‘The Dead Don’t Die’: Jim Jarmusch Conjures His Own Version of a Zombie Apocalypse

Jim Jarmusch defines both cult director and acquired taste. Never a filmmaker to play by the rules or sell out to crass commercialism, his cinema swerves from easily accessible to meanderingly experimental.  “The Dead Don’t Die” is Jarmusch’s take on the zombie genre, using a lot of tricks we recognize while blending them with his peculiar, chatty arthouse style. Like many a bold experiment it doesn’t always work, but there’s little mistaking who made the movie.

We are taken to the rural American town of Centerville, surrounded by forests and lakes. Police Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) spends his days patrolling with Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver). Back at the station they are joined by take no nonsense Officer Mindy Morrison (Chloë Sevigny). Overall it’s a quiet town where locals gossip at the local diner, like Trump-supporter Frank Miller (Steve Buscemi), who is annoyed by local loon Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) stealing his chicken. But grander things are happening, such as the Earth tilting on its axis due to too much fracking. This is having the effect of making the days run longer, there’s also a strange glow around the moon when evening does come. Then, one night, two zombies appear, played by Iggy Pop and Sara Driver who carry out a bloody massacre at the diner. They are soon followed by more dead rising from the graves and even the local morgue, which is run by the enigmatic, samurai sword-wielding Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton). Chief Robertson, Officer Peterson and Officer Morrison soon become aware of the little apocalypse descending on the town and do the only thing possible, blow off or chop off heads.

If you approach “The Dead Don’t Die” as simply an artifact by Jim Jarmusch then you might have a good time catching all of his stylistic signatures. The first half of the movie plays like one of his talkative, distracted films like his black and white western “Dead Man” or the vampire tale “Only Lovers Left Alive.” The second half of the movie actually does become nothing more than a zombie gore fest, with plenty of geeky shots of heads being blown apart, body parts being eaten and at one point a UFO appearing from the heavens. There are hints of deeper political subtext, like Steve Buscemi’s prickly farmer Miller wearing a “Make America White Again” hat or the fact that it’s fracking that’s causing the world to tilt and lose its balance. The humor throughout tends to stay low key, with moments that shine because of the fantastic casting. Bill Murray, who also starred in Jarmusch’s wonderful “Broken Flowers” delivers his lines with that charming aloofness and Adam Driver provides a great counterweight, underplaying much of the material. The scene stealer is the luminous Tilda Swinton, with long blonde hair and samurai sword. She is both the town undertaker and an action hero wandering around an arthouse movie. She asks questions with cold, scientific precision. When the corpses at her place of work suddenly awaken, she slices off their heads with flawless ease.

The difference between this and something like “The Walking Dead” or “World War Z” is that we are in on the joke with Jarmusch. He doesn’t actually take any of this seriously. When the zombies, well played by Punk god Iggy Pop (who was the subject of Jarmusch’s documentary “Gimme Danger”) and Sara Driver (the director’s life partner), emerge from their graves and eat some diner workers it’s gruesome but also hilarious. Jarmusch basks in mocking the zombie film aesthetic, with at times random shots of some transformed local munching on a body part. The final act is a riff on the classic zombie standoff, with our heroes surrounded by the walking dead at a local cemetery. Here a zombified Danny Glover, who plays Buscemi’s diner companion, has one of the funniest moments when Murray can’t bring himself to shoot away a friend. We even briefly get a group of traveling teens, one of whom is gamely played by Selena Gomez, who are dressed and look like the typical characters who would be the focus of the story in a popcorn production, but Jarmusch mercilessly snuffs them out quickly. This is his version of a zombie apocalypse with an offbeat rhythm.

Much of this is both the film’s strength and flaw. The gore is silly and the actors efficient, but what the movie lacks is more of an actual story and sense of purpose. What exactly is Jarmusch after aside from just lounging around with some small town Americans and then watch them blow away some zombies? Funny moments stand out from what feels like a muddled vision instead of a straight forward satire about this whole genre. “The Dead Don’t Die” almost has the tone of a sketchbook by a brilliant auteur, where he has the outlines of an idea, but hasn’t written them into a more concise whole. There isn’t the focus more apparent in his dramas, like 2016’s beautiful “Paterson,” also featuring Adam Driver, about a bus driver harboring the talent of a natural poet.

Yet Jarmusch can never be called irrelevant. “The Dead Don’t Die” may not be a complete success, but it is nonetheless a memorable attempt at twisting around a genre overdone already on TV and film. Jarmusch may have encountered a true quandary, that being trying to find something new in a concept already repackaged to death, like a zombie.

The Dead Don’t Die” opens June 14 in select theaters.