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story.lead_photo.caption A zombie Iggy Pop staggers around in search of warm flesh and hot coffee in Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die.

Like Larry David, or your average 5-year-old, Jim Jarmusch is obsessively amused by repetition. It can come in many forms -- a soundtrack consisting predominantly of the exact same spare guitar riff over and over again; a series of actions by different characters repeated over the course of a set period of time; a line of dialogue; his casting -- so much of Jarmusch's oeuvre consists of observing recurring bits and motifs such as these in never-ending loops.

I suspect this is why his steadfast devotees, which are legion, are so attracted to his work: For a certain kind of brain-wiring, this kind of filmmaking, like one of those hypnotic, spinning wheels that spiral out, is captivating. Unfortunately, for others, it can be an often excruciating exercise in distilled tedium.

The Dead Don’t Die

77 Cast: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloe Sevigny, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Selena Gomez, Rosie Perez, Larry Fessendon, Iggy Pop, RZA, Carol Kane, Tom Waits, Steve Buscemi

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Rating: R, for zombie violence/gore, and for language

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

In fact, it doesn't matter terribly much which camp I fall into -- if it isn't already obvious -- we are not here to discuss my visceral reactions to Jarmusch's style, so much as how much, even within the framework of his particular patois, this film either expands his palette or offers more of the same.

In as much as his films always evince a kind of barbituated lack of emotional pulse, in which everything is tamped down to a gauzy murmur, he has found a perfect vehicle. He commits so fully to putting the dead in deadpan, you want to take out a mirror to make sure the non-undead characters are still actually breathing. It's a wonder Jarmusch didn't make the entire film from the zombies' perspective in the first place.

He has also assembled a sort of Jarmuschian dream team of a cast -- everyone from Adam Driver and Bill Murray, to Chloe Sevigny, Tom Waits, Larry Fessendon and Iggy-freaking-Pop -- and plunked them down in a rolling-hilled middle America (likely meant to be Pennsylvania, though not quite specified) in the middle of a zombie apocalypse.

Murray and Driver play Chief Cliff Robertson and Officer Ronnie Peterson of a small town called Centerville ("A really nice place"). As we begin, things are going more or less as usual, with the Trumpite Farmer Frank (Steve Buscemi, sporting a "Make America White Again" hat) accusing Hermit Bob (Waits) of stealing one of his chickens, but it doesn't take long before odd things begin happening: Watches and cellphones stop working, the sun doesn't go down for hours, then stays down longer than usual as the full moon, cracking with peculiar glowing energy hangs formidably in the sky.

These oddities are attributed to the government's insistence on something malicious sounding called "polar fracking" which results in the Earth slightly tilting on its axis. Jarmusch's story jumps from one small-town setting after another -- the local diner, where Fern (Eszter Balint) pours coffee for the locals, including nice guy Hank (Danny Glover), and grumpy Frank; a youth correctional facility has a trio of observant teens (Maya Delmont, Taliyah Whitaker, Jahi Di'Allo Winston) trying to steer clear of trouble; the local gas station, attended by a film-besotted kid named Bobby (Caleb Landry Jones), serves the community with toys, comics, and fanboy appreciations; and the new, odd funeral director, Zelda (Tilda Swinton), practices her martial arts with a samurai sword -- such that when the dead start unearthing themselves and seeking human flesh (initially lead by Sara Driver, and, in a bit of inspired casting, Mr. Pop), we get to watch many of these people we've just met get gored by roving corpses.

The film is intended as a horror comedy, but do not go expecting belly laughs. It's as if a Sam Raimi film got thrown in the washer so many times, the color has almost completely bled out. There are a good handful of visual jokes that work (one of the funniest involves the type of vehicle Driver's character tools around in); a recurring bit of fun with individual zombie mantras (including "chardonnay," "WiFi," and "Snickers"); and some of those ultra-deadpan bits, such as when a zombie first appears in the police station, and Officer Peterson has to demonstrate a decapitation to a horrified Officer Mindy Morrison (Sevigny), that work handily. But for that, there are just as many wan gags that flop (a local newscaster played by Rosie Perez is named "Posie Juarez"; Murray and Driver keep referring to the script Jarmusch has given them, the theme song is played to death, etc.)

Jarmusch's proclivities have always leaned toward such lightly affecting material -- as if the act of actually generating emotion is somehow vulgar and unseemly -- which has also endeared him to his faction of fans. For everyone else, though, it doesn't leave much to look at. Filmed without fanfare (albeit with a few more special effects than usual, and a kind of cool splattering of sand-like mist when the zombies are beheaded), and with the intensity knobs all turned down to their lowest setting, he continues his sous vide-style of filmmaking. Whether you like the dish he's serving, or want to throw your hands in the air and go somewhere else for dinner is all in your temperament. Whatever you choose, you can be certain the same menu will be available the next time you venture back.

Photo by Abbot Genser / Focus Features
Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) wanders around the woods muttering about mushrooms and “toxic lunar vibrations” in Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die.

MovieStyle on 06/14/2019

Print Headline: The Dead Don't Die

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