MOVIE REVIEW OF ”THE DEAD DON’T DIE”

Imagine what would have happened had zombies invaded Mayberry on “The Andy Griffith Show,” and you may be amused by arthouse filmmaker Jim Jarmusch’s “The Dead Don’t Die,” (** OUT OF ****) co-starring Bill Murray and Adam Driver as two clueless small-town cops combatting the first contingent of a zombie apocalypse.

Lukewarm and lightweight, this R-rated, 104-minute, comedy chiller serves as Jarmusch’s homage to late Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, filmmaker George A. Romero. Universally recognized as the godfather of zombie movies, Romero reinvented ‘the undead’ in 1968, with his black & white, post-modern, masterpiece “Night of the Living Dead.” Thousands of imitations, sadistic, sincere, and silly, have since ensued.

Notable titles include “Return of the Living Dead” (1985), “Shaun of the Dead,” (2004), “Zombieland” (2009), “Juan of the Dead” (2011), and “Train to Busan” (2016).  Indeed, the genre exhibits no signs of dying out.  In his largely traditional zombie comedy, Jarmusch sticks to Romero’s basic rules, while he tweaks the zombie formula with humor.

Every character is eccentric, and most turn into zombies before fadeout. Basically, “The Dead Don’t Die” is a by-the-numbers rehash of Romero’s movies, but Jarmusch concentrates more on message than mayhem.

You may ogle every frame of “The Dead Don’t Die” without fear of screaming in abject terror.  Apart from an occasional gut-gnawing moment, Jarmusch doesn’t wallow in cheap splatter gore.  Indeed, while he has made an anemic horror potboiler, with decapitations galore, he has adopted a tongue-in-cheek nonchalance.  Jarmusch does virtually everything to undercut any modicum of either suspense or tension.

Zombie movies thrive on social commentary, and Jarmusch exploits that potential as a source of humor. Furthermore, one self-aware character knows how everything will end.  Seems he has read a version of the script! Gorehounds will classify “The Dead Don’t Die” as frivolous because the gore is only ankle deep.  Writer & director Jarmusch isn’t so much interested in zombies as the people who must contend with them.  Zombie attacks constitute the equivalent of domestic supernatural terrorism because these fiends arise from within the system!

Predictable from fade-in to fadeout, “The Dead Don’t Die” qualifies as a dry, deadpan exercise in supernatural horror.  Jarmusch treats us to a charming depiction of the kind of small-town America immortalized by illustrator Norman Rockwell in his vintage “Saturday Evening Post” cover art for 50 years.

Nobody could be any more conventional than Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray of “Ghostbusters”) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver of “Logan Lucky”) of the local constabulary.  They are comparable to Sheriff Andy Taylor and Deputy Barney Fife on “The Andy Griffith show” (1960-1968). Friendly, personable, and sympathetic describes them.  They don’t behave like gung-ho, Rambo types.

Everything is down to earth in Centerville until the dead arise and storm the township in droves.  Eventually, around 54 minutes into the action, Cliff asks Ronnie for advice about how to kill a zombie.

Jarmusch does a solid job of establishing the small-town setting of Centerville, Pop. 738, advertising itself on its Welcome Sign as “a real nice place.” No sooner has the film unfolded than some trifling things trouble Cliff and Ronnie.  Cliff argues it should be dark at 8:20 pm, yet the overhead sun is still ablaze.  Meanwhile, after his wristwatch inexplicably stops ticking, Ronnie observes: “Yeah, something weird’s going on.”

Later, Ronnie displays his cynicism, “This isn’t going to end well, Cliff.”  Officer Mindy Morrison (Chloë Sevigny of “Kids”) raises them on their police radio and reports other bizarre events before interference garbles her words.  After they lose Mindy’s signal, Ronnie brandishes his cell phone.  Incredibly, he discovers his freshly charged battery is kaput.

When they switch over to regular radio, all they can tune in is Sturgill Simpson crooning his woebegone country ballad “The Dead Don’t Die.”  This marks the first time Ronnie realizes he may be more self-aware about what evil the future portends than anybody else.

As our protagonists cruise back to the police department, Cliffdrives past the Centerville Juvenile Detention Center and later the local diner where Farmer Frank Miller (Steve Buscemi of “Reservoir Dogs”) and Hank Thompson (Danny Glover of “Lethal Weapon”) are chatting with their waitress Fern (Eszter Balint of “The Linguini Incident”).

Frank wears a red baseball cap emblazoned with the phrase “Keep America White Again.” Fern listens to the radio while newscasters blame polar fracking for the Earth being knocked off its axis.  They attribute all ills and evils, including the dead rising from graves, to the shift in the Earth’s axis.

When the first zombies appear about 30 minutes into the movie, they munch on both Fern and the diner’s cleaning lady.  The day after the discovery of the bodies, Cliff and Ronnie ponder the crime.  Ronnie contends zombies rather than wild animals feasted on the unfortunate women.  Predictably, Cliff is flabbergasted by the outlandish idea of zombies.

Eventually, as the zombie numbers multiply, the social order collapses around our heroes. Three juveniles (Taliyah Whitaker, Jahi Di’Allo Winston, and Maya Delmont) escape from the Centerville Juvenile Detention facility and dodge the undead.  Like crazy Hermit Bob (Tom Waits of “Seven Psychopaths”) who eluded Cliff and Ronnie in the film’s first scene, the juvenile trio escape inevitable death at the hands of the cannibalistic zombie horde.

At one point, Officer Mindy spots her Granny, sentiment overwhelms her, and she plunges into the ravenous pack of flesh eaters.  Cliff still cannot believe his eyes.  At fadeout, Ronnie and he find themselves surrounded completely by legions of the undead.  Ironically, most of these people were their friends before they became zombies.  The oddball character who steals the show is Tilda Swinton’s Scottish undertaker Zelda Winston.

Winston worships Buddha and wields a wicked katana.  She slashes her weight in zombies before she vanishes aboard a saucer-shaped spaceship.  Bill Murray and Adam Driver headline a sterling celebrity cast that cannot salvage this insipid zombie saga that skewers its horror with humor. Altogether, “The Dead Don’t Die” is tame by zombie movie standards.

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