- Focus Features
There was no reason to think Jim Jarmusch couldn't make a zombie movie. Over the course of his 35-year career, the resolutely indie filmmaker has filled his oeuvre with lower-than-low-key character studies—filled with droll humor, but never exactly full of whiz-bang pacing. Yet he's also someone who has managed to apply his distinctive sensibility to weirdly effective stories about samurai assassins (Ghost Dog) and centuries-old vampires (Only Lovers Left Alive). So, considering the way zombie tales and comedy have been combined in everything from Shaun of the Dead to Zombieland, why couldn't Jarmusch give us a story that put the "dead" in both "undead" and "deadpan?"
The Dead Don't Die, however, feels like a weird miscalculation. While you were never going to get something bursting with visceral intensity out of Jarmusch, he could have found a way to make his philosophical leanings part of a world seemingly on the brink of apocalypse. Instead, he opts to treat everything that's going on as a great big self-aware goof, one that's full of bizarre touches while never finding anything resembling a center.
He does set his tale in the kind of place that feels built to be the backdrop for horror: Centerville, a sleepy little town with one diner, one motel and a police force of three—Chief Robertson (Bill Murray), Ronnie (Adam Driver) and Mindy (Chloë Sevigny)—accustomed to small-time concerns. So they're understandably thrown when a savage attack leaves two people dead at that lone diner, and when it soon becomes evident that the violence is being caused by dead bodies rising to make meals out of the living.
Even considering the fact that this is a movie by Jarmusch—for whom casting can be an exercise in calculated eccentricity—The Dead Don't Die is loaded with off-beat performances. Or, to put it another way, when Caleb Landry Jones as a horror-movie-obsessed convenience store owner isn't the strangest thing in a movie, there's gonna be a lot to unpack. Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive co-star Tilda Swinton doesn't just play a mortician, and she doesn't just play a mortician with a Scottish accent; she plays a mortician with a Scottish accent who is deadly with a katana, and might not be entirely of this world. Throw in Steve Buscemi as a curmudgeonly farmer in a "Make America White Again" red baseball cap and Tom Waits as a hermit living in the nearby woods, and you're going to have plenty of stuff that makes this movie worth watching.
The harder part is figuring out what Jarmusch wants us to do with all that stuff aside from enjoy bits and pieces. The Dead Don't Die repeatedly suggests that its zombie uprising is the result of the moon being pulled from its orbit by "polar fracking"—a notion that might have had some kind of environmental subtext, if it weren't repeated so often that it ultimately felt like Jarmusch was mocking the whole idea of caring about what caused this event. He'll throw in a bunch of teenagers—most notably Selena Gomez—who just happen to be traveling through town, but their existence seems to serve no actual story function.
Most frustratingly, though, is the extent to which Jarmusch appears determined to remind us that we're watching a movie. Driver's Ronnie appears to be operating on a plane of extra-textual knowledge, which becomes overt when he and Murray engage in a dialogue about which pages of the script each one got a chance to read. There's a recurring gag about the movie's twangy theme song, and a pointed acknowledgement that Star Wars movie alum Driver has a Star Wars-themed keyring. It's not that there was any reason to believe that Jim Jarmusch would attempt to make a genuinely scary or unsettling zombie movie, but he seems to be spending all his time chuckling at the idea that a zombie movie could be anything but a joke.
The result is a weird mix of superficial silliness and occasional attempts—particularly the terrified response by Sevigny's Mindy to all the horror around her—to have people react to zombies in something resembling a real-world way. The walking dead don't have to be terrifying, but it's a lot to expect a movie to be carried by what amounts to a sustained 105-minute smirk.