The Dead Don’t Die review stumbling zombie comedy kicks off Cannes
Bill Murray, Adam Driver and Chlo Sevigny lead Jim Jarmuschs droll but directionless opening nighter
Jim Jarmuschs undeadpan comedy is laconic, lugubrious and does not entirely come to life, despite many witty lines and tremendously assured performances by an A-list cast. Its a droll if directionless riff on a fondly remembered, affectionately reanimated genre: the middle-America zombie nightmares of George A Romero, when the flesh-munching bodies tumble out of their graves, now utterly surrendered to the conformism, consumerism and cannibalistic narcissism that ate away their souls, long before their ostensible death.
The Dead Dont Die naturally alludes to these traditional satirical expressions of zombie-ism we get zombie teens mumbling wifi there are hints at Samuel Fuller and Robert Bloch and with zombie-ism symbolising the persistence of memory and lost loved ones, there might even be a reference to William Faulkners line about the past being never dead and not even past. But Jarmuschs movie is in danger of succumbing to a zombie-ism of its own: a narcotic torpor of self-aware coolness.
Bill Murray, Adam Driver and Chlo Sevigny play three hardworking cops, Cliff, Ronnie and Mindy, in the fictional US town of Centerville, a place devoted to middle-of-the-road values. Cliff is their easygoing but weary chief. They have to deal with various recalcitrant locals like Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) and the reactionary and disagreeable Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi). Theres also Bobby (Caleb Landry Jones), who runs the local gas-station-slash-comic-book-shop, likable Hank (Danny Glover), a regular at the diner run by Lily (Eszter Balint) and Posie (Rosie Perez).
But something very strange is going on. The folks thereabouts are discombobulated by the new Scottish proprietor of the local funeral home, Zelda (Tilda Swinton), an ethereal yet plain-speaking figure with a samurai sword. The cops radio comms arent working, and the daylight weirdly persists even though their watches are telling them it should be sundown. Then the corpse of recently deceased neighbourhood drunk Mallory OBrien (Carol Kane) starts twitching and zombies claw their way out of their graves, evidently dislodged by a global imbalance caused by polar fracking. One zombie is obsessed with coffee and is played by Iggy Pop not looking all that different from the way he habitually does. In casting terms, its a stroke of genius.
The movie is leavened with cinephile references: when three kids show up at Bobbys store wanting to know where they might stay, there is a brief discussion of the motel in Psycho, this being written by Bloch, who also wrote a short story about zombies called The Dead Dont Die, adapted into a 1970s TV movie by Curtis Harrington.
There is much pleasure to be had looking at the impassive, knowing faces of Sevigny, Driver and especially Murray, who dont need to say or do much to be extremely watchable and funny. Having said that, there are plenty of laugh-lines and running gags, especially when the stunned police and TV news journalists start speculating in similar ways about what can have caused a spate of violent deaths.
But the dialogue scenes between Driver and Murray are often let down by some slightly feeble meta-comedy, in which the characters display a smirking awareness of their fictional status. This Pirandellian flourish isnt rigorously maintained and feels a bit studenty. Then theres the age-old issue of where were going with it all. Traditionally, theres no great need for a zombie movie to have plot reversals or narrative twists; the simple spectacle of increasing mayhem can be enough although Edgar Wrights Shaun of the Dead has interesting moments of tension and jeopardy connected with what happens when you know that someone you love is going to turn into a zombie.
The Dead Dont Die doesnt have a plot progression as such something certainly happens to Zelda, though it seems like a throwaway gag inadvertently demonstrating that Jarmusch is perilously close to running out of ideas. Deadness and eternal life have interested him before in movies like Dead Man (1995) and Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) and the eternal ascetic solitude of the samurai in Ghost Dog Way of the Samurai (1999). Comedy is important in these film: they are not to be taken entirely seriously, and yet the portion that is serious is very serious.
But The Dead Dont Die very occasionally seems flippant and unfinished, an assemblage of ideas, moods and prestigious actors circling around each other in a shaggy dog tale. But its always viewable in its elegant deliberation and controlled tempo of weird normality and beautifully photographed in an eerie dusk by Frederick Elmes.