Cannes Film Festival has a dubious track record when it comes to starry opening films, as anyone who caught notorious 2014 stinker Grace Of Monaco can attest. But The Dead Don’t Die, an all-star zom-com from hipster auteur Jim Jarmusch, is a more satisfying opening platter than most, even if it doesn’t deliver the full buffet of brains you’re hoping for.
Total Film at Cannes 2019
Despite genre trappings built on a bedrock of respectful fondness for George A. Romero’s zombie classics, and a cast of indie darlings (among their ranks: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny, Tilda Swinton, Selena Gomez, Steve Buscemi, RZA and Iggy Pop), The Dead Don’t Die is every bit as unhurried, meandering and arch as anything else in Jarmusch’s oeuvre, for good and bad. Murray, Driver and Sevigny play three local cops in the tiny town of Centerville, a “real nice place” with a population of precisely 738. Through news reports we learn that polar fracking has knocked the Earth off its axis, causing all manner of chaos to the natural order of things. The sun sets at odd hours, technology ceases to function and, oh yeah, the dead start to burst out of the ground and roam the earth.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a Jim Jarmusch zombie film, The Dead Don’t Die takes an inordinate amount of time for even a single reanimated corpse to make an appearance. In the opening 30 minutes we’re introduced to a colourful ensemble and gently eased into the sleepy rhythm of life in middle-of-nowhere-ville, America. Jarmusch is in his element here, and while it it has none of the warmth or poetry of his most recent film – 2016’s Paterson, also starring Driver – there’s a beguiling charm to the series of off-kilter conversations going on around town, most of which have no real purpose, or relevance, to the zompocalypse about to unfold.
When the dead do (eventually) rise, Jarmusch can’t resist the familiar sight of spilled entrails and doors barricaded by 2x4’s, which are de rigueur for the genre. Rather than a constant onslaught of undead, however, the shambling, generally unthreatening nature of the walking (not running) corpses here means the majority of The Dead Don’t Die is left to unfold with a consistent supply of wry, witty exchanges. The result is a film that, though consistently chucklesome, is never gut-bustingly funny, while a tricksy streak of self-aware meta humour pushes the film into smug, slightly too pleased with itself territory by the somewhat desperate third act.
The film’s attempts at satirical social commentary don’t fare much better. Jibes at Trump’s America (Buscemi’s “asshole” farmer wears a familiar red baseball cap emblazoned with the phrase “Make America White Again”) feel half-hearted and underdeveloped, while the idea that the zombies are driven by their mortal materialistic desires, wandering the earth groaning “coff-ee” while eviscerating the workers at a local diner, or “wi-fi” while clinging onto mobile phones, is an idea at least as old as Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead. This comes to a head with a lecture from Tom Waits’ “hermit bob”, an outsider who sees and knows all, and condemns the zombies as capitalist culture manifest. It’s an odd choice; Jarmusch, after all, is fully aware he’s following in the footsteps of Romero. But by adding nothing new to the debate it just feels like he’s 40 years late to the party.
There are silver linings. Bill Murray and Adam Driver make a highly watchable and entertaining deadpan double act. Driver is particularly good value, proving the comedic chops he deployed in Logan Lucky weren’t a one off. He takes to zombie slaying with worrying ease, but he also has a delightfully wholesome streak – calmly exclaiming “oh, yuck!” after decapitating a drunk with a machete. But Tilda Swinton is the film’s scene stealer extraordinaire as Scottish samurai/mortician Zelda, a typically surreal creation who likes to call people by their full name and dispatches the undead with a single slice of her sword. She’s a treat, but too many of the characters get lost in the ensemble, most notably Selena Gomez as a big city hipster who swings by town to no real effect, and three teens in juvie whose subplot fizzles from the moment they’re introduced.
It’s a prime example of a film that looks like it must have been an absolute riot to make, but isn’t quite as fun to watch. And if it’s scares you’re after, best to move along – there isn’t a single fright to be found here. Post Shaun Of The Dead, and even Zombieland (in which Murray cameoed to hilarious effect), it can’t compete with even the best undead movies of recent years, let alone the greats. In other words, this is a zombie film that’s lacking bite.
For more from Cannes Film Festival 2019 why not read this interview with John Carpenter, fresh from the Croisette.