The filmmaker Jim Jarmusch tends to apply his stone-faced sense of humor to low-energy stories, but what if he shook up his usual M.O.? What if he even went so far as to make a zombie movie? You could call it The Walking Deadpan.
Jarmucsch’s title, though, is The Dead Don’t Die. Intermittently amusing but resolutely trifling, this zom-com finds Jarmusch bringing in his frequent collaborator Bill Murray and Adam Driver, the star of his film Paterson, to play a pair of rural cops who are puzzled, maybe even mildly perturbed, to discover that the dead are rising from their graves. Once the undead are up and about, in between meals of human entrails they revisit the same obsessions that enslaved them in life. I particularly enjoyed seeing the armies of the reanimated lighting up their mobile phones and mumbling, “Wi-Fi . . . Wi-Fi . . .,” given that I coined the term iZombies in a piece entitled “The Texting Dead” six years ago. (Jim, you can send the royalty checks to 19 West 44th Street.) Jarmusch has a very small, very mild point to make, delivered in a summing-up at the close: We’re all fixated on something and hence are all zombies. Zombie Carol Kane, whose corpse has been lying around the police station while the cops figure out what to do with her, gets only one line, but it’s a funny one: “Chardonnay!”
There is a Trump joke to be made here, but Jarmusch doesn’t make it. (Really, half the country has one concept on its mind 24/7. I wonder what it’s like to walk around brain-dead.) Instead Jarmusch makes a different one: Steve Buscemi plays a truculent farmer who wears a hat that reads “Keep America White Again,” which doesn’t even make sense. Tom Waits, wearing a beard like Charlton Heston’s Moses, plays a crazy hermit who sees the truth. Tilda Swinton plays a samurai Scot who is completely prepared for zombie apocalypse. The comedy is essentially a series of variations on one joke: Things are going apespit and Murray and Co. barely react. “Oh, that’s bad” is what Driver’s character says, spotting friends with their guts ripped out. Iggy Pop is in there, playing a coffee zombie. Jarmusch even lands a few jokes aimed roughly in his own direction: When the corpses of three young people are found in gory circumstances, Murray says, “They’re just dead hipsters from Cleveland.”
Jarmusch, a live hipster from Cleveland, can claim, as much as anybody, to be the sire of both the Sundance style of American independent cinema that took off in the 1980s and the current iteration of irony-defined hipsterism, with its twee hats and throwback clothing and such. Stranger than Paradise, the aggressively low-octane 1984 indie film that made Jarmusch’s reputation, turned out to be a field guide to an ethos. As befits a fellow whose characters rarely can work up the kilojoules needed to produce an emphatic shrug, though, Jarmusch has remained a recessive figure in the culture. He’s now 66 and never did make anything close to a major studio film, presumably because major studio films aren’t cool. None of his efforts has grossed even $4 million domestically except his blockbuster, 2005’s Broken Flowers, which hauled in all of $14 million and must have given him a crisis of confidence. (I picture him collapsing on a replica of a fainting sofa, pushing the porkpie hat down over his eyes and thinking, “Whoa, maybe rethink your life choices, there, Jim, you don’t want to be Steven Spielberg or anything.”) His next film grossed a more dignified $427,000.
In keeping with Jarmusch’s casual, laid-back, we’re-not-really-trying style, the cast of The Dead Don’t Die just goes with the flow, repeating banalities as the carnage rips along. We get the sense that the piece could end at any moment, or drift for six hours. If you nodded off at some point, I don’t think Jarmusch would mind. His film is 103 minutes of tepid, dry humor, punctuated with the odd whimsical reference to the movie everyone is in. There’s a George A. Romero allusion as well, but Romero’s zombie movies became increasingly pointed social allegories as his career progressed. Jarmusch can’t bring himself to make that much effort. The Dead Don’t Die is a movie that promises to do very little and lives up to its promise.