Jim Jarmusch’s comic deadpan seems ideally suited to the zombie genre. So who better than this indie hipster, who’s been an avatar of cool from Stranger Than Paradise to Paterson, to take a stroll with the walking dead? Having tackled vampires in high style with 2013’s Only Lovers Left Alive, the undead are a logical next step. And yet The Dead Don’t Die, which opened the Cannes Film Festival with a whimper last month, feels like a pale facsimile of Jarmusch. There are a few lovely, random laughs and a resonant political subtext, but the tone is off.
What happened? It’s not the actors, who are close to perfection. Bill Murray, Adam Driver and Chloë Sevigny play three cops determined to protect their generic small-town of Centerville, USA (pop, 738) from the zombie herd. A road sign calls Centerville “A real nice place.” And it is. The biggest whoop is when Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) steals a chicken from Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi), who wears a hat emblazoned with legend, Make America White Again. The dig at Trump-era racism is no accident, neither are the references to “polar fracking” and climate change to which Centerville and the world at large remain disturbingly indifferent. Hermit Bob laments a society that “sold its soul for a Gameboy.”
Chief cop Cliff Robertson (a pricelessly unfazed Murray) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (Driver making stoner art out of dazed and confused ) banter amiably in their squad car and check in with their partner, Officer Mindy Morrison (Sevigny), back at Centerville HQ. Their wake-up call happens when the globe takes a spin on its axis, night never falls and in a forever daylight — hauntingly captured by DP Frederick Elmes — the dead rise from the cemetery demanding what they wanted most in life: coffee, WiFi and “especially chardonnay.” Two zombies, played by Sara Driver (Jarmusch’s life partner) and Iggy Pop (the subject of his 2016 doc Gimme Danger), make such a bloody mess of the local diner that even Cliff and Ronnie look ready to puke.
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The carnage is good for business for the town’s undertaker, Zelda Winston, a newly transplanted Scot played by the unclassifiably great Tilda Swinton in the film’s most outrageously entertaining performance as a samurai from outer space. Also new in town are teens played by Selena Gomez (terrific), Austin Butler and Luka Sabatt, who drive a 1968 Pontiac, a reference to the year George Romero released his zombie classic, The Night of the Living Dead, which Jarmusch rightly salutes. “Kill them in the head,” says Ronnie, who knows zombie movies almost as well as comic-book store clerk Bobby Wiggins (the excellent Caleb Landry Jones), “This is not going to end well,” says Ronnie, repeatedly, as the killings escalate. An irritated Cliff wonders how Ronnie knows that. “Jim showed me the script,” says Ronnie in an instance of Jarmusch breaking the fourth wall just for the silly hell of it.
The shambling, tossed-off quality of The Dead Don’t Die is its most appealing trait. But that’s all it has besides the performances. The plot is so loosey-gooesy it can barely stand on its own. Country singer Sturgill Simpson, who sings the film’s catchy title song, shows up as a zombie on guitar. No reason. Jarmusch is so laidback at inserting whatever amuses him into the mix that The Dead Don’t Die fails to build up any momentum. The movie just ends, as if Jarmusch ran out of money or a reason to go on. If there exists such a thing as an apocalyptic afterthought, The Dead Don’t Die is it.