"This is going to end badly," Adam Driver says, over and over with slight variations, in the new zombie comedy The Dead Don't Die. It's both the movie's catchphrase and raison d'être. Things tend not to end well in general, because people have a habit of taking bad situations and making them worse, and there's no reason to suspect that will change when the dead are rising from their graves and feasting on the bodies of the living. To the extent that the film has a joke, this is it: Humans mess everything up, and in the end probably aren't worth saving.
All fair points. But does that sound fun to watch? Maybe it could have been, in another universe, with this exact cast and this exact director. Jim Jarmusch is a national treasure, after all, and he's already proven himself a master of idiosyncratic, cracker-dry comedies that play with our love of dead or dying cultural icons, from Elvis to diners to samurai. But as The Dead Don't Die smirks through its ironic corpse pile-up, dispatching a parade of beloved actors like rancid meat and playing the same original Sturgill Simpson tune on loop, it's hard not to wonder if the joke is on us for watching it.
We are in the podunk town of Centerville, Ohio, where the zombie invasion has begun, thanks to greedy energy companies that have spun the Earth off its axis with overzealous "polar fracking." On the front lines of defense: the three-person police squad, played by Driver, Bill Murray and Chloë Sevigny, whose jobs consist mostly of driving to different locations and shaking their heads at the carnage. "What is it?" they say after an undead assault at the local diner. "A wild animal?" Pause. "Several wild animals?" They repeat this bit, one speaker after the other, in the same way the film handles its many other running gags: beaten until undead.
The gradual onslaught begins in the graveyards but takes many forms across town, which gives us the opportunity to drop in on an expansive cast. A nerdy gas-station attendant (Caleb Landry Jones) hopes his comic-book knowledge will save him from the worst of it. A crotchety farmer (Steve Buscemi) wears a red hat reading "Make America White Again," and no one seems to particularly care if his brains get eaten. A hipster passing through town (Selena Gomez) is concerned but, like many of these characters, effectively powerless. Everyone is disconnected from each other, perhaps indicative of the vanishing sense of communality in American life. Still, it's fun to watch what's essentially a summer camp's worth of cool kids (and many Jarmusch regulars) fending off the undead ... or in the case of Iggy Pop and Carol Kane, doing the zombie shuffle themselves.
In an example of the too-clever-by-half tone that gradually infects the entire enterprise, Jarmusch has also cast Tilda Swinton as the lazy meme version of herself. She plays "Zelda Winston" (hawhaw), the town's new morgue attendant, oddly unfazed by the fact that her perfectly made-up corpses are now getting up and walking around. Like Forest Whitaker in Ghost Dog, Zelda wields a samurai sword; she also has pristine hacker skills and a Scottish accent, making her perfect for anyone who prefers "hilarious" random details over an actual character. Or maybe Swinton's role is meant to critique the ways we identify with actors, playing our shallow reading of her talents against us? You can see how 105 minutes of this kind of material could leave you feeling a bit brain-dead.
Jarmusch doesn't tend to make movies for the masses, so it was a given that The Dead Don't Die would disappoint the zombie crowd. Its jokes will also be too belabored for fans of the thriving cottage industry of zombie parodies (Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland). There are moments when the movie takes its own premise seriously, and in those moments you see a flicker of engaging ideas. Rather than go for big, freaky set-pieces, Jarmusch instead emphasizes the ways in which everyday rhythms are thrown off: unnaturally extended daylight hours, all the pets running away, hordes of undead teens muttering "Wifi..." as they prowl around town with their phones out. The dingy, run-down-America look (the cinematographer is Frederick Elmes, who also shot Blue Velvet) plays with the conventions of the trendsetting George A. Romero movies: Here we see nearly vacant homes, schools and businesses in the midst of returning to nature, waiting to be overrun by death.
But the film could also be a tough sell for Jarmusch fans. His previous heroes may have appeared flat and affectless, but they always had souls: the Japanese tourists brimming with excitement over their Nashville pilgrimage in Mystery Train, or Driver's own mellow bus driver who scribbles poetry on the side in the wonderful Paterson. By contrast, the humans in The Dead Don't Die are fundamentally empty creations, so much so that they can moonlight as vessels for tired meta-humor (Driver and Murray, doing a deadpan buddy-cop shtick, reference the very film they're in).
The most charitable reading is that all this arch pessimism is the point; that Jarmusch has his actors repeat the same jokes because we're all already zombies deep down and there's no cure for us; and that he'd rather use the small window of time we have left on this planet to celebrate the very select handful of people whom he believes make life worthwhile. This, at least, would explain all the emphasis he puts on the Sturgill Simpson song ("Well, the dead don't die / Any more than you or I"), as well as the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA showing up for a one-joke cameo. The joke is that he works for a delivery company called "WuPS." The world is ending, so let's have a big fish fry and invite all our friends.
So if this kind of stuff vibes with you, head down to your local graveyard and soak up the friendly, apocalyptic ravings of the Jarmusch Bunch. If not, well, it's all going to end badly anyway.