Iggy Pop in The Dead Don’t Die (Photo: Focus Features)

THE DEAD DON’T DIE
*1/2 (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Jim Jarmusch
STARS Bill Murray, Adam Driver

With such heavyweights as Scorsese and Spielberg hogging the headlines and the awards, there’s a case to be made for writer-director Jim Jarmusch being perhaps the most underrated filmmaker in America. Since 1980, he has been consistent in delivering intelligent and idiosyncratic movies, frequently hopping from genre to genre but always maintaining his quirky sensibilities, wry humor, and deep affection for humankind in all its messy imperfections. That’s why it’s downright depressing to witness The Dead Don’t Die, which feels like some sort of cinematic end-of-the-world apocalypse. If the auteur responsible for such gems as Stranger Than Paradise (recently reviewed here), Mystery Train and Only Lovers Left Alive has resorted to making movies this bad, then we’re all doomed.

On paper, a zombie movie starring Bill Murray sounds like it can’t miss … and it didn’t, when it was called Zombieland. The Dead Don’t Die is a different type of horror comedy, one filtered through Jarmusch’s particular worldview. In this one, the residents of the small town of Centerville have suddenly found themselves overrun by the undead. The cause somehow seems to be polar fracking, which has led to the planet shifting off its natural rotation. Among those forced to fend off various zombie attacks are the local law officers (Murray, Adam Driver and Chloë Sevigny), a funeral home director (Tilda Swinton) who’s handy with a samurai sword, and a horror-film geek (Caleb Landry Jones) who runs a combo gas station and movie memorabilia shop.

Jarmusch’s take on the zombies is that, even in death, they cling to what they most appreciated in life. “Coffee,” mutters the Iggy Pop zombie; “Chardonnay,” mumbles the Carol Kane zombie. That’s a clever gag, but the more prominent theme that humans are already mindless zombies due to their materialistic impulses was already handled in a far more meaningful manner by George Romero in the 1978 classic Dawn of the Dead, the one in which the natural urge of the walking dead was to head straight for the mall.

The wordplay employed by Jarmusch is particularly moldy in this picture. I liked UPS being renamed WU-PS, but having a right-wing jerk (Steve Buscemi) wearing a red hat that reads, “KEEP AMERICA WHITE AGAIN” is just lazy and having Rosie Perez play a reporter named Posie Juarez is just stupid. Other aspects of the screenplay are just as grasping, such as having Driver’s character discuss having read the film’s script as well as a grueling, pull-your-hair-out gag in which characters successively arriving at the scene of a zombie attack all repeat the same sentences verbatim (“A wild animal? Or several wild animals?”).

It’s incredible that, with a cast this loaded (other players include Danny Glover, Tom Waits and Selena Gomez), no one is able to make much of an impression. Jarmusch directs everyone to perform in a deadpan manner — everyone, that is, except for Sevigny, whose emoting is raw and palpable and thus at odds with the efforts from the other, laid-back cast members. Then again, her incessant shrieking at least provides a minute spark of life to an otherwise DOA effort.

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