshole director Jim Jarmusch is).
The Dead Don't Die is satirical—in almost every way it's a caricature of zombie movies, going through and subverting an entire catalog of genre clichés—and the actors all play self-conscious riffs on their past roles or public reputations. But the movie isn't funny, not really. It's sad and depressing. Because the cast knows exactly what's in store for them, they sleepwalk through the movie in a state of hopeless passivity, half-heartedly fighting for their lives but ultimately succumbing as much to their own despair as to the remarkably slow and inept zombies who attack them.
It's not a spoiler to tell you that almost everyone dies, ingloriously, but what's striking is how little their knowledge of zombies helps them. It's exactly the opposite: Because they know they're in a zombie movie, they hardly even try to escape their fate. But the ease with which they do escape, when they try (the zombies move at such a slow and labored shamble that a brisk walking pace is all it really takes), demonstrates that the real problem is not the zombies themselves. Most of the characters who die in the movie do so because they just wait for it to happen.
Zombie movies often use their monsters as heavy-handed metaphors for things like runaway consumerism, terrorism, pandemics, civilizational collapse, or climate change. They take place in a world just like ours, but in place of our deepest fears, they substitute a horde of cannibal undead. These movies are escapist, in this sense: The zombie is a euphemism for the thing we're too afraid to say, the word we don't want to hear. Instead of a pandemic that kills millions (something to legitimately fear), the "zekes" in World War Z, for example, are the result of a pathogen, but they are also a kind of pandemic that we know we don't really need to be afraid of. These monsters resemble our anxieties and remind us of them, but they are also something reassuringly different, something scientifically impossible. And so, along with catharsis, they provide consolation. As we watch what we fear, we also know that what we are watching won't ever happen. In our world, zombie pathogens from a melting Arctic are something to fear; literal zombies, on the other hand, are just something to watch.
In The Dead Don't Die, zombies aren't a metaphor for ecological disaster; they are its result, so directly a consequence of climate change that the metaphor collapses in on itself. "Polar fracking" has pushed the Earth off its axis, as radio announcers declare, and along with wildly shifting the length of daylight, has caused the dead to rise from their graves. Government officials and energy companies insist that polar fracking is beneficial and that nothing bad is happening, but while they are obviously lying, and everyone in the movie knows they are lying, the citizenry also seems too depressed to do anything about it.
They are, you might say, "zombies." In interviews, Jarmusch has been very clear that the movie is about the way our impending ecological doom is the script we've all read and don't want to do anything about. "We're trapped in this world that has a broken operating system," as the director told Rolling Stone. "Look how unconscious so much of the world is right now of its impending end. It's sad and it's maddening." Or as he put it to Vulture: "We're in the sixth mass extinction on this planet.... There is a sadness in the human behavior for me, and zombies are the most obvious metaphor you could employ."
"I'm just sick of zombies," he said, and then clarified what he meant: "The real zombies that are just walking around us, not paying attention to anything, letting the end of the world happen."
In a sense, Jarmusch's zombies in The Dead Don't Die are metaphors, representing people who go about their lives as if nothing apocalyptic is happening. We, too, are zombies—you and I—if we live our daily routines as though we aren't standing on the brink of the end of the world. But people suffering from depression sometimes describe “feeling like a zombie” and here, too, the metaphor collapses: If to "act like a zombie" is to detach from reality and engage in a neurotic repetition of the same comforting behaviors, then this kind of denialism has become depressingly commonplace ("We seem most comfortable adopting a learned posture of powerlessness," as David Wallace-Wells has put it).
There may not be zombies in our world, but it's hard to deny that most or even all of us live this way: As the world plummets toward an ecological catastrophe—and we have the script, if we want to read it—we still shamble through our former existences, brainless, as though the end of the world hasn't already been written.
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