I couldn’t resist when I heard that Jim Jarmusch was making a zombie movie, I knew I had to see it. Seeing the mixed reactions to it made me want to see it even more. Personally, I really enjoyed it but I can see why people wouldn’t like it.
The movie stars Bill Murray as Police Chief Cliff Robertson with Adam Driver and Chloe Sevigny as Officer Ronnie Peterson and Officer Mindy Morrison. They work in a very small town and usually respond to minor events like Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) stealing Farmer Miller’s (Steve Buscemi) chickens. Over the course of a couple of days they realize that something’s amiss in their town. The animals are acting strangely and daylight saving’s time seems to have the sun setting way too late. This environmental weirdness, strongly hinted to have been caused by polar fracking, cause the dead to rise. The narrative is bookended by Hermit Bob, who exists as an outsider from the town who notices the environmental weirdness and manages to not be attacked by the zombies.
The movie is a slow-burner, with at least 45 minutes taken to establish the strange residents of this small town. The emphasis is on characterization, not necessarily fast-paced zombie mayhem like 28 Days Later or the Dawn of the Dead remake. There’s definitely zombie mayhem and the effects look quite good, there’s just a strong focus on characters’ reactions to the zombies. If you want a fast pace then this movie might not be for you.
What I liked about this movie is what a strong homage it felt like to George Romero, especially Night of the Living Dead. The font of the title card is very similar to the font used on the Night of the Living Dead posters. When Zoe, Jack, and Zack (Selena Gomez, Austin Butler, and Luka Sabbat) arrive in town on a road trip they show up on a lonely country road in a Pontiac LeMans, the same model car that Barbara and Johnny drive in Night of the Living Dead. We see the first two zombies at the cemetery–Coffee Zombie One and Coffee Zombie Two, played by Iggy Pop and Sara Driver–like in Night of the Living Dead.
There’s even a naked zombie showing their butt, like in Night of the Living Dead.
The anti-consumption message is closer to the original Dawn of the Dead. Aside from living flesh, the zombies mostly want what they liked best in real life, whether that’s chardonnay, Xanax, candy, or wi-fi. The zombies can speak like in Return of the Living Dead but they mostly just mutter about what they want. It’s interesting that Hermit Bob, a man with few possessions, manages to exist above the scuffle. He’s living a life like Thoreau in the woods. He even scavenges a copy of Moby Dick, a book about obsession and destructive consumption. He has this dialogue that sums up the anti-consumption philosophy, and it’s the most Tom Waits-sounding line of dialogue ever.
Now, the part of the movie that I think people are either going to love or hate. It’s meta as hell, to the point that one character knows it’s a movie and it’s hinted that they know what will happen throughout the whole movie. There are also characters that are familiar with the horror genre and know what to do based on movies. It felt like Scream, in a way. That’s actually something I really like. It’s weird to me watching a show like The Walking Dead where the characters never reference zombie lore. Does it just exist in a universe with no zombie stories? If you want a straightforward movie about fighting zombies without commentary about narrative or storytelling then this might not be the movie for you. If you like thinking about how stories are told and you also happen to like zombies, then I think you’ll like this movie.
If you like indie movies then you might like this movie. The town feels like it’s slightly removed from reality or like it exists in a dimension slightly next to ours. It has a very Ghost World feel, where it’s like it’s slightly outside of our current time. What’s weird though is that in a lot of zombie media lately, people instantly become heroic. Everyone is like a Ripley. In this movie, people are weak and scared. That somehow feels more realistic, even in the strange reality of the movie.
What first caught my eye about this movie was when I heard about the cast. They really do an outstanding job, even in small roles. It doesn’t feel like their presence distracts from the storytelling. I especially loved RZA as Dean the delivery man, Danny Glover as Hank the hardware store owner, Carol Kane as the chardonnay zombie, and Steve Buscemi as the racist farmer Miller. Tilda Swinton is also delightful as the unusual samurai sword-wielding mortician, Zelda Winston. Her character is so strange, it’s a good thing that she’s used sparingly.
Ultimately, if you go into this looking for a straightforward zombie movie then I think you’re going to be disappointed. I was surprised to hear that Jarmusch was making a zombie movie because it seems like the zombie fad is ebbing and what’s coming out is low quality or trying to capitalize on The Walking Dead’s popularity. This isn’t really a regular zombie movie, it’s more like a commentary on zombie movies and the motivations behind making them. If you go into the movie with an open mind about what kind of story a zombie movie can be then I think you’ll like it.