The Dead Don’t Die, but maybe the zombie genre should?

The Dead Don’t Die, but maybe the zombie genre should?
Jim Jarmusch makes no secret of the fact that he’s a fan of vampires. Not only did he make a gorgeous vam-picture six years ago – Only Lovers Left Alive, with Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as immortal lovers – but he devised a slang term for what the vampires in that film call normal humans: “zombies.”

Let’s face it – vampires are cool. They have amazing fashion sense and, in Jarmusch’s movie, a thirst for knowledge, culture, music, languages and esoteric wisdom, along with their more prosaic, plasma-based needs.

So why his sudden desire to give equal time to zombies, who stagger about in ripped jeans and moan for the basest desires they had in life – coffee, chardonnay, cable, etc. – in The Dead Don’t Die? Zombies are the opposite of cool, leaving it up to mere humans to carry the load.

They do their best, starting with Bill Murray as the imperturbable Chief Robertson in the tiny, middle-American town of Centerville. (“A real nice place,” population 738, according to the welcome sign.) His deputies (Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny) are slightly more excitable – Driver’s character has a habit of morosely repeating that things are going to end badly – but they try to follow in their leader’s phlegmatic footsteps, as well as his dress sense; they all sport matching glasses.

Things get a little less nice when a vaguely defined mining operation – we hear the term “polar fracking,” though it’s never explained – knocks the Earth off its axis, which leads to bad radio reception, unnaturally long daylight hours – oh, and the dead rising from their graves. And you thought single-use plastics were a problem.

The police do what they can, but the only one who really seems to have a handle on the situation is Jarmusch regular Tilda Swinton. Even though her character’s name, Zelda Winston, sounds like a spelling error, and her description like a suggestion at improv night – Scottish mortician with a samurai sword! – she proves the most unflappable of a decidedly flap-free bunch. But then again, she has dealt with “zombies” before.

Jarmusch stocks the film with a cast of amusing but thinly drawn secondary characters. Steve Buscemi’s racist/ungrammatical farmer wears a ball cap that says Keep America White Again, while Tom Waits lurks in the woods as a one-man Greek chorus named Hermit Bob, and local store owner Bobby (Caleb Landry Jones) remarks that an out-of-town Pontiac LeMans is “very George Romero.”

That also describes much of the movie, from the shuffling gait of its antagonists to the barely concealed anti-consumerist, pro-environmental message and its seemingly scraped together soundtrack. The exception in this last instance is the overplayed title song, penned by country musician Sturgill Simpson and recognized as the theme by several characters who seem to suspect they’re in a movie.

It all plays out as a kind of love letter to Romero, the problem being that love letters don’t make for very compelling drama. Jarmusch is content to stick to reference and homage rather than try anything new or shocking. Where his vampire movie had a beating heart and something into which to sink your teeth, here he’s merely flogging an undead horse.

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