While The Dead Don't Die -- a zombie comedy featuring stars from Star Wars, Marvel, and Ghostbusters -- got audiences excited when it was first announced, the film had to work around star Adam Driver's Star Wars schedule, meaning that the filmmakers spent some time thinking about the mega-blockbuster franchise. They even took a little time out onscreen for Tilda Swinton (Doctor Strange) to make a wink-and-a-nod reference to Star Wars while making eye contact with Adam Driver (Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker). And while it is almost impossible to miss the Easter egg, what is a little easier to forget is just how much it says about the world of The Dead Don't Die when you look back on it with hindsight.
There will be some spoilers for The Dead Don't Die coming up -- so if you haven't seen the movie yet (which I highly recommend), check it out before you finish this...or at least just know that you're going to have a couple of plot points spoiled. That said...about halfway through the film, Cliff (Murray), Ronnie (Driver), and Mindy (Chloe Sevigny) -- the three police officers in Centerville, the small town where the film is set -- are trying to develop a plan to tacke on the zombie hordes. Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton) asks Ronnie if she can have the keys to his car for reasons she does not disclose -- but because of the severity of the circumstances around them, he does not ask, and hands her the keys after only a slight hesitation.
When Ronnie hands over the keys, the shot lingers on his keychain: a small, pewter replica of an Imperial Star Destroyer from Star Wars. Zelda points it out for anybody in the audience who might have missed it, then calls Star Wars “a wonderful fiction.” Driver seems a little puzzled by the exchange, but the story quickly moves on. Given how incredibly visible Driver's role as Kylo Ren has made him in Hollywood, the joke could be easily dismissed as a quick one-off gag, but in fact, if you look at the scene in hindsight, there are a few things that you can take away from it.
First of all, Adam Driver (and Bill Murray, and theoretically Tilda Swinton, as well as director Jim Jarmusch) exist in some form in the world of the movie. There are a few points where Driver and Murray make comments that seem like non-sequiturs at the time (Driver telling Murray that he recognizes a song on the radio because "it's the theme," and Murray later asking Driver something along the lines of "Oh, are we improvising now?") -- but that pay off when, in the final act of the movie, the audience learns that the fictional nature of the movie is being acknowledged in-story. When Cliff finally tires of hearing Ronnie periodically repeat his warning that "this is going to end badly," and asks why he is so sure of it, Ronnie admits that he knows it because he read the script. This leads to a give-and-take between the two leads in which Cliff/Murray says that he only got his own sides in spite of everything he has done for "Jim," the director. The movie does not fully descend into "this is a movie" territory; the pair still have to go out and fight zombies. But the suggestion that Cliff and Ronnie somehow coexist with Murray and Driver is unsettlingly meta and a fun surprise.
This plays into the fact that while some of the names -- Cliff Robertson, Ronnie Peterson, Hank Thompson -- in the movie are those of dead celebrities in the real world, both Swinton and Rosie Perez (who plays a TV reporter named Posey Juarez) play characters whose names sound just like a twisted up version of their own name. Zelda Winston is in itself a kind of meta name for the character given who plays her.
Ronnie, then, at a minimum certainly knows that Adam Driver plays Kylo Ren. That makes his hesitant reaction to Zelda's bright "Star Wars!" comment feel a bit like he (Driver) may have been unsure of what to say so as not to break the film's reality. This makes even more sense when another twist comes later on -- that Swinton's character is in fact an alien, who sees the zombie apocalypse coming and hails a ride on a UFO to get off-world. Ronnie, who by that point had already admitted to Cliff that he had read the film's script, says that the UFO was not in any draft of the script that he had read. Besides being a likely nod to zombie/alien partnerships in things like Plan 9 From Outer Space, there were actually a few little clues dropped along the way to make that twist play better if you pay attention. At one point, Zelda asks Mindy whether she and and Ronnie are dating, and when Mindy asks why she wants to know, Zelda replies that she is "accumulating local knowledge." As a peculiar foreigner (how she was described throughout the film by other Centerville natives), this line feels fairly natural -- but with hindsight after the UFO reveal it is obviously a clue. Similarly, calling Star Wars a "wonderful fiction" is nicely eccentric at the time it's said, but later feels ore like a hint that she is an alien.
All of this is not just a testament to how well thought-out the screenplay is, but an acknowledgment that fans will overthink the Star Wars reference, giving them a chance to stumble upon a few different meanings to it if they are so inclined.
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