Jim Jarmusch’s “The Dead Don’t Die” may not be a gifted filmmaker’s worst movie, but it’s certainly his most cynical — a unique cinematic worldview reduced to schtick.
The news that Jarmusch was making a zombie film to go with his aching 2013 vampire romance, “Only Lovers Left Alive,” was greeted by fans with hosannas, and the cast announcements only further whetted the appetite. Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Sinwton, Steve Buscemi, Tom Waits, Selena Gomez — how could this not be great?
Here’s how: by leaning on zombie-movie genre conventions without bothering to fill them with new ideas; by letting actors wanly improvise deadpan reactions to escalating mayhem; by coaxing oddly awkward performances from pros like Danny Glover and Chloë Sevigny; by repeating jokes until they’re running on rims; by breaking the fourth wall with tired meta-jokes when the inspiration flags; and by lecturing the audience at the end in a vague attempt to give the film relevance. As rich and atmospheric — as good — as “Only Lovers Left Alive” was, that’s how disappointingly flat “The Dead Don’t Die” plays.
Murray and Driver are cast as Cliff and Ronny, police officers in the generic Middle American town of Centerville (motto: “A Real Nice Place”). Things are getting weird — polar fracking has apparently knocked the Earth off its axis and night and day are all screwed up — and in the long fun-up to all hell breaking loose Jarmusch introduces us to a gaggle of townspeople: an irascible farmer (Buscemi), the proprietors of the local hardware store (Glover) and motel (Larry Fessenden), a diner waitress (Eszter Balint, from Jarmusch’s 1984 breakthrough, “Stranger Than Paradise”), a trio of teen delinquents in juvenile detention, a trio of city hipsters (including Gomez) passing through.
Oddest of all is Centerville’s “unusual” new undertaker, a pallid Scotswoman with an unearthly air played by (who else) Swinton. The mood of foreboding, goosed by doomy soundtrack surf-guitar and the news that all the animals have fled town, is stretched almost to the breaking point before a pair of zombies played by film producer Sara Driver and the undead prince of rock himself, Iggy Pop, emerge from their graves for a little wee-hours brunch. Soon enough the living population of Centerville is being winnowed down by a shambling army of flesh eaters, each muttering a talisman of their consumerist life on earth: “Wi-Fi. . .,” “Snickers. . .,” “fashion. . .,” and so forth.
The notion of zombieism as a metaphor for shopaholic American soullessness was fresh back in 1978, when George Romero set “Dawn of the Dead” in a shopping mall. Less so now, to be polite. And if there’s a metaphor for Trump Nation somewhere in here — Buscemi’s racist farmer wears a faux-MAGA cap that reads “Keep America White Again” — it gets lost in the mud and blood.
If anything, “The Dead Don’t Die” feels like the filmmaker’s shout-out to a downtown ’80s appreciation of horror movies exemplified by the late, lamented “Psychotronic” magazine and Kim’s Video, a Greenwich Village purveyor of mondo cinema and high genre trash. This would be an interesting approach if Jarmusch seemed, well, interested, but “The Dead Don’t Die” has a flaccid, lackadaisical air that’s the opposite of his usual stoic Zen comedy.
If there’s a stand-in for the director, it’s probably Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), a shaggy recluse who watches the carnage visited upon society by its undead through binoculars from the woods. The character’s final words are a judgment on humanity that I can’t print here, and it seems palpably shared by Jarmusch himself. “The Dead Don’t Die” feels like the work of an artist who hasn't just run out of ideas but may have given up hope.
THE DEAD DON’T DIE
Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. Starring Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny, Tilda Swinton, Steve Buscemi, Tom Waits, Danny Glover, Selena Gomez. At Boston theaters, Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, suburbs. 104 minutes. R (zombie violence and gore, language)
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.