Only its filmmaker knows for sure, but let’s hope The Dead Don’t Die is not Jim Jarmusch’s attempt to reinvent himself as a more mainstream genre filmmaker.
This offbeat zombie thriller from the stalwart independent director features his usual doses of deadpan self-awareness and sociopolitical satire, combined with an incredibly deep and eclectic ensemble cast, yet only occasionally sparks to life.
The setting is an intentionally generic, almost idyllic small town where strange happenings forecast danger ahead. The quirky townsfolks include a police chief (Bill Murray) and his pessimistic deputy (Adam Driver), a Buddhist mortician (Tilda Swinton) with a fondness for swords, a casually racist farmer (Steve Buscemi) whose animals keep disappearing, a teenage traveler (Selena Gomez) taking shelter at the local motel with two friends, and a hermit (Tom Waits) who engages in acts of civil disobedience in the nearby woods.
Once graves start to pop open at the local cemetery, few are prepared for the ensuing zombie apocalypse, such a nerdy convenience-store clerk (Caleb Landry Jones), a regular customer (Danny Glover) at a roadside diner, or a trio of resourceful juvenile delinquents.
It’s difficult to inject much variety into zombie films by their nature. Unlike shapeshifting ghosts or other ubiquitous supernatural movie monsters, you can’t do a lot with zombies. They all generally tend to look the same, move the same, and follow the same rules of engagement.
As a result, The Dead Don’t Die winds up indulging in some of the same macabre genre staples Jarmusch (Only Lovers Left Alive) seeks to lampoon, despite some muddled eccentricities sprinkled throughout the final act.
The performers at least seem to have fun with the idiosyncratic material. For example, frequent Jarmusch collaborator RZA cameos as a “WuPS” delivery driver. Murray and Driver bicker over which parts the script they were sent in advance. Buscemi’s redneck wears a hat that reads: “Make America White Again.” And country crooner Sturgill Simpson gets plenty of free publicity for performing the title song.
The screenplay includes some big laughs and clever self-reflexive riffs that coalesce into a laconic meta commentary on the walking-dead nature of contemporary America — except that it’s never especially scary, funny, or provocative. When Driver’s character keeps repeating, “this isn’t going to end well,” it’s not meant to be taken so literally.