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With: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tom Waits, Chloë Sevigny, Tilda Swinton, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Selena Gomez, RZA, Rosie Perez, Carol Kane, Iggy Pop, Austin Butler, Luka Sabbat, Larry Fessenden, Sara Driver
Written by: Jim Jarmusch
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
MPAA Rating: R for zombie violence/gore, and for language
Running Time: 105
Date: 06/14/2019

The Dead Don't Die (2019)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Jim Reaper

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Jim Jarmusch's thirteenth feature film opened this year's Cannes Film Festival and wound up with an armful of tepid reviews. That can happen at film festivals; sometimes a wave of grumpiness overcomes everyone in the vicinity.

Now opening in Bay Area theaters, The Dead Don't Die is actually a subversive surprise, a possible future cult classic for brainy cineastes that don't subscribe to knee-jerk reactions.

While Jarmusch is known for his deadpan comedy-dramas in which characters either talk a lot or very little, he has also shown that he is not a snob, having dabbled in such lowdown, disreputable genres as the Western (Dead Man) and the vampire film (Only Lovers Left Alive).

Now he gives his take on the zombie movie, and while that genre has lately reached peak capacity, Jarmusch's singular auteur take still feels fresh.

The movie takes place in the small town of Centerville. One evening, police chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) head into the woods to investigate a missing chicken, possibly taken by old Hermit Bob (Tom Waits).

The officers note that it's not getting dark as early it should be, and that things seem weird in general. In a diner, racist Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi) — who wears a "Make America White Again" hat — and local Hank Thompson (Danny Glover) listen to a radio debate about polar fracking.

Fracking, it turns out, has knocked the earth off its orbit, and is the cause of the current zombie outbreak. An all-star cast appears to face off with the undead.

Iggy Pop — recently the subject of a Jarmusch documentary, Gimme Danger — is one of the few to simply play a zombie. He comes back from the grave chanting "coffee," while other zombies chant things like "wifi," "chardonnay," and "Snickers."

Hence, these zombies are mindless consumers just like the mall-dwellers in George A. Romero's classic 1978 Dawn of the Dead.

Jarmusch also pays homage to Romero via a car similar to the one in Night of the Living Dead (a 1968 Pontiac LeMans). It's driven by three young hipsters (Selena Gomez, Austin Butler, and Luka Sabbat), who find coolness at a gas station run by Bobby (Caleb Landry Jones).

Inside, he sells horror memorabilia of all types. He also offers a CD of Sturgill Simpson singing the movie's actual theme song "The Dead Don't Die."

Characters occasionally comment upon this song as the movie goes on, and more postmodern jokes pop up as the movie draws to its zombie-clotted climax.

Murray and Driver (a great comedic match) are the main focus, in addition to fellow officer Mindy Morrison (Chloë Sevigny) and Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton), a new-in-town undertaker who happens to be handy with a samurai sword.

These four confront the zombie outbreak without ever getting too perturbed. Jarmusch's characters are almost always laid-back, sleepily funny, and their reactions here are probably the most subdued of any zombie movie, ever.

In one scene, Mindy is assigned to "crowd" control; the camera follows her as she walks across a parking lot and calmly shoos away four or five bewildered bystanders.

Jarmusch juggles quite a bit in The Dead Don't Die. It comments on right-wing politics, while turning inward and being a self-referencing horror movie. It handles a huge cast of distinct personalities, and never once gets hysterical or overstuffed.

If it works, it works in different-shaped chunks, for different reasons. It doesn't ever form the perfect circles of Jarmusch's profound 2016 Paterson or the satisfying squares of his masterful 1984 breakthrough Stranger Than Paradise. Nor does it provide the life-changing existential journeys of Dead Man or 2005's Broken Flowers.

In the end, The Dead Don't Die is more like an everything-including-the-kitchen-sink kind of cult film, like Buckaroo Banzai, Repo Man, or Holy Motors. It's imperfect, but it gets plenty of points for trying, and it's sure to be appreciated later, closer to the end of the world.

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