“The Dead Don’t Die” is not just a misfire. It’s an amazing misfire, which means watching a superb cast reduce itself to grade-D level for the sake of a familiar, shopworn plot. The actors don’t even look like they’re having the time of their lives in a campy fright flick because you can’t laugh at something made totally without camp. People who can appreciate, in a perverse way, a hip but terminally boring attempt to make an instant cult classic might find some reward in this strange, jaw-dropping movie.
The director is Jim Jarmusch, whose recent movies have been bad (with the exception of the ruminative “Paterson”) but not as wildly bad as “The Dead Don’t Die.” His exploration of modern vampirism, “Only Lovers Left Alive,” boasted a handsome production, two fine stars in Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton and a stunning final shot, but was done in by overlength and a flimsy, repetitive plot. “Dead” isn’t made cynically, but it isn’t made with commercial interests in mind, either. It just sits there, making attempts at art that it can’t achieve and, to make matters worse, you come out of the theater asking what Bill Murray, Adam Driver and Chloe Sevigny (all Jarmusch favorites) are doing here.
Murray and Driver have a notable entrance. Murray is the police chief of Centerville, “A Real Nice Place,” according to the welcome sign, and Driver is his first officer. As the movie begins, they’re in their patrol car, chatting about coffee and donuts, when Murray notices that it isn’t dark even though it’s past 9 p.m., and both men’s watches have stopped. Meanwhile, dogs, cats and livestock are mysteriously disappearing. Over the course of this 101-minute movie, we learn that a phenomenon called “polar fracking” has shifted the tilt of the Earth, causing day and night to slide into each other and, more gratuitously, revive the corpses of the dead, who shuffle around and eat people. If George A. Romero were around, he would say, “Been there, done that.”
Murray, Driver and Sevigny, the third officer in an understaffed Centerville police force, wrestle with how to stop the menace, but the town is gradually overrun by the zombies. They get help from the local funeral home director (Swinton) who speaks with a Scottish burr and is deadly with a samurai sword. Who knew that small-town morticians are training in Japanese martial arts? Well, you learn something every day.
At this point, you figure the plot is going to thicken, that some explanations will be offered. But guess what? It doesn’t happen. Before the movie is over, it will throw in a nonsensical sci-fi fantasy scene and Driver will repeat the line, “This isn’t going to end well,” 14 times. How he knows this provides the movie’s biggest howler.
The direction and the performances lack energy and intensity, and the movie isn’t scary or funny. Jarmusch’s heart isn’t in the splatter the zombie genre demands. It’s as if the undead have devoured his skills.