Jim Jarmusch is not your average Hollywood director.
He’s an auteur, a singular filmmaking stylist whose work is often curiously subdued, full of quiet conversation and often haunted by the ghosts of black-and-white art-school projects and bonkers ‘80s fringe strangeness like Repo Man or Suburbia. So when he delves into such well-trod and fan-familiar territory as the vampire film (2013’s unimpeachable Only Lovers Left Alive) or the zombie comedy, viewers should expect something a little different than what they’re used to.
And The Dead Don’t Die ain’t no Shaun of The Dead or Zombieland. It’s not a love letter to George Romero, or a self-aware wink at horror fans, or a blitzkrieg Technicolor splatterfest.
It is, however, a marvelous mixture of vision, humor and decapitation in its own right, a movie that stands apart from the genre it nominally represents while also incorporating some of that genre’s most beloved tropes.
Bill Murray, Adam Driver and Chloe Sevigny are the cops of Centerville, the archetypical quiet little town that goes to shit when the hungry undead begin rising from their graves — this time because of the earth being thrown off its axis as a result of the silly-yet-serious practice of “polar fracking.” Murray’s Cliff and Driver’s Ronnie first notice things are a little off while investigating a call about a local hermit stealing chickens, as the sun doesn’t go down when it should; from there, the film shifts to introducing its major characters, from Steve Buscemi’s angry racist farmer and Danny Glover’s kindly hardware store owner to the weirdo gas station/comic store proprietor, the hipster kids cruising into town from the big city, and others.
It takes a little while to get going, and when it does — with an amazing cameo by Iggy Pop as a reanimated corpse with a caffeine jones — the movie refrains from covering the screen with blood. The zombie invasion isn’t the point here so much as the reactions of the townsfolk, who, by and large, are pretty subdued about the whole thing. As the body count rises (and some pretty famous names get theirs), Cliff, Ronnie and Sevigny’s Mindy are basically helpless to do much more than drive around town and see who’s alive and who’s not, eventually and temporarily aided by Centerville’s new, enigmatic coroner, played with her perfect usual otherworldliness by Tilda Swinton.
The movie reveals its refusal to submit to the usual narratives early on, during a conversation between Cliff and Ronnie about its theme song, a little ditty by currently hot country dude Sturgill Simpson that, like the flick’s zombies, simply refuses to die. And it gets weirder from there; a certain left-field scene involving Swinton and final, circuit-closing Cliff-and-Ronnie talk will probably turn off fans of more traditional filmmaking.
But in between the beheadings and trademark Jarmusch eccentricities, The Dead Don’t Die is quietly hilarious. Adam Driver is unstoppably funny as Ronnie, always offering his commentary on the goings-on, often to Cliff’s frustration. Caleb Landry Jones is likewise wonderful as the unsettling but ultimately sympathetic Bobby Wiggins from the gas station, and Selena Gomez acquits herself nobly as one of the hipster kids from the big city.
And, of course, Jarmusch staple Tom Waits is amazing as quasi-narrator/world’s conscience Hermit Bob.
No, this isn’t the regular zombie rampage or horror-gone-comedy, and there’s certainly a chance it will disappear into the canyon between mainstream movie fans and those who revere Jarmusch’s even more esoteric or non-narrative material. Which would suck, because on its own, The Dead Don’t Die is a worthy and rewarding watch, with more than its fair share of laughs along the way.