Jim Jarmusch’s 13th feature opened the 2019 Cannes Film Festival to tepid reviews. It can happen; sometimes a wave of grumpiness overcomes everyone in the vicinity at festivals.
Opening Friday, “The Dead Don’t Die” is actually a subversive surprise, a possible cult classic for brainy cineastes who don’t have knee-jerk reactions.
Jarmusch, known for deadpan comedy-dramas in which characters either talk a lot or very little, also has dabbled in lowdown disreputable genres such as the Western (“Dead Man”) and the vampire film (“Only Lovers Left Alive”).
His singular auteur take on the zombie movie — a genre that has reached peak capacity — is fresh.
The movie is set in a small town, 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 it should be, and that things seem weird. 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 “Wi-Fi,” “chardonnay” and “Snickers.” These zombies are mindless consumers, 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. He also offers a CD of Sturgill Simpson singing the movie’s theme song “The Dead Don’t Die.” Characters occasionally comment on the song; 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 getting too perturbed. Jarmusch’s characters are almost always laid-back and sleepily funny. 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, and, as a self-referencing horror movie, turns inward. It handles a huge cast of distinct personalities and never gets hysterical or overstuffed.
It works in different-shaped chunks, for different reasons. It doesn’t 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 an everything-including-the-kitchen-sink cult film, like “Buckaroo Banzai,” “Repo Man” or “Holy Motors.” It’s imperfect, but it gets points for trying. It’s sure to be appreciated later, closer to the end of the world.
The Dead Don’t Die
Three and a half stars
Starring: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloë Sevigny
Written and directed by: Jim Jarmusch
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes