A languid, undercooked-feeling affair, writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s playful stab at the zombie movie returns the genre to the backwoods America of George Romero’s seminal ‘Night of the Living Dead’ and gives it a half-meta reworking. It sprinkles in an ensemble cast to die for, bursts of OTT flesh-chomping gore, nods to zombie classics (look out for the Pontiac ’68 from ‘Living Dead’) and a few big laughs, but its zeitgeisty concerns and self-conscious final-act twists don’t quite land. It’s a love letter to zombie movies typed in Comic Sans and it reminds you that Jarmusch’s best work has an invisible rigour, even at its loosest. Sadly, it’s missing here.
In the spirit of Romero, the undead apocalypse arrives in the Midwestern town of Centerville via interrupted radio signals, daylight that lasts too long, and most alarmingly of all for this rural spot, a missing chicken. Is the cranky hermit outside town to blame (Jarmusch lucky charm Tom Waits, 50 percent gravel-voiced omniscience, 50 percent beard) or is something more sinister afoot? Alarming news bulletins about fracking knocking the Earth off its axis point to a bigger story. But on the urging of Steve Buscemi’s obnoxious MAGA type, cops Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) investigate, with the latter oddly certain that it all points to an invasion of the undead. Sure enough, it arrives, presaged by a zombie Iggy Pop and a particularly chewy scene at the town’s diner.
The shufflers themselves are a blast. There are moments of ‘Thriller’ music video-like choreography, but mostly they shuffle enjoyably around town taking down the cast one by one, given a luminous Ready Brek glow by cinematographer Frederick Elmes’s nocturnal lighting. The twist is that it’s not flesh they crave most, but the obsessions of their ‘alive’ selves: coffee, music, candy, Xanax… you name it, they groan for it. One hilarious scene sees a group lurching around pining for wi-fi in the manner of, well, all of us. And you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a zombie Carol Kane demanding ‘Char-DONN-aaay!’ over and over again.
None of it quite coalesces, though. Jarmusch is a past master at drawing comedy from the space around his actors: the pregnant pauses that seem to last a beat too long; the scenes that settle in almost to the point of inertia, before suddenly delivering a killer pay-off or poignant moment. But too many scenes in ‘The Dead Don’t Die’ miss those magic moments, fading out without moving the story forward or gleaning a laugh. It’s a frustration with a cast this good. Even Murray, a zen master of this kind of baggily wordy comedy, struggles to mine gold. Driver fares better, mainly for reasons that become clear late in the film, while Chloë Sevigny is relegated to the scaredy-cat role as their fellow cop.
Despite the obsessional zombies, the satire in ‘The Dead Don’t Die’ doesn’t add up to a sharp-edged laceration of human compulsions or environmental destruction either. ‘Shaun of the Dead’ delivered the same jabs with more zest – and Romero, of course, with more political edge – although Jarmusch does have some fun with his heroes’ struggles with the rules of the genre. One blackly funny scene has them trying to figure out whether or not they need to decapitate Selena Gomez’s freshly-gnawed motel guest.
The undisputed highlight, though, is Tilda Swinton’s sword-wielding Scottish mortician. Channelling David Bowie in ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’, she brings glazed detachment, some lethal finishing moves and the odd cadence of someone who, sooner or later, will want to be taken to someone else’s leader. ‘She’s strange,’ notes Ronnie. ‘She’s Scottish,’ replies Cliff. She’s great, a gloriously off-beam presence in Jarmusch’s uneven, unusual addition to the canon. For all its inspired moments, it’s a movie content to coast on the charms of its terrific cast of comedic actors. Welcome to Night of the Living Deadpan.