It's end-times in Centerville USA, as polar fracking has caused the earth to tilt off its axis and lean right into the apocalypse. As a result, 'The Dead Don't Die' sees the former residents of that small town rise from the earth and chow down on the local population, all of whom find themselves powerless to stop the zombies advancing.
On paper, this is a no-brainer - and not just because the script is full of mindless zombies. 'The Dead Don't Die' has a cast to (in)die for; a regular who's-who of mid-budget movie darlings. Bill Murray, Adam Driver and Chloe Sevingy lead the charge as the local police force, while the most-supporting actor of 2017, Caleb Landry Jones, appears as a nerdy shopkeep, and Tom Waits as an eccentric forest-dweller. The sublime Tilda Swinton turns up as a spooky sword-wielding Scottish funeral director named 'Zelda Winston'. What's not to like?
Similarly, this choice of subject and theme for writer/director Jarmusch could have been a lot of fun. His most recent movie 'Paterson' was a low-key, intimate portrait of working-class comfort, while his 'Only Lovers Left Alive' took a darkly-humourous look at how a centuries-old vampire couple might get by in a modern era.
'The Dead Don't Die', then, has the potential to offer a new take on the undead, and it's not without some dry, witty ideas about zombies. Jarmusch's ghouls are more interested in tearing into stomachs, necks and mouths than brains, and once reanimated, are drawn to mindlessly recreate the activities they did while alive. Even in death, they consume, and perform, and follow familiar routines, while destroying the living along the way.
On screen, this is not as compelling you might hope. Jarmusch's cultural commentary feels untethered to plot or character development, and some great actors are wasted in this regard. Scenes featuring Steve Buscemi as a racist red-capped farmer, and a subplot about three pre-teens in a juvenile facility, don't truly connect with the rest of the film. Jarmusch may be going for a Robert Altman, 'Nashville'-type anthology feeling, showing the effects of the zombie apocalypse on a wide range of characters, but the disparate strands never come together in a satisfying way.
Likewise, the filmmaking is somewhat saggy. A sequence in which all three of the town's cops arrive separately to a crime scene in their respective vehicles, view the carnage left behind by a zombie attack, and recite the exact same lines one after another should be funnier than it is, but it's not only off-beat, the repetition feels lazy.
It's hard to say whether the performances are also lazy, or just suited to the languid material and film style. Murray's doing a bit of a Wes Anderson-esque turn, but somehow without the melancholy pathos of a character like Steve Zissou; and all the sparkly CGI effects and googly-eyes the male characters make at Selena Gomez aren't quite enough to make her shine. Swinton and Driver appear to be in different films altogether, with the former's standout scenes completely tonally out of place here, and the meta-quirkiness of the latter's awareness that he is in a film which has a theme song and a script. (Again, this is a gag that's funny and promising at first, but doesn't really pay great dividends.)
Despite an intriguing premise and an all-star cast, 'The Dead Don't Die' is weaker than the sum of its parts. Just like its titular zombies, it stumbles aimlessly along familiar ground, and you're better off keeping your distance unless you're in the mood to contemplate your own mortality.