WARNING: Spoilers for The Dead Don’t Die
The ending of The Dead Don’t Die suggests that mass consumerism inspires toxic behavior. Directed by iconic indie director Jim Jarmusch, the comedy touches upon timely social issues by exploring small-town drama during a zombie apocalypse, as police officers Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) investigate the murder of two people at a Centerville diner. Ultimately, they’re consumed by concepts that they can’t fully understand, while a societal outcast (Tom Waits as Hermit Bob) survives the entire ordeal. With The Dead Don’t Die, Jarmusch points out that having strong opinions doesn't matter much if one remains naive and passive when the stakes are high.
From beginning to end, there’s a meta quality to The Dead Don’t Die. Characters openly acknowledge that they’re in a film, and Sturgill Simpson's country song “The Dead Don’t Die” becomes a recurring musical motif. Waits' Hermit Bob feels like a distant relative of the prospector he portrays in the Coen brothers’ 2018 Netflix film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and it’s no accident that both characters emerge as survivors. In The Dead Don’t Die, Hermit Bob may seem like an irrelevant outcast, but he’s prepared and prioritizes practical living over petty complaints. Similarly, Tilda Swinton's enigmatic Zelda Winston, a mortician, understands basic truths about life and death, and she’s also a survivor. In contrast to Hermit Bob and everybody else, though, Zelda sees the larger picture and escapes hell on earth with the assistance of extraterrestrial beings.
The Dead Don’t Die overtly foreshadows the impending apocalypse. From act to act, Driver’s Ronnie Peterson emphatically states that “it’s all going to end badly.” Murray’s Robertson tries to figure out why the end is coming, even though the writing is figuratively on the wall. The initial diner murders are committed by two zombies (Iggy Pop, Sara Driver) - undead characters who are less interested in flesh and more interested in coffee. Jarmusch casts Selena Gomez (a real life pop star) as a hipster-type figure who is ultimately killed by zombies AND beheaded by Officer Ronnie Peterson. “Kill the head,” the characters often say in The Dead Don’t Die. By cutting off Gomez’s head and showing it to the audience, Jarmusch seems to imply that celebrity culture won't mean a damn thing when the world is coming to an end - or perhaps the lesson is that celebrity adoration contributes to a warped sense of reality.
What Caused The Zombie Uprising In The Dead Don’t Die
In Centerville, the zombies emerge because of "polar fracking" and the subsequent shift of the earth’s axis. Jarmusch doesn’t explore the specifics, perhaps to convey that humans are ignorant of the collective events that led to said polar fracking and the axis shift. At one point, Driver’s character hammers home this concept by reminding acquaintances (and the audience) that there are two causes, and only two causes, for the mess they’re in. On the surface, the zombie uprising can be explained, but the real cause is the characters’ fundamental lack of knowledge about the world they’re living in.
So, which character has the most knowledge in The Dead Don’t Die? Gas station owner Bobby Wiggins’ doesn’t exude social charm, but his “impressive” understanding of cinema is recognized by Gomez’s Zoe, shortly before her group of hipsters leave him in the dust and head to their inevitable deaths. But despite Bobby’s cinematic education - his understanding of contrived worlds - he’s ultimately killed by zombies as well.
Most of The Dead Don’t Die’s characters are egocentric and naive, which is why they don’t survive. They focus primarily on self-serving interests, all the while remaining naive about truths in plain sight. When Officer Peterson initially views the diner murder victims, his reaction is telling: “Gross!” He reacts to the crime scene like it’s a movie set - which makes sense given that he seems to understand he’s living within a movie.
The Survivors In The Dead Don’t Die
Two Centerville residents survive the zombie uprising: Zelda and Hermit Bob. Waits' character survives because that’s all he knows. In the brave new world, he won’t need an official title or lots of money. Instead, Hermit Bob will stick to the essentials, a concept that he’s more than familiar with. His final commentary could be interpreted in different ways. Hermit Bob scowls about “lost souls” and people that are infatuated with “new stuff” in this "f**ked up world.” It’s almost like listening to a father figure saying “I told you so!" But Hermit Bob’s narration should be taken with a grain of salt - meaning, audiences shouldn’t take themselves too seriously, just like they shouldn’t take the film itself too seriously.
Swinton’s Zelda is Jarmusch’s wildcard character in The Dead Don’t Die. She keeps to herself, focuses on work, and pursues artistic hobbies. She’s weird, yes, but she’s also the most efficient when killing zombies. In another film, Zelda might be a villain character; someone who is familiar with the dead and rebels against the living. But in Jarmusch’s film, this highly competent character understands that humans aren’t the enemy; they’re merely misguided and miseducated. As a result, the zombie apocalypse seems like a logical next step; a punishment for being stupid and naive. Meanwhile, Zelda is prepared to transcend above everything awful - literally, thanks to some alien intervention.
Who Is Tilda Swinton's Zelda Winston In The Dead Don’t Die's Ending?
Zelda appears to be some type of alien mole, as evidenced by a hacking sequence and her free ticket to space. Multiple viewings may reveal alternate motivations, but it’s clear that she arranged for an escape and doesn’t seem phased by zombies whatsoever. So, the question remains: did Zelda somehow instigate the zombie uprising?
Maybe Zelda isn’t an alien. Perhaps she’s just a highly intelligent character who’s meant to survive while the dumb characters die. Just as Officer Peterson knows that he’s in a movie and that things will indeed end badly, Zelda may realize that she’ll survive because she (Swinton) read the script and knows she’s the smart character. Therein lies the beauty of The Dead Don’t Die, as Jarmusch’s unique storytelling approach allows for different interpretations. It works both literally and figuratively - Zelda could be an extraterrestrial being, or a highly intelligent human. Or maybe she’s just Tilda Swinton acting in a self-aware, wink-of-the-eye zombie movie. (after all, Zelda Winston does sound a lot like Tilda Swinton).