By Madalyn Watson | Baylor University
Although films, such as “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Fight Club,” successfully break the fourth wall and leave audiences laughing with delight, Jim Jarmusch’s zombie comedy “The Dead Don’t Die” has audiences wanting to rebuild that wall as quickly as possible.
Theorized initially for plays and other live performances, the fourth wall is an invisible, imagined barrier that separates actors from the audience. It is assumed that even though the audience can see through this wall, the actors or the characters in the play cannot.
The concept is pretty much the same in film. When a character breaks the fourth wall in a movie or a television series, they typically address the audience, express their inner thoughts or acknowledge the fact that the world of the film is fictional.
“The Dead Don’t Die” takes this ultra-meta concept and floods the small town of Centerville with it, as well as hordes of the undead. The film follows an ensemble cast of quirky characters during the beginning of the zombie apocalypse. However, local cops — Chief Cliff Robertson, played by comedy legend Bill Murray, and vigorously pessimistic officer Ronnie Peterson, played by Adam Driver — guide the film’s low-energy plot.
Other characters struggling to fend off zombified corpses include their frightened coworker, officer Mindy Morrison (Chloe Sevigny); the newly arrived undertaker with a talent for wielding a katana, Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton); local hermit, Bob (Tom Waits); the farmer hated by everyone else in town, Frank Miller (Steve Buscemi); and hipsters from the big city just driving through town (Selena Gomez and Austin Butler).
The film addresses real environmental, political and social concerns through the characters’ interactions, as well as the overall story and concept behind the reanimation of the dead.
The origin story of the zombies in “The Dead Don’t Die” ties in environmental concerns. Although it is never completely demystified over the course of the film, the news on television in several scenes hints that “polar fracking” knocked the world off its axis.
This explanation, of course, ties to real fears in the United States and across the globe that the human race’s treatment of the environment will cause the end of the world — or, at least, the end of the human world.
Furthermore, the plot’s undertones keep the movie politically relevant. For example, Steve Buscemi’s character, Frank Miller, wears a red hat sporting the phrase “Keep America White Again” that resembles the MAGA hat. He also unthinkingly insults the African American sitting beside him, Hank Thompson (Danny Glover), in an early scene of the film. Once the apocalypse begins, the first reanimated corpse Miller encounters is an African American man.
Additionally, “The Dead Don’t Die” provides a simpler social commentary through a deviation from typical zombie lore. All the zombies have wants and motivations that originate from their lives, unlike in recent classics, like “Zombieland” and the AMC television series, “The Walking Dead.” In several scenes, the mindless, slow shuffling dead groan words such as “Wi-Fi,” “Bluetooth” and “Xanax.”
Child zombies roam a convenience store, moaning for candy, and others haunt tennis courts and baseball fields, stumbling to play their once-loved sport. Two particularly tired zombies (Iggy Pop and Sara Driver) manage to utter the word “coffee” as they messily pour the hot drink all over their faces, while the dead body of the town drunk, Mallory O’Brien, squawks for chardonnay.
Even in death, humans are focused on objects, nodding to Jarmusch’s pessimistic view on a society based on capitalism and obsessed with consumerism. The only character not driven in this way like the undead is Hermit Bob.
As an outsider from society, with his only possession being a beat up copy of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” Hermit Bob is safe from the apocalypse and able to reflect on the mistakes of his fellow citizens of Centerville who became consumers of human flesh.
One of the key ways the film tears down the fourth wall — and also the cherry on top of this annoyingly meta sundae that I would rather let melt than dig into — is how officers Robertson and Peterson know they are in a movie.
For example, the film’s theme, as well as its namesake, “The Dead Don’t Die” by Sturgill Simpson (who also is featured in the film as the guitar zombie) played during the beginning credits and then again on the radio in the cop car. Robertson comments that he’s heard the song before, which would have been funny alone, until Peterson says, “It’s the theme song.”
Once all hope is lost, the film takes a turn for the worse. With a cheesy plot twist from out of nowhere and the remaining actors breaking character to discuss who read what part of the film’s script, all of the potential care the audience had for the characters and the outcome of the film is wrecked.
From the beginning, the characters are flat and do not induce much empathy. By the end, audiences are just as worn down by the we-know-we-are-in-a-film bit as the remaining survivors are by the relentless zombies.
Although revolutionary when Matthew Broderick turned to the camera and taught audiences the best ways to convince their parents that they are too sick for school, the trend of breaking the fourth wall is dead, or at least dying.
And even though modern day fourth wall-breaking successes “Deadpool” and “Deadpool 2” are killing it in the box office and with critics, wisecracking Ryan Reynolds pounds us over the head with his super-meta habit of jumping between universes and through space and time.
Screenwriters and directors need to stop relying so heavily on the broken-fourth-wall technique for comedy and social commentary. “The Dead Don’t Die,” though decently funny for the first 45 minutes, only left audiences wanting the $12 back that they spent on a movie ticket.