Make no mistake: The Dead Don’t Die is a minimalist zombie movie for the Jim Jarmusch fans who’ve ever wondered what a Jim Jarmusch zombie movie might look like. As a horror movie, it lacks the gore and over-wrought despair necessary to satisfy the Walking Dead crowd; as a comedy, it’s far too dry for fans of Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead. Much like its gruesome antagonists, the indie writer-director’s low-key film seems content to shamble along.
That’s not to say it is without charm, though. Jarmusch has explicitly drawn inspiration from George Romero’s iconic The Night of the Living Dead and added his own spin to it. The movie takes place in the small town of Centerville (“A Real Nice Place”, pop. 738) on the day that “polar fracking” knocks the planet of its axis. The wildlife begins to act strange, the sun is setting on time, and phones, radios, and TVs aren’t working properly. The dead start rising from their graves and eating people, and things get weird.
Police chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and officers Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) and Mindy Morrison (Chloë Sevigny) try to navigate the goings on while dealing with the local populace of requisite oddballs, notably one-man Greek chorus Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), geeky gas-station owner Bobby Wiggins (Caleb Landry Jones), racist farmer Frank Miller (Steve Buscemi), hardware purveyor Hank Thompson (Danny Glover), a trio of hipster out-of-towners (Selena Gomez, Austin Butler, and Luka Sabbat), motel owner Danny (Larry Fessenden), and an eccentric sword-wielding Scottish mortician Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton, in the role she was born to play). Carol Kane, Iggy Pop, Rosie Perez, RZA, and Sara Driver make cameo appearances.
Like Romero’s classic, the Dead Don’t Die is a satire at its core, though it’s a bit late with its warnings about damaging the environment, and a bit unsubtle in its condemnation of consumerism. (Zombies obsessed with their cellphones — we get it.)
The plot has a laid-back, slacker vibe to it that will be refreshing for some, infuriating to most. Jarmusch is in no hurry to get to the spectacle (there isn’t any) or anywhere else for that matter. It’s an intriguing slow-burn carried by Murray at his droll best alongside an earnest Driver, whose soft-spoken character is literally aware of the fact that he’s in a zombie movie and is genuinely nonplussed about it. (The line “This is definitely going to end badly” has never had such a blasé delivery.)
Still, for all its unevenness, or perhaps because of it, there’s a weird balance to the insider comedy and downer drama. There’s a mellow dignity to it, as it takes a blunt, somber, sobering view of the looming apocalypse rather than checking off genre tropes every five minutes.