Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, the peaceful town of Centerville finds itself battling a zombie horde as the dead start rising from their graves. Starring: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tom Waits, Chloe Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, RZA, Rosie Perez, Carol Kane, Tilda Swinton, Selena Gomez, Austin Butler and Luka Sabbat.
The idea of a zombie film made by Jim Jarmusch, didn’t seem very likely but then again it probably didn’t seem likely that he’d make one about vampires until Only Loves Left Alive came about, showing you really can never know what to expect from this eccentric filmmaker. However, you’d sincerely be forgiven for thinking it might be more along the lines of Jarmusch’s vampiric love story but no, this one is going mainstream, the name Selena Gomez being included in the cast list was a big tip off. It’s a very strange state of affairs, the impression it gives is one of a situation where someone asked the director to make a film that was more accessible to general audiences and he agreed but decided to keep his style while simultaneously throwing in ridiculous moments that would typically please a mainstream audience. Granted, if you have no experience with Jarmusch’s films prior to this one, it’s going to seem completely outfield of your expectations and most likely not in a good way. This is a filmmaker who’s made a career out of being excellent at making films where nothing in particular actually happens, you’re just spending a couple hours in the lives of unusual characters and yet it always works, so tackling a genre where a lot needs to happen, was a very different kind of challenge. It’s genuinely hard to say whether he succeeded, it doesn’t stray overly far outside of what you’d expect from a zombie film but at the same time it takes away various key elements.
One of the main draws from a zombie film is the allowance for unfiltered violence, no-one has to feel bad because they’re not hurting people, they’re saving people but Jarmusch made the choice to swap out blood for ashes. It creates an utterly different visual and experience, one which cuts the gore off before it can get going, yes the victims still do present that aspect but in a quite restrained way, so the usual satisfaction from all out carnage is entirely missing. Blended with his typical deadpan style comedy and given that it could so easily be missed by those who don’t favour it, it may appear bland and one note. A lot of the comedy comes from their excessive politeness, even to the attacking zombies, it’s funny but as the strongest humour coming from the script, a little disappointing, which similarly cuts down on another key element. It comes across that Jarmusch is telling a zombie story that’s a larger metaphor for climate change, the issue is seen through a more collective perspective than the inward, closed and almost claustrophobic style that many will be used to, it’s note quite strong enough to be justified from taking focus away from its leads.
It would be hard to argue that the cast list isn’t impressive, even including those who felt thrown in to appease a wider audience, but despite some great pairings, particularly leads Murray and Driver, and Jones with RZA and Glover, for the most part it feels that they had more to give but without the chance. There’s a few outliers, particularly Waits, his loner, hermit philosophy is forced and fits a narrator type role while never actually doing so, perhaps if he had his character wouldn’t feel like overkill. There’s also Sevigny’s character, one of the few to actually be afraid when the zombies hit, despite being a police officer, it unfortunately feels somewhat sexist and unnecessary, when she had the potential for a more interesting role. Swinton gives her regular oddity, a Scottish accent and enhanced pale visage, it feels like it walks the line extremely closely between interesting and repetitive.
There are a couple of classic eye roll moments, a few too easy jokes and a fourth wall break that falls fairly flat but there is still enough to be enjoyed underneath that. It’s a great cast, even if they don’t all get much of a moment to shine, the comedy is a bit of a mixed bag and the writing isn’t as strong as in some of his previous films. It’s a shame that they chose to pull back on the more violent aspects, which would have compensated for the softer tone of the comedy, missing the opportunity to give it a sharper edge. The strange blend of overtly accessible story with Jarmusch’s eccentric and very particular style is an interesting experiment but not one that’s entirely successful.