Jim Jarmusch’s zombie comedy, which opened the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, features a starry cast including Adam Driver, Bill Murray, Selena Gomez, Chloe Sevigny and Tilda Swinton.
The dead don’t die, and neither does the zombie genre, with Jim Jarmusch’s slim but fun hipster take on the format’s familiar tropes. A small Eastern town becomes notably smaller as the undead rise to chew upon a flavorsome cast that’s methodically ripped apart, feasted upon and otherwise pretty thoroughly decimated by the time Sturgill Simpson’s nifty title tune plays out for the final time. The never-exhausted format’s enduring appeal should assure a decent early summer turnout, although the primacy of attitude over scares will likely prevent The Dead Don’t Die from drawing the fright-seeking mobs.
“Somethin’ weird’s goin’ on,” squad car cop Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) points out to his older partner Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) when it stays light way past the sun’s bedtime, his watch stops, power starts cutting out and other irregularities disrupt life’s slow heartbeat in Centerville, population 738. “This isn’t going to end well.”
The man has the intuition of a good cop, but little does he know what’s in store. Deadpan is the name of the game here and largely describes both the acting style and the reaction of many of the town’s inhabitants to the sudden influx of risen-again undead as they emerge from their slumber thanks to — what else? — climate change.
The first night’s threat is thwarted so that Jarmusch can introduce a raft of up-country down-home characters played by a neatly varied cast. The town’s third cop, Mindy Morrison (Chloe Sevigny), is a by-the-book type who can’t find the chapter on subduing zombies, and Danny Glover’s elderly Hank Thompson is a rare black resident who’s heard racist shtick from Steve Buscemi’s Farmer Miller a million times by now. Also living there is Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton), a consummately weird and self-assured Scottish woman who wields a samurai sword like she belongs in a Kurosawa film.
There are younger denizens as well, including the geeky owner of an all-purpose comics-plus-weapons shop (a very good Caleb Landry Jones), a trio of cool customers (Selena Gomez, Austin Butler and Luka Sabbat) who roll through town and some young women held in a detention center mainly to add to the number of potential victims for the zombies, whose number increases steadily with each passing night.
Watching over it all from a hidden distance in the forest is a misfit hermit (Tom Waits), who seems not to even attract attention from the zombies.
As ever with Jarmusch, The Dead Don’t Die is marked most significantly by its attitude, a too-cool-for-school sense of disengagement shot through with comic inflections that can range from the mordantly funny deadpan to, at times, the surprisingly direct. His characters are often none-too-bright, which applies for the most part to his bumpkins here, who largely have no clue about how to react in a crisis. Murray’s elder cop has either seen it all in his time or, more likely, has never had to deal with emergencies of any great significance. In all events, he doesn’t know how to cope with a tidal wave of undead, leaving everyone but the Zen samurai Zelda, who seems to live on a planet of her own, ill-equipped to deal with the ravenous nocturnal army from below ground. How and why she ended up in this land that time forgot is anyone’s guess, but the film is livelier, and weirder, for it.
Of course, plenty of zombies get their heads removed — the only way to stop them — but as their numbers increase nightly, the odds against the small-towners mount considerably. There are some news report references to similar calamities being visited upon other parts of the globe — this could actually be the end of civilization as we know it — but Centerville, like a leftover TV show town from the 1950s, is a world unto itself, utterly clueless as to how to deal with anything.
This folksy and friendly entertainment is violent and gory enough to warrant an R rating, but aside from guts being spilled and some feasting on innards, most of the action consists of dozens of zombies being dustily decapitated.
At times, the deadpan of Murray and Driver becomes, well, a bit deadening, and true wit is in short supply, even though the film remains amusing most of the way. Typically for Jarmusch, the songs, led by the title tune, and score are outstanding, enlivening nearly every scene. And the sheer diversity of the castmembers, along with their individual senses of humor, sustains one’s attention even when inspiration sometimes lags. It’s a minor, but most edible, bloody bonbon.
Production company: Kill the HerdDistributor: Focus FeaturesCast: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloe Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Selena Gomez, Austin Butler, Luka Sabbat, Rosie Perez, Eszter Balint, Iggy Pop, Sara Driver, RZA, Carol Kane, Larry Fessenden, Rosal Colon, Sturgill Simpson, Maya Delmont, Tallyah Whitaker, Jahi Winston, Tom WaitsDirector-screenwriter: Jim JarmuschProducers: Joshua Astrachan, Carter LoganDirector of photography: Frederick ElmesProduction designer: Alex DigerlandoCostume designer: Catherine GeorgeEditor: Alfonso GoncalvesMusic: SqurlCasting: Ellen LewisVenue: Cannes Film Festival (opening night, competing)
Rated R, 103 minutes