Nobody has ever accused Jim Jarmusch of coming in hot, pushing too hard or even breaking a sweat, and more than 30 years into his career, the idiosyncratic director isn’t likely to start today.
If anything, his name has become an adjective, with the word “Jarmuschian” instantly calling to mind a cinematic mood board of sunglasses, cigarettes and studied nonchalance. And to that tonally homogenous filmography we can add “The Dead Don’t Die,” a typically deadpan ring around the zombie flick that’s appealing, if disappointingly one-note.
Of course, that note isn’t entirely unpleasant. Jarmusch’s wry understatement and cool remove survive the zombie apocalypse fully intact, and he still keeps the best Rolodex in town. He puts both to marked effect in “The Dead Don’t Die,” delivering a film full of appealing actors and winning moments that are either unwilling or unable to build on them and become anything greater than the sum of its parts (this can be a very Jarmuschian tendency as well).
But consider the various parts! Bill Murray and Adam Driver anchor the film as officers Cliff and Ronnie, two sheriffs in the three-cop town of Centerville (municipal motto: “A Real Nice Place”). Apart from the occasional chicken theft, there simply isn’t much crime in Anytown, USA – and that gives Cliff, Ronnie and fellow sheriff Mindy (Chloe Sevigny) ample time to reflect on the deeper questions in life, like ‘how late is too late for donuts and coffee?’
Beyond the local fuzz, we also spend time with the full coterie of local eccentrics. There’s crusty Hermit Bob (an ursine Tom Waits, looking like his “Buster Scruggs” character went back into the wild and spent another decade there), cranky Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi, wearing a familiar red baseball cap with the words “Make America White Again” printed in block white letters) and of course, enigmatic mortician Zelda (Tilda Swinton, with a thick Scottish brogue and a Samurai sword, playing, basically, Tilda Swinton).
That’s just the tip of the iceberg for a film with at least three additional subplots and a cast that swells to include Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Iggy Pop, Selena Gomez and Instagram mega-influencer Luka Sabbat, among several others. If few of them are given enough screentime to overstay their welcome, no one gets anything close to a character arc.
Instead, Jarmusch gives us a full hour to bemusedly observe his overstuffed cast before the zombie mayhem ensues, and we spend that hour cycling between punny cameos (RZA shows up as a delivery-man for WU-PS, while Rosie Perez plays a TV anchor named Posie Juarez), winking in-jokes to the actors’ careers, and many references to the great directors and films of the zombie film past.
Again, it all goes down smooth in the scene-to-scene. Really, it’s quite fun to spot the car from “Night of the Living Dead” in one shot, and knowingly laugh when seeing Adam Driver sporting a “Star Wars” keychain in another. But even once the dead start returning en masse and our heroes start aiming for the heads, the film never moves beyond that register of droll irony. Like a bluesman sticking to his favorite riff, Jarmusch skillfully plays within the confines of his comfort zone without ever venturing too far away. Only, the cocktail of winking self-awareness and studied nonchalance is not strong enough to last the length of an entire film.
It’s the self-awareness that really hurts it. Jarmusch knows that his audience wants to see Murray and Driver riff in deadpan and that the image of Swinton strutting down the street wielding a katana will set the internet ablaze, so he offers them as much, without ever feeling the imperative to go a step beyond.
By doing the bare minimum, “The Dead Don’t Die” offers a fascinating new ripple to the ongoing conversation about fan service – the film knows that its regal cast and sellable genre will be more than enough to grab our attention, so why bother trying to challenge, or even delight it? Take your seat and bask in the presence of the coolest characters actors working today, but don’t ask for more than a few chuckles. Don’t call it fan service – call it coolness oblige.