One could guess that a zombie film directed by Jim Jarmusch would be painfully hip. With a cast featuring Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Iggy Pop, and Tom Waits, “The Dead Don’t Die” doesn’t disappoint. Frustratingly, Jarmusch brings nothing new to this overworked sub-genre. (The press kit notes 55 zombie-themed movies or TV shows were released in 2014.) The film grasps for political subtext in a lazy, secondhand way. In the end, its zombie apocalypse is quite cozy.
The small town of Centerville, whose name is lifted from Frank Zappa’s “200 Motels,” is guarded by three cops: Cliff (Murray), Ronnie (Adam Driver) and Mindy (Chloë Sevigny). One fairly ordinary day, TVs start flickering and animals act strangely. TV anchor Posie Juarez (Rosie Perez) relays news about polar fracking doing permanent damage to the earth, which seems to lead to the dead rising from their graves. Soon, the cops, as well as eccentric swordswoman Zelda (Swinton), are fighting an infestation of zombies who can only be killed by destroying their heads. The film also takes in the stories of two other groups of three people, although it devotes less time to them: a trio in their 20s riding in a car and teens confined to a juvenile prison. Working with a large ensemble cast, Jarmusch returns to Cliff and Ronnie for the bulk of the film; the subplots about the more racially diverse younger characters feel tacked on.
“The Dead Don’t Die” makes a few stabs at smirky postmodernism. They don’t do the film much good. Wu-Tang Clan leader RZA — and composer of the score for Jarmusch’s “Ghost Dog” — has a cameo as Dean, a delivery driver for Wu-PS, whose trucks show the group’s logo. Country singer Sturgill Simpson’s “The Dead Don’t Die” is the only song the characters are able to hear through their radios; in fact, the CD single is available for sale at a gas station. Ronnie remarks, “It’s the theme song” early on, prefiguring the fact that he and Cliff are aware that they’re in a movie. Murray breaks character to call Jarmusch a dick because the director only showed him the script scenes in which he appeared. The film never gives us a reason to care about any of this, nor is it very funny.
The film’s tone is featherweight, which makes its aspiration toward political commentary a bit silly. Having Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi) wear a red hat that reads “Keep America White Again” isn’t exactly deep. (At this point, the grammatical redundancy is a more cutting dig at Trumpists than the racism.) It’s a bigger problem that “The Dead Don’t Die” is such a blatant homage to George A. Romero’s zombie films, especially “Dawn of the Dead.” It lifts a line about the undead being drawn to things they loved in life. When Romero had his zombies head to a shopping mall in 1978, it said something fresh about consumerism, especially combined with a level of over-the-top gore presented in a manner that was both disturbing and funny.
“The Dead Don’t Die” just repeats Romero’s critique of the emptiness of consumer culture. That wouldn’t matter if it were consistently witty, but it doesn’t keep up the uncanny weirdness of Sara Driver and Iggy Pop’s zombies moaning “coffee” and pouring the drink down their throats — and all over themselves. The zombies keep calling out the name of whatever they’re attracted to: one disembowels a human while saying “free cable.” There’s lots of violence in “The Dead Don’t Die,” but relatively little gore due to the fact that the zombies’ heads disappear into a puff of FX-generated black dust. The only scene that aims for gravity (and achieves it) is a massacre near the end.
Ironically, Jarmusch’s direction of actors, especially Driver and Murray, continues his trademark deadpan style. In “Stranger Than Paradise,” he depicted a post-punk blank generation as well as anyone. While his visual style has moved on from his early minimalism, his fondness for symmetrical framing of actors persists. But Driver and Murray’s affectless performances convey a pessimistic resignation. (Swinton acts much livelier.) It’s the end of the world as they know it and they’ll trudge on. They can’t go on, but they must. If the film evokes anything real about American life, it doesn’t lie in overt social commentary but in its sense that the country’s current mood is pained, weary exhaustion. Whatever Jarmusch’s intentions, this film is about struggling with depression.
THE DEAD DON’T DIE | Directed by Jim Jarmusch | Focus Features | Opens Jun. 14 | Angelika Film Center, 18 W. Houston at Mercer St.; angelikafilmcenter.com/nyc | Nitehawk Cinema Williamsburg, 136 Metropolitan Ave. at Berry St.; nitehawkcinema.com/williamsburg