It’s deadpan of the dead in “The Dead Don’t Die.”
It’s a hoot. It’s a lark. It’s a goof.
It’s rather a lot of fun.
It’s Bill Murray and Adam Driver playing small-town cops caught up in the zombie apocalypse, and panicked they are not. Rather, they’re phlegmatic, laconic. At most, mildly perturbed. The whole world is going to hell in a hand basket. Mother Earth is tilted on her axis, the polar ice caps are shifting (fracking is blamed), daytime is strangely extended and animals are mysteriously disappearing.
“Something weird is happening,” Driver’s character, officer Ronnie Peterson, calmly opines. He’s not sure what. Until, that is, the town’s graveyard starts yielding up its dead.
Then he knows exactly what’s what. “I’m thinking zombies. Ghouls. The undead.”
One thing further: “If you ask me, this whole thing is going to end badly.”
Nothing to get all het up about, though. And he doesn’t. Hardly anybody does in “Dead.”
That’s the way it is when Jim Jarmusch is at the helm. From “Stranger Than Paradise,” “Dead Man,” “Mystery Train” and his other works, his movies are peculiar, slow-moving and singular. Laconic, if you will. And phlegmatic.
None of his movies are as outright funny as “The Dead Don’t Die,” though at times it is a tad precious. It’s not a generator of belly laughs. Chuckles, giggles, chortles, sure. Them, a bunch.
The picture is an extended in-joke that Officer Ronnie is very much in on. There’s a surprising reason for that, revealed late.
Jarmusch threads a catchy country tune, “The Dead Don’t Die” by singer Sturgill Simpson through the picture with its, ah, killer lyric, “After life is over, the afterlife goes on,” almost on a continuous loop. Officer Ronnie readily identifies it as the movie’s theme song.
When a trio of young out-of-towners rolls up in a ’68 Pontiac Le Mans, a geeky gas station clerk, togged out in a “Nosferatu” T-shirt, comments “very George Romero,” recognizing it immediately as the car seen in Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead.” He boasts he’s “seen most every zombie film ever made.”
The Romero connection is strong in this one, with the eruption of the undead at the cemetery harking back to “Night of the Living Dead.” The shambling, lurching gait of the ghouls is pure Romero as well. As are the inevitable eviscerations.
Officer Ronnie remarks “Oh yuck,” as he gazes at the carnage.”
Unlike Romero’s zombies, these talk. Sort of. “Cou-fee,” two gurgle as they lurch toward a pot on a coffee maker. “Siri,” others mumble, cell phones glowing in their rotting hands. Their dead minds hold onto the favorite things from their lives.
Along with Murray, a frequent player in past Jarmusch movies, the cast is a virtual who’s-who of well-known actors who toggle back and forth between big-budget and indie movies and who have worked with Jarmusch in the past. Driver is one of those, as are Steve Buscemi, Tom Waits, Chloë Sevigny and Tilda Swinton.
Swinton, whose has a predilection for playing peculiar characters, is in her element here in the role of a mortician who dresses in a flowing white kimono and wields a mean samurai sword. When two clients arise from her mortuary makeup table, she efficiently lops off their heads with her trusty katana and laments that they reanimated just as she finished prettying them up. All that work, gone to waste.
Most of the characters react relatively calmly to the zombie apocalypse, almost taking it in stride. Well, not so much those being eaten. Most are familiar with zombie movies, so they know what defeats the ghouls. Off with their heads, with hedge shears, if need be.
Only officer Mindy, the deputy played by Sevigny, is consistently worried and pleads for reassurance as the body count climbs.
“Guys,” she whimpers. “Shouldn’t we be telling each other that’s it all gonna be OK? That this will all go away like a bad dream?”
“Gee Mindy,” says officer Ronnie, “I’m not sure I can say that.”
Remember, his oft-repeated mantra is: “This is all going to end badly.”
Believe the man.
“The Dead Don’t Die”
Cast: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny, Tilda Swinton, Tom Waits, Danny Glover, Steve Buscemi
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Running time: 1:43
Rated: R for zombie violence/gore, and for language