The Dead Don't Die, Cannes 2019, review: Jim Jarmusch fails to bring new life to the zombie genre
Jarmusch has a tremendous cast, many of whom have worked with him before, but he doesn’t do much with them
Dir: Jim Jarmusch; Starring: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloe Sevigny.
The 72nd Cannes Festival opened on a muted note on Tuesday evening with the world premiere of Jim Jarmusch’s pallid zombie comedy, The Dead Don’t Die. This is Jarmusch at his most low key. He has a tremendous cast, many of whom have worked with him before, but he doesn’t do much with them. Actors such as Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Steve Buscemi give strangely listless and deadpan performances. Tilda Swinton brings some comic vim to her role as a samurai-like undertaker with a broad Scottish accent while Caleb Landry Jones and Danny Glover are good value as they take a stand against the undead in the local convenience store, but neither the satire nor the slapstick here are as sharp as you would like them to be.
Jarmusch sets the film in a small, very sleepy town called Centerville, somewhere in the middle of the United States. Local police officers Chief Cliff Robertson (Murray) and his equally phlegmatic sidekick Officer Ronnie Peterson (Driver) have been investigating the disappearance of animals belonging to Farmer Miller (Buscemi). The main suspect is Hermit Bob (a very hirsute Tom Waits looking like the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz), who lives in the woods. There is also a third police officer, Minerva “Mindy” Morrison (Chloe Sevigny) – quite a number of cops for what appears to be a tiny community.
Locals are noticing strange changes around them. Polar fracking has shifted the globe from its axis. It doesn’t get dark at the right time. Cell phones mysteriously stop working, even when they are fully charged. Zombies soon start clambering out of the graves.
Jarmusch enjoys taking potshots at Trump’s America. We are in a world of fake news and casual racism where the experts in the media all deny that the fracking has anything to do with the sudden, irreversible changes to the environment. Some of the best scenes here show the zombies on the prowl. They are all drawn to what most obsessed them when they were still alive, whether it’s wifi, chardonnay, Xanax or, in the case of Iggy Pop (making a hilarious cameo appearance) coffee.
As ever, Bill Murray takes everything in his stride. He may be caught in the middle of a full-blown zombie apocalypse but he doesn’t ever raise his voice or lose his flair for ironic understatement and sarcasm. Adam Driver is likewise detached and self-possessed, even when the end is nigh.
At times, the self-knowing humour is too clever for its own good. The characters appear to know that they are appearing in a movie. One of them starts talking about his exasperation that “Jim” (the director Jarmusch) didn’t share more of the script with him in advance. The gag about Adam Driver and Star Wars is funny enough in its own way but underlines the fact that the film isn’t taking itself remotely seriously. Nothing here is at all full-blooded. The living protagonists seem almost as anaemic as the zombies. When it comes to flesh-eating, these zombies themselves aren’t as ravenous as might have been anticipated. The humans decapitate them in the same disinterested way they might go about lopping branches from a hedge.
Jarmusch’s approach is deliberately quirky and stylised. There are no real romantic subplots or attempts to develop character. A mood of fatalism runs throughout the movie. It’s there in the country and western song which gives the film its title and in the frequent lines in which protagonists remind themselves that everything is bound to end up badly. Bits of The Dead Don’t Die are funny enough in a sitcom way. The make-up is ingenious and the scenes of the zombies behaving in a relentlessly materialistic way have real comic resonance. Selena Gomez lends a little energy to the film as an out of town hipster. There are clever nods to Alfred Hitchcock and George Romero. However, given the huge amounts of films that have already been made about the undead, it’s very hard to bring new life to the zombie genre. There is a dispiriting sense here that Jarmusch is going through the motions.