In Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die, Adam Driver and Chloë Sevigny play Deputy Ronnie Peterson and Officer Mindy Morrison, cops in the small town of Centerville (apparently in rural Pennsylvania) dealing with a mysterious zombie invasion. Both take the threat very seriously—Ronnie continuously intones that the day will not end well, and Mindy becomes increasingly panicked—though the film’s overall tone is one of deadpan amusement. And the two actors recall that they couldn’t entirely take the ghouls seriously off-camera.
“It was always comedy when we weren’t shooting,” Driver says, “because you’d see these zombies doing very pedestrian things, like asking PAs where the bathroom is. There was also a moment when they were doing tai chi; Jim sent me a video of that.”
“There was the one on the street,” Sevigny says, “where Adam chops his head off, and he bumps into the car and hits the ground. He came up to me afterward, and it turned out we have all these mutual friends in common because he was an ex-professional skateboarder who went into stunts. I was like, ‘Whoa, really? What do you look like without all this gack on?’ That makes so much sense, because a big part of skateboarding is learning how to fall.”
“There was a scene where they were surrounding the car that was actually pretty creepy,” Driver adds. “Being in the car with all these zombies approaching was all very funny until they came close, and then it got rather worrisome.”
The Dead Don’t Die, which Focus Features releases Friday, is an absurdist entry in the strain of zombie movies that carry social commentary in the midst of the flesheating. According to Driver, who previously starred in Jarmusch’s Paterson, the filmmaker has been carrying the idea around for a while. “Even before Jim wrote this movie, he would always make jokes about people being phone zombies, kind of lumbering around New York with their heads down, just somewhere else and not paying attention to the world around them. So this film uses the metaphor of people being addicted to things like Wifi and addiction in general, and how we’ve surrounded ourselves with things that force us to be introspective as opposed to being aware of what’s around us.”
In the film, Driver and Sevigny share the aforementioned cop car, plus several scenes at the Centerville police station, with Bill Murray, playing Chief Cliff Robertson. The duo recall that Murray always kept things interesting during the shoot—often playing music between setups (“Sometimes it was appropriate, sometimes it wasn’t,” Sevigny says) and, at one point, taking the three of them out for a spin in that cruiser when rain delayed filming.
“He was like, ‘Do you want to go for a ride?’ ” Driver explains, “and we said, ‘Yeah.’ As we were driving, we realized we didn’t have any money or phones and we were running low on gas, and then we found a farmer’s stand. We went in and got groceries with no money—Bill said he would come back and pay for them—and then we found our way back to set and started shooting [laughs]. We were already under pressure because we didn’t have time to spare anyway, but nobody said anything to us about it. Everyone sort of pretended it didn’t happen.”
“I was afraid we were going to get in a lot of trouble when we got back to set,” Sevigny continues. “Apparently they were furious, they just didn’t express it. And isn’t it illegal to go around dressed as a cop? I was a little concerned about that too.”
“I believed we were kind of safe,” Driver replies. “I don’t know why, because we had fake guns and everything, and he turned on the lights when we pulled into the place.”
“I feel like Bill could get away with anything; he’s a charmer,” adds Sevigny, who says that no one in the farm stand was starstruck when the trio walked in the door. “Bill had been in there prior, so they already knew him—they’d experienced The Bill Show [laughs]. They had already watched that program. It was very low-key and cool.”
“They were like, ‘Take some apples, take some muffins,’ and that was it,” Driver says.
In general, shooting in the tiny upstate New York town of Fleischmanns was a positive experience for both the Dead Don’t Die team and the local residents. “The townspeople embraced us,” Sevigny says, “and there were a lot of fans of Jim and Bill around, and having a sense of the community that wasn’t hating us was kind of nice [laughs]! Usually when a film production descends on an area, there’s a lot of eye-rolling, but they seemed down with it, and it was very cool to be welcomed by them.”
That negativity, she points out, tends to happen more often in more heavily populated areas, like her hometown of New York City. “There’s a lot of production paying people off because they’ve got the generators and the idling and lights and all of that. I used to live on 10th Street by St. Mark’s Church, and they always shot on that block. I remember one time lying in bed, and hearing ‘Places!’ or ‘Back to one!’ And I woke up like, ‘What? Where am I? Am I expected on set?’ [Laughs] Because they were literally right outside my window!”
Driver, Sevigny, and Murray head up a formidable ensemble for an indie zombie opus in The Dead Don’t Die; there’s someone in the cast for every film fan, and Driver and Sevigny recall being particularly excited about meeting Danny Glover (playing hardware store owner Hank Thompson) and Carol Kane (as soon-to-revive corpse Mallory), respectively. And then there was the awesome Tilda Swinton in a part Jarmusch wrote especially for her: Zelda Winston, a samurai mortician who can hold her own against the marauding undead. “She’s just like she is in the movie: She’s an otherworldly creature, and we’re just sort of basking in her glow,” Sevigny laughs. “Watching her and Jim riff, you could tell how much they were enjoying what she was getting to play with. Seeing her do multiple takes and tweaking things, it was clear she really loves what she does.”
Although all the actors were able to bring their own takes to the material, there wasn’t a great deal of on-set improv, at least where the movie’s police force was concerned. “We were shooting digital,” Sevigny points out, “so sometimes Jim would just keep rolling at the end, and there were moments when Bill and Adam got to add stuff, especially when we were in the car, and also a couple of times in the police station.”
“But not a lot,” Driver says, “nor did we really want to. I felt it wasn’t necessary, because the script was very funny as it was. There were times when Jim felt we had a good rhythm and he would just let us go, but the script was so good, there wasn’t really much to add. Not that if you improv, it means that the script is bad, but…”
The Dead Don’t Die represents Driver’s first venture into the horror genre, while Sevigny has previously appeared in Mary Harron’s American Psycho, Danny Perez’s Antibirth, and Douglas Buck’s remake of Brian De Palma’s Sisters. And speaking of De Palma, she’s enough of a horror fan to have taken offense when one of his classics wasn’t shown its due respect. “I went to see Carrie at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles,” she remembers. “I’d been to see other films there and loved it, and I guess I didn’t realize that Carrie had become a camp classic. People were mocking it, screaming at the screen and laughing, and I got so upset that I had to leave. To me, that movie is so emotional, and I was like, ‘I can’t stand how they’re responding to this!’ ”
In closing, the inevitable question comes up when discussing a film like The Dead Don’t Die: How do its actors think they’d fare if the undead took over? “I think I’d fare pretty well, actually,” Sevigny states. “I’m secretly athletic, and I know some survival skills.”
“I believe I’d find my calling in a zombie apocalypse,” Driver says. “Also because they traditionally move slowly—at least they do in ours—so it seems like that would be an advantage.”