There are dozens of filmmakers who get giddy at the thought of orchestrating an army of extras, all made up to look as if the flesh is rotting on their bones, all shuffling forward as if battling rigor mortis, all moaning and grasping and jaws chomping in anticipation. Jim Jarmusch is not one of those filmmakers. “I’m more of a vampire guy,” the 66-year-old director admits, and even if you haven’t seen his stellar addition to that horror subgenre — 2014’s Only Lovers Left Alive — you could have guessed that immortal bloodsuckers are more his monsters du jour. They’ve seen it all. They’re nocturnal. They never age. “They’re fucking cool, man,” he adds, sounding as cool as any human being who has ever said anything while wearing sunglasses and sitting in a Lower East Side diner, which is saying something.
So when you ask Jarmusch why someone who doesn’t salivate at the notion of unleashing undead hordes upon an unsuspecting populace has made a bona fide zombie movie, maybe it isn’t surprising that the indie-film godhead references his own vampire tale. “There’s a throwaway line in Only Lovers Left Alive,” Jarmusch says, “where the couple talks about humans being zombies — because they’re not conscious of what’s around them. And look how unconscious so much of the world is right now, for the most part, of its impending end. It’s sad and it’s maddening.”
And it’s the “maddening” part that really propels The Dead Don’t Die, Jarmusch’s singular take on the shambling-corpses-crave-flesh story template. Yes, the movie is an extended goof, stocked with the filmmaker’s rep company of stars — Bill Murray, Tom Waits, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Iggy Pop, Steve Buscemi, RZA — and a certain kind of remove that you might associate with the man who, once upon a time, gave the world Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law and Mystery Train. Of course Jarmusch would make a deadpan movie about the undead. But there’s also a palpable sense of anger running through this zombie-apocalypse hot take, with all of its confused citizens who don’t know what they did to deserve this and materialism-obsessed ghouls and talk of the world being off its axis. It’s a comedy, sometimes sandpaper-dry and sometimes slapstick-broad. And, whether the director fully realized it or not — see below — he’s made one very pissed-off film.
A few days before The Dead Don’t Die was set to make its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, Jarmusch sat down to talk about why he decided to dip his toe into the cinematic walking-dead pool, how to direct Iggy Pop in playing a zombie, how he feels about the state of the world, how a samurai movie help him quit smoking and more.
So … why a zombie movie?
A few years back, before I made Patterson — which, y’know, is not a frivolous movie — I wanted to make something very silly. Something ridiculous, kind of like Coffee & Cigarettes (2003). The characters in those sketches are almost like cartoons. I had an idea that I’d like to make another film like that, and I thought, well, zombies could be interesting ….
How so? In regards to that idea, I mean.
I could get actors that I love, little groups of them, and get them stuck in various places while outside, all of these creatures are just trying to break in and eat them. And then between the attacks of the zombies, there would be all this space for stupid, stupid conversations.
That was the original thought … I just wanted them to get hold up in different little groups, using the actors I could summon forth or rather, trick into doing this. I kept that idea. Then when I actually started writing it, after Patterson was made, it was like … I just followed my inclinations and it sort of ended up like this. Hopefully there’s still some silly in here. But it’s not that thing I’d originally thought of. That would have been more minimal. [Pause] And easier to make.
But it started as a kind of sketch movie?
Yeah, that was my intention — and I still have this dilemma in the film. I usual follow one or two central characters down a single narrative path. Or like Mystery Train or Coffee & Cigarettes, they’re vignette structures but they’re kept separate. These had to be interwoven, so that became a bit more challenging. And when you add in the special effects … it’s the hardest film I’ve ever made. It was rough, physically, to make. I mean, Dead Man almost killed me, but I was a lot younger then.
Both of these movies are genre movies — would it be safe to say you have a weird relationship with genre? Things tend to get Jarmusch-ized ….
Genres are just frames — you can put whatever you want inside them. That’s what’s attractive about them. Something like Dead Man, it wasn’t a typical Western. It was tripped out and slightly psychedelic. Only Lovers Left Alive — it’s a love story, they just happen to be vampires. It was my way of telling a story about the total acceptance of another person, including their flaw. Loving someone for who they are, and having that last for an eternity. [Pause] Literally! Because they’re vampires. But I’m not hierarchical when it comes to movies. I like all kinds of films.
Including zombie movies?
[Pause] I have to admit that zombies are not a really big attraction. I’m not a big TV guy, so I’ve never seen The Walking Dead. And I’m not particularly interested in zombie movies.
I mean, that said, I’ve always loved the old movies that used them thematically: White Zombie, I Walked With a Zombie. This was when they were Haitian voodoo receptacles that would do your bidding. You could control them. That’s a kind of through-line for those early films.
But to me, the great postmodern zombie director is George A. Romero. He’s the guy. And there are a lot of references for the Romero nerds in my movie. [Laughs] What he’s done is incredible.
What would you say he’s done?
He turns the whole concept into something completely different. You can’t control the zombies. They are out of control. Generally, monsters — vampires, Frankenstein, Godzilla, whatever — they are outside the social structure. They are a danger to it, they are threatening it. With Romero, man, the zombies come from the social structure. They’re something that’s failed in the system. They’re the result of the social structure falling apart. They’re eating it from within.
That’s a pretty good way of boiling the whole zombie apocalypse thing down to its core, actually.
Right? So I love Romero, I love Night of the Living Dead, I love his work — I love how he understood their use as metaphors. I mean, I think Night of the Living Dead is even more socially conscious now then he realized. I think it’s masterful, even its ugliness and shoddiness. He’s a big inspiration to me.
You riff on the whole consumerist aspect of Romero’s movies, even having the zombies obsess over stuff they once loved: “Coffee,” “Wi-fi” …
[In zombie voice] “Chardonaaaaaayyyyy!” [Laughs] Yeah, we borrowed that from Dawn of the Dead. I love how he did that: They are inhabiting familiar places, they still crave things they craved when they were alive, but they’re soulless. They’re empty of everything except that single-cell desire for these things they used to have. It resonates with me.
Even in our film, where they’re wearing the same clothes they used to wear, that identity is gone. It’s just vestigial. [Pause] Vestigial is a good word for how Romero uses them as well.
So it sounds like you do like zombie movies, kind of?
I think I just don’t like zombies, period. That’s the ironic thing, I guess — I’m not a zombie fan. I’m more of a vampire guy. They are complicated, they are sexual, they’re smart. They have a lot of difficult things they need to do to survive. They’re shape-shifters — now they are a bat, now they are wolf! They’re fucking cool. What’s cool about a zombie? They’re lifeless forms. They’re soulless humanoids. They’re an excuse.
How does one direct Iggy Pop to play a member of the hungry walking dead?
Oh, Iggy’s a great zombie, man. I’ve worked with Iggy on a number of things now … he’s very open. He likes direction. He wants to know, “Ok, what’s the deal, what do you need from me?” The only problem is that he almost got ill eating the prosthetic guts. They had vegan stuff, they had plastic stuff, they had all these different things for him to eat. But he could only do so many takes for so long. After a while, it was, “Man, I’m getting really grossed out here. I don’t wanna vomit, Jim!” “It’s ok, I just need one more shot of you holding the intestine and then I think we got it, Ig ….”
It’s not a very gory zombie movie other than the scene you just described — you have them turn to dust upon whenever they get disposed of. Did that idea come to you pretty early on?
I had this idea from the beginning, yeah. I didn’t want a splatter movie. I didn’t want extensive blood. But obviously, there’s a lot of decapitation in this movie, so: Supposedly we’re what, over 60% water in our body, and our hearts and brains? I had this image of me just walking around like a fucking water balloon or half-sausage. So I thought, I just want them to turn to dust. They’re so dry already, so you know … dust to dust. I liked the idea of them being fluidless. I don’t know if any zombie movies have done that. Have they? I haven’t seen many of them. But it’s always good to add your own thing.
Well, you can definitely say it’s your movie in terms of the cast alone …
Yeah, I like working with the people I like. I’d written the part of three cops for Bill [Murray], Adam [Driver] and Chloe [Sevigny]. I wrote the villain part for Steve Buscemi, because he’s so sweet and generous and non-racist that I thought, I’m gonna make him a really nasty racist that wears a MAGA hat. Because he will do it.
“And costarring Tom Waits as a hermit prophet and Tilda Swinton as a mortician with a kantana …”
[Laughs] Look, any excuse to hang out with Tom is great. He and I talk a lot on the phone, but I don’t see him much because he’s on the West Coast. I liked when he lived in New York in the ’80s, briefly — I got to see a lot more of him then. Once, he went on the Letterman show and Dave asked him, “So, you’re from California but you’ve lived in New York for a while now? How would you describe the city?” And he goes [breaks into Tom Waits voice] “Well, Dave, it’s like you’re on a ship but the water’s on fire.”
I’d told Tilda about the sort of vague idea that I had for this a few years ago, and asked her: Is there any type of character you’d want to play in this weird little town? And she immediately said, “Oh, I’d love to be an undertaker!” Ok, Swinton, you got it!
Did she request a samurai sword as well?
No, that came from my love of martial arts, and martial-arts movies. And from when I quit smoking a few years back.
Let’s focus on that last part if we could for a second.
So there’s this Japanese film I love … it’s from the Sixties and it’s called Sword of Doom …
That’s the Tatsuya Nakadai film that’s like the Bad Lieutenant of samurai movies, right?
Yeah, his character is this psychopathic samurai who’s gone completely rogue and is just murdering people because he fucking feels like it. Because hey, they’re standing in his path, so fuck all of you! [Makes sword-slicing gestures and sounds] By the end of it, he’s fighting all of these guys, and they’re chopping off his limbs, and he’s still going because he’s just fueled by sheer hatred. It’s a really fucking angry, nihilistic movie! And when I was trying to quit smoking, I was filled with all this rage — I’d smoked for 35 years at that point, I knew it was going to be rough quitting! So what I did was, I holed up in my loft alone for 10 days and I watched Sword of Doom two to three times a day.
I’d feel this rage coming on from quitting, I’d throw the DVD on and just watch the movie from start to finish. I’d feel my anger rising and then I’d see this guy, with his fucked-up, twisted self doing all this horrible shit, and it just cleansed me, man. It helped me immensely. That’s my procedure. If you at home are quitting smoking, I highly recommend it. [Laughs]
So yeah, that’s why Tilda has a samurai sword.
I was not expecting this to be your answer.
I keep threatening to remake it with Adam Driver as a sociopathic killer named “Peterson.” That was our joke on Paterson. Only he’d have a .357 Magnum instead of sword. But otherwise, the same movie. This time, I just let him have the Peterson name.
[Here there by spoilers from this point on.]
So regarding Adam’s character — he seems to be in on the fact that he’s starring in a zombie movie.
Yeah, him and a few other characters. Bill too, at one point. Yeah.
I have my thoughts about why you may have done this, but: Why did you add the meta aspects of having your characters acknowledge that they’re in a movie?
[Pause] I never analyze where things are coming from or why when I’m writing … it’s more like if something is funny or interesting to me, I throw it in there. And like the dust thing, it came to me very early on, this idea of Adam’s character knowing it’s a film the whole time in a way and revealing it gradually. And then revealing that Bill kinda knew, but didn’t know all the details. Adam had to know he was playing a guy who’s playing a guy in a film … not “Adam,” y’know, but a guy in a film. And Bill’s reactions to all this is just beautiful. He knew exactly how to handle it.
You do the same thing with Sturgill Simpson’s theme song, “The Dead Don’t Die” — you hear it everywhere in the movie and everyone seems to love it —
Except Buscemi’s character, who’s a racist MAGA-hat-wearing bastard.
— and everyone seems to know it’s the theme of the movie.
As soon as I started writing the script, I thought: Who should do the theme song? I gotta get Sturgill Simpson to write me one. It’s in the original script — “song by Sturgill Simpson plays” — but when I was giving it to potential investors, I was advised to put “TBD” in there. My producer kept saying, “We gotta talk to him first, don’t tell them he’s going to do it yet!” But we got him. Such a great song, too. It feels like it’s from 1961 or something. I figured if these characters were going to face a horde of zombies, they should at least be able to enjoy the song too.
Now I’m curious, what were your thoughts about this?
Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but the fact that these folks seem to be stuck in a hellish environment — they know it yet they can’t get out it, they have to see it through to the bitterest end — strikes me as a pretty apt metaphor for how a lot of folks feel right now, wouldn’t you say?
Interesting. [Longer than usual pause] I mean, yeah, they are trapped in it — in the same way we’re trapped in this world that has a broken operating system. It’s fucking broken, and we’re in total denial of it. Look, we just celebrated Earth Day, and no one was talking about — it was all Trump and Mueller, which, in my opinion, is total bullshit. It’s been a distraction, intentionally. I get angry that people I know and love are obsessed with the Trump Show. We’re in the sixth mass extinction now, who gives a fuck about the Russians?
But I mean, there’s hope in our film.
Well, the teenagers in the correctional facility. We don’t know what happens to them — one of them says “I know a safe place we can hide” and that’s it. But we don’t see them killed or zombified either. I have a lot of hope for the world because of youth movements today, like the teenagers out of Parkland, or the Sunrise Movement, or even the Extinction Rebellion folks in the U.K. It’s just the kids who didn’t “fit” into this fucked-up society. They’re the only ones left for me.
Most filmmakers would have ended on them. You end on the only character who save everybody taking off for greener pastures, a horde of zombies chowing down on people and your narrator going “What a fucked up world this is.” It doesn’t exactly suggest hope.
I didn’t want to come back to those kids at the end; that just seemed too obvious. I wanted — and I mean this in the most ridiculous way possible — to have the pseudo-Michael Bay action scene be at the end. I mean, when am I ever going to get to make a movie where two guys with guns get out of a car, and go, [in serious voice] “Let’s do it.”
It’s a really angry comedy. Not Sword of Doom-level angry but — it’s pretty bleak and outraged in its own way.
I guess it is an angry movie. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but I guess it is. I’m just sick of zombies, man. Like, the real zombies that re just walking around us, not paying attention to anything, letting the end of the world happen. There’s a throwaway line in Only Lovers Left Alive where the couple talks about humans being zombies — because they’re not conscious of what’s around them. And look how unconscious so much of the world is right now, for the most part, of its impending end. It’s sad and it’s maddening. And I’m really fucking sick of it.
But am I in Western Pennsylvania building walls against the rising sea? No. I’m making a fucking zombie movie. That’s what I know how to do in terms of expressing my feelings about what’s going on. I’m not exactly activated. But I am angry about it. And maybe that came through the film in a way I didn’t even realize.