It takes all of five minutes for Jim Jarmusch’s new movie, the half-assed horror-comedy The Dead Don’t Die, to place a vast stretch of ironic distance between itself and its audience. The film’s eponymous theme song, a tongue-in-cheek country-western ditty by Sturgill Simpson, has just rolled over the opening credits. Not a moment later, Jarmusch cues it up again on the radio of a squad car. Why does it sound so familiar, Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) wonders aloud. “Well, it’s the theme song,” his deputy, Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver), matter-of-factly replies. This kick to the fourth wall, the film’s first but not last, is an early instruction not to take any of what follows too seriously, or at face value. After all, it’s hard to care much about characters in a movie when they keep telling you they’re just characters in a movie.
Cliff and Robbie, along with Officer Mindy Morrison (Chloë Sevigny), are the only cops in a town so Middle American they called it Centerville. “Small Town” would have sufficed, too, for a place that’s a cheeky cardboard representation of the Heartland, with just one of everything: one gas station, one motel, all with flatly descriptive names scrawled across their signs. Something strange is happening in Centerville. Late in the evening, the sun still hangs high in the sky, and cellphones and watches have stopped working. When a pair of mangled bodies turns up at the local diner, Ronnie—standing, as always, within the movie and outside of it— is quick to wonder if it’s the handiwork of zombies, or “ghouls.”
He’s right, of course. Opening in a cemetery, The Dead Don’t Die is Jarmusch’s typically droll spin on the granddaddy of shambling-corpse flicks, Night Of The Living Dead. Maybe it was inevitable that this master of deadpan would eventually tackle the walking dead. But he hasn’t philosophically colonized that tired genre the way he did the Western, the samurai film, or the vampire movie. This time, his idea of a subversive gag is to have the flesh-eating cadavers pine for the shallow things they loved while alive, moaning “wi-fi!” and “Xanax!” But isn’t that just a tweak on the shopping-mall metaphor of Dawn Of The Dead, which was already a satire, and a much funnier one at that?
The connection wouldn’t be lost on the characters. They refer to a very George Romero car as “very George Romero” and know the rules of zombie maintenance (always go for the head) as well as the kids from Scream knew their slasher tropes. Jarmusch pushes the self-awareness further: When Selena Gomez, doing an arch parody of the obnoxious teenage city slicker, tells a geeky clerk (Caleb Landry Jones) that his “film knowledge is impressive,” it’s like a wink at a wink, a parody of a parody.
To watch a comedy by this eternal cool cat, like Mystery Train or Stranger Than Paradise, is often to feel like you’ve been invited to the hippest party in town. But The Dead Don’t Die, populated by the director’s usual clique of rock stars and boho icons, is more like that same party at the ass-end of the night, when everyone’s tired and the quips aren’t landing. Jarmusch has assembled a vast ensemble of celebrity friends, only to cast most of them as unfunny small-town archetypes. He presents Iggy Pop and Carol Kane in zombie makeup as though that were a joke onto itself. We also get Danny Glover as a folksy local, noting that he’s “Too old for this shit,” and Steve Buscemi as a cranky racist in a “Keep America White Again” hat. On the wackier and more memorable end of the spectrum, there’s also Tilda Swinton as a Scottish samurai mortician with Beatrix Kiddo hair, tilting the plot into cartoon absurdism.
Murray and Driver, meanwhile, seem locked in a faintly amusing competition to see who can downplay the horror the most. There is, at least, some semblance of a point to their poker-faced under-reaction. Jarmusch ties the beyond-the-grave danger to polar fracking, an environmental crisis that the film’s version of right-wing TV pundits dismiss as myth. Is keeping your cool during an outbreak of the living dead the same as refusing to panic during the ongoing destruction of the planet, inching us ever closer to an extinction level event? (Pointedly, only the youngest characters, the kids at a local juvenile detention center, express much in the way of concern before all hell breaks loose.) The Dead Don’t Die is very much a zombie-apocalypse movie for the Trump era, for our present perch on the precipice of annihilation. Yet its political commentary is glib and about as broad as its bumpkin characters’ barn doors; one is reminded that Jarmusch, never the sharpest of satirists, ended another of his films with a less-than-subtle shot at Dick Cheney.
All of this labored if fatalistic goofiness is especially dispiriting, and a real comedown, after the filmmaker’s small-scale masterpiece of humanism, Paterson. There, Jarmusch stumbled onto a Zen profundity, an honest-to-God philosophy about how to live a fulfilling life. One film later, he seems to have given up: The Dead Don’t Die, whose televisual flatness matches its defeated spirit, is really about how we’re all just doomed—“What a fucking world,” croaks a crazed woodland hermit played by Tom Waits, summing up the disgusted thesis as Jarmusch presents a choice between fighting a losing battle and just lying down and letting the grim future eat you alive. He’s not wrong to be pessimistic; if The Dead Don’t Die endures, it will be as a time capsule of a very bleak moment (or, depending on how bad things get, a death knell for civilization.) But the film feels like a creative resignation, too, meeting the end of the world with a shrug of tepid postmodern shtick. It puts despair itself in quotation marks.
Note: This is an expanded version of the review The A.V. Club ran from the Cannes Film Festival.