Shortly into the second or third scene of the Jim Jarmusch meta zombie comedy The Dead Don't Die, singer-songwriter Sturgill Simpson's "The Dead Don't Die," begins playing on a car radio belonging to police chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray). His deputy, Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver), notes matter-of-factly that Simpson's country ballad is the theme song.
"Theme song?" Robertson asks.
"Yeah, the theme song," Peterson replies. The same song accompanied the film's credits a few minutes prior and would return, an improbable folksy leitmotif, throughout this bizarre little monster movie with an all-star cast. It opens Friday at select theaters.
The film's meta tendency doesn't amount to much. It's rarely all that funny and ultimately subverts the central zombie plot. If the characters are able to acknowledge that they exist within the confines of a movie script, for example, who cares about the townspeople dying? The script allows for minimal existential grappling but does provide a host of passing amusements as zombies arise from their graves to wreak havoc on the small Rust Belt town of Centerville — a "real nice place."
Much of the script, though, has the raggedy first-draft humor of something written by a college junior. Rosie Perez plays a TV anchor named ... Posie Juarez.
But DDD's marketers at Focus Features understand that the cast is why people will see this festival-circuit flick. The tagline isn't kidding when it references "the greatest zombie cast ever disassembled." Joining Murray and Driver in Centerville are the likes of Chloe Sevigny (another police officer), Tilda Swinton (a mortician and samurai devotee), Danny Glover (a farmer), Steve Buscemi (a farmer), Rosie Perez (a TV journalist), Caleb Landry Jones (a gas station operator and zombie savant), Sara Driver (a zombie), Iggy Pop (a zombie), RZA (a delivery man-turned-zombie), Tom Waits (a hermit), and Selena Gomez (a hipster from Cleveland).
Watching these indie A-listers fool around is worth the price of admission. When Peterson demonstrates how to decapitate a zombie — going for the head is crucial, he says — Chief Robertson comments on the form with which he swings his machete. "Didn't you play some minor league ball?"
Incidentally, did someone say a "hipster from Cleveland?!?!?
Someone did, yes. Local audiences will delight in the fact that Gomez and her road-tripping compadres who pull into Centerville at twilight are pegged by local law enforcement as hipsters from Pittsburgh, but Peterson sets the record straight.
"Those are Ohio plates," he observes outside the Centerville motel. "My educated guess would be Cleveland."
It's not the only local reference. And fans of Jarmusch, who was born in Akron and whose whole cinematic career has been devoted to idiosyncratic movies about oddballs with Northeast Ohio connections, will appreciate the director's sensibility, even when it's clunkily imposed on what is ostensibly a horror film.