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'The Dead Don't Die' review: Jim Jarmusch's zombie film is uneven, but gripping

Bill Murray, Chloe Sevigny and Adam Driver in

Bill Murray, Chloe Sevigny and Adam Driver in "The Dead Don't Die." Photo Credit: Focus Features/Abbot Genser

PLOT A small American town is invaded by zombies.

CAST Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloe Sevigny

RATED R (violence and gore)

LENGTH 1:44

PLAYING AT Cinema Arts Centre, Huntington.

BOTTOM LINE Jim Jarmusch’s rueful horror-comedy delivers the laughs, but they often catch in your throat.

Nearly every single person, place, thing, sound, concept and flesh-eating zombie is some kind of joke in Jim Jarmusch’s “The Dead Don’t Die.”

One of the first corpses to come to life is played by Iggy Pop, the proto-punk legend who helped kill the 1960s. Rosie Perez plays a news reporter named Posie Juarez. The little town that descends into chaos is Centerville, named after a town in Frank Zappa’s cult video "200 Motels." The mournful title song, by country artist Sturgill Simpson, is funny in and of itself, but there’s even more to it. 

“Why does that song sound so familiar?” Bill Murray, as Officer Cliff Robertson, wonders when it comes on his radio. “Because,” says Adam Driver as fellow Officer Ronnie Peterson, “it’s the theme song.” 

Ah, so the movie itself is a joke – or is it? Welcome once again to Jarmusch's skewed, self-aware, irony-oozing world. Only Jarmusch (“Stranger Than Paradise,” “Night on Earth”) would have the temerity to release “The Dead Don’t Die” after a years-long deluge of zombie entertainment, just as he released his vampire drama “Only Lovers Left Alive” shortly after the peak of “Twilight” mania. On the face of it, his new movie is one giant instance of stunt-casting, packed with musical icons, industry insiders, unexpected celebrities (Selena Gomez?!) and cult favorites. Chloë Sevigny is countercast as a nerdy policewoman; Steve Buscemi is Farmer Miller, a crank who wears a “Keep America White Again” cap; Tom Waits is the film’s insane narrator, Hermit Bob; and so on.

Underneath the hipsterism, though, lie some compelling questions: What if a world deeply familiar with zombie fiction suddenly confronted the real thing? What if the notion of zombies as karmic payback for man’s ecological abuses (in this case, fracking) turned out to be true? Wouldn’t life feel just like this movie: real, horrifying and absurd all at once? 

"The Dead Don't Die" is uneven but gripping. It's funny, often downright giddy (Tilda Swinton steals the film’s middle third as a Scottish samurai) and unexpectedly haunting. Jarmusch’s winking meta-posture can be irksome, but he’s such a skilled filmmaker that he gets away with it. We already have a name for a person who is both dead and alive; now we need a word for a movie that is both sincere and kidding. 

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