The films of US writer/director Jim Jarmusch often thrum with offbeat energy while maintaining a rather rambling, shambling vibe.
So perhaps it was only a matter of time before he made an old-fashioned zombie movie where inexplicably revived corpses groan and shuffle around. After opening the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, The Dead Don’t Die arrives in the UK marketed as a Bill Murray-led comedy, perhaps in an attempt to remind audiences of how much they enjoyed the mix of undead and deadpan when he popped up in the daft Zombieland a decade ago. The reality is something more politicised but much baggier, with as many lulls as LOLs.
Looking as crumpled as a crisp packet, Murray plays Cliff, police chief of the quaint rural community of Centerville. This suspiciously allegorical-sounding town boasts a motel, a diner, a gas station and not much else. It’s the sort of down-to-earth place you might expect to be populated by regular folk, even if in this case almost all of the regular folk are played by beloved character actors, including Steve Buscemi as a thin-skinned right-wing farmer, Danny Glover as a stolid handyman and the Wu-Tang Clan’s charismatic beatmaster RZA as the town postie. There are also local eccentrics like Tom Waits as a skulking, near-feral hermit and Tilda Swinton as the gossip-generating new undertaker whose Scottish accent befuddles everyone.
In the background, rolling news reports on the TV and radio repeatedly hint at a wider disaster. The world has apparently been knocked off its axis by “polar fracking”, causing all sorts of uncanny side effects. Daylight stretches on too long. The night, when it belatedly comes, sees the moon wreathed in purple energy that upends the natural order. After stringbean ghoul Iggy Pop punches his way out of his shallow grave – and to be honest, that was probably a fairly easy day for the make-up team – it’s not long before the town finds itself under siege from staggering zombies.
For Cliff and his deputies Ronnie (Adam Driver) and Mindy (Chloë Sevigny) it feels like the sort of crisis that might outstrip their resources and abilities. But they do their best to alert and protect Centerville, even if sometimes their attempts feel as mechanical and rote as the revenants sleepwalking back to their half-remembered haunts. Some flashes of fourth wall-breaking humour also defuse any sense of growing tension.
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Usually a zombie outbreak movie involves disparate survivors banding together through necessity then imploding through cowardice and/or selfishness. In The Dead Don’t Die, everything remains relatively self-contained. There are whole subplots featuring the young inmates of a local detention centre and a trio of passing hipsters that barely glance off the larger story. The sporadic instances of gore, at least, hark back to the classic days of George Romero, when special effects coordinators would gleefully toss butcher’s grab-bags of offal over their extras. Watching Iggy Pop munch on icky viscera gives Jarmusch’s tribute a welcome sense of tangibility: no CGI blood and guts here. And there is also at least one genuinely stomach-churning moment when a character dishes
out a tin of cat food and then absent-mindedly licks the spoon.
Despite the star-studded cast, the biggest breakout of The Dead Don’t Die is probably country outlaw Sturgill Simpson, whose haunting rendition of the title song recurs through the film (he also makes a sly cameo). But for all the entrails on display, the film still feels like a weirdly bloodless experience, never truly finding a satisfying balance between arthouse and grindhouse.
The Dead Don’t Die is in cinemas now @GraemeVirtue