In some circles, the words Jim Jarmusch zombie comedy would be all the PR you’d need to sell a movie. It’s irresistible: the hipster auteur of Stranger Than Paradise, Coffee And Cigarettes, Ghost Dog, and Only Lovers Left Alive making a meal of the flesh-eating dead horror apocalypse genre. Especially when you learn the cast includes such longtime Jarmusch stock company stalwarts as Bill Murray, Steve Buscemi, Tilda Swinton, Iggy Pop, and Tom Waits. But while it looks so promising on paper, the onscreen result needs a little more meat on its bones.
It would be shameless punning to employ words like “stilted” and “catatonic” to describe a movie about reanimated dead people. Certainly, everybody involved seems to be having a swell time, from actors playing both the living and the dead (often getting to segue from one to the other), and Jarmusch himself, so tickled that he lingers over every shot; you can almost hear him chuckling off-camera. But the audience, not so much—we’re forced to endure long stretches of ennui between unsubtle moments that drive home the message, and name-that-zombie celebrity-spotting.
Centerville is a sleepy little burg that boasts a diner, a gas station/mini-mart, and a motel. There’s not much for sheriff Cliff (Murray) and his deputies Ronnie (Adam Driver) and Mindy (Chloe Sevigny) to do besides an occasional trip to the woods at the edge of town to scold Hermit Bob (Waits, in an enormous salt-and-pepper Rasta wig) for stealing a neighbor’s chicken.
But something weird is going on. It’s staying light too late. Watches stop. Radio contact fizzes out. Cell phones no longer work. Next morning, the town wakes up to a grisly crime scene. Cops and onlookers ask each other if it a wild animal, or perhaps several wild animals. It’s up to Ronnie to deliver the only explanation that appears to fit the evidence: “I’m thinking zombies.”
The deadpan (sorry) byplay between Murray and Driver in this interlude would be humorous, if Jarmusch weren’t guilty of overkill (sorry, again). Three different characters enter the crime scene, get an eyeful of the corpses (along with the viewer), and emerge with the exact same verbal response. Twice would be funny; by the third time, we’re wondering if they mistakenly slipped in a reel from Groundhog Day. Anyway, it’s all just prelude, because the next night—which begins way too early—every grave in the cemetery is shoved open as the dead take to the streets to chow down on the flesh of their living neighbors.
That’s it for plot, although Jarmusch comes up with some droll stuff long the way. It’s said that the undead flock to the things they loved in life (Iggy Pop is the one jonesing for coffee), so we hear various zombies moaning for Snickers, Xanax, Wi-Fi, and Chardonnay. (That last from Carol Kane, as the recently deceased town drunk.) Buscemi plays an angry racist in a red “Make America White Again” baseball cap. Swinton is a sword-wielding Scottish ninja. And nifty homages abound to Night Of the Living Dead, the granddaddy of the modern genre, from a trio of traveling teens in their “George Romero car” (a ’68 Pontiac) to a recreation of the iconic wall of two-by-fours hammered up to keep out the zombie menace.
The oft-repeated explanation is that “polar fracking” by stupid humans has knocked the Earth out of whack and opened the floodgates for the zombie apocalypse—one way for Mother Nature to get even. (Or, as Hermit Bob puts it so succinctly, “What a fucked-up world.”) Point taken. But a bit more honed outrage (or at least funnier satire) might have served better.
THE DEAD DON’T DIE
**1/2 (out of four)
With Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi and Danny Glover. Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. A Focus Features release. Rated R. 104 minutes.