“THE DEAD DON'T DIE” — 2 stars — Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloe Sevigny, Tom Waits, Tilda Swinton; R (zombie violence/gore, and for language); in general release; running time: 105 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — Zombie movies don’t exactly carry the highest of standards when it comes to big-screen entertainment, and yet “The Dead Don’t Die” is still a tremendous disappointment.
After a decent setup and the promise of a fantastic cast that features everything from punk rock icons to comic legends to disgraced Jedi knights, Jim Jarmusch’s film falls flat with the kind of third act wheeze that leaves you thinking the filmmakers just got bored and staggered away from their own movie.
The film is set in a small town called Centerville, with a 700-strong population big enough for a gas station, a local diner and a couple of cops who spend most of their days dealing with eccentrics like a backwoods coot named Hermit Bob (Tom Waits).
Watching the sleepy-eyed Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) on patrol, right away you get the sense that “Dead Don’t Die” is leaning toward the comic end of the genre, aiming for the likes of “Zombieland” or Edgar Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead.”
One at a time, the local players enter the picture. There’s a racist jerk named Farmer Frank (Steve Buscemi), the hardware store owner Hank (Danny Glover) and Bobby (Caleb Landry Jones), who sells horror paraphernalia from the local gas station. There’s also a creepy new mortician named Zelda (Tilda Swinton) who seems especially out of place. And in the background, news reports and casual asides hint at the trouble to come. Apparently the new practice of polar fracking has altered the Earth’s rotation and thrown the daylight schedule out of whack.
When it finally does get dark, a couple of ill-tempered zombies (led by punk pioneer Iggy Pop) bust into the diner and turn the staff into a late-night snack. More undead troubles arrive for a group of snarky youngsters who pass through from out of town, and the apocalypse is on.
The tone, the cast and the story give you just enough to stay interested and wondering where all the pieces are going to lead. Then, as this low-key production drags on, you slowly get your answer: nowhere. You want it to be better, but it's just not what it should be.
Take away the A-list cast and you could forgive “Dead Don’t Die” for being a routine zombie outing. Yet, even the low-budget indies make an effort. Instead, Jarmusch gets our hopes up by pairing Murray with Driver — who demonstrated some great comic skills in 2017’s “Logan Lucky” — and failing to come up with anything more than a stale effort at half-baked social commentary after a handful of routine zombie kills.
What makes it worse is that Jarmusch keeps flirting with the idea of something bigger, only to wander off in search of different prey. Early on, a joke about a recurring theme song suggests “Dead Don’t Die” is going for some meta-commentary on its genre, but by the time it returns to the idea, it feels like just another forgotten thread.
There’s another running gag in “Dead Don’t Die” where Driver’s character keeps insisting that “this isn’t going to end well.” In the end, we realize that he’s actually been talking directly to the audience the whole time.
Rating explained: “The Dead Don’t Die” is rated R for some scattered profanity and routine zombie horror gore.