Cannes 2019: Jarmusch's Deadpan Zombie Film 'The Dead Don't Die'
by Alex Billington
May 14, 2019
Jarmusch seems pretty upset about the way things are in our society these days. So he made a zombie film. The Dead Don't Die, a zombie comedy written & directed by American indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch (of Dead Man, Ghost Dog, Coffee and Cigarettes, Broken Flowers, The Limits of Control, Only Lovers Left Alive, Paterson), just premiered at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival as the opening night gala film. This actually isn't so much of a zombie film, as it is social commentary covered with blood and zombie make-up, along with a couple of weary small-town cops who try their best to survive this hell. The film is an extremely obvious criticism of how miserable things are becoming, between climate change and materialism and idiots running America, and how it's all going to end badly no matter what we do. Alas, its wears out its welcome rather quickly and doesn't offer much heart humor to make-up for it, only zombie irony and meta goofiness.
It's should come as surprise to those familiar with his work, but Jarmusch's The Dead Don't Die is a slow burn, deadpan, melodramatic film. This is Jim Jarmusch's typical style and it can work well (see: Paterson), but unfortunately this time it makes the film way too dull and at times boring. There's not much of a story here - we follow two locals cops in a tiny town who are a bit overwhelmed when zombies wake up and start eating people. A few other characters are introduced, but we're never given any reason to care about them, nor do they have an arc or progress in any way, except to be eventually eaten by zombies (and then turn into zombies themselves). Adam Driver stars with Bill Murray playing the local police officers in Centerville ("a real nice place"), joined by Chloë Sevigny as another cop. And then there's Tilda Swinton, who plays a samurai sword-wielding undertaker, which is cool to see but she really has no other point, oddly enough.
There's a batch of other supporting characters – undead and not-yet-dead – who appear throughout and are used as jokes, but most of them are tiny roles or even cameos. The biggest issue with The Dead Don't Die is that, instead of making an actual zombie comedy, Jarmusch is borrowing the zombie genre to express his anger at how fucked up the world has become. He takes advantage of all the usual tropes, references Romero in style and literally in dialogue, and includes some fun kills and fights. But it's so minimal and starts to get repetitive fast. Which is topped off by literally repetitive jokes, which keep coming back for comedic effect, but probably won't make you laugh anyway. There's also some awkward fourth-wall breaking meta-ness that doesn't seem to fit with the rest of the film. Despite trying hard to come up with something clever, nothing in this film is clever or entertaining. Not even the social commentary - which, honestly, is spot on accurate.
If anything, Jarmusch does deserve some credit for making fun of everything wrong with society today, and very bleakly showing us how we're all doomed. He just ended up getting way too high on his desire to wrap brutal social commentary with a small-town zombie apocalypse story. In focusing so much on making this commentary so painfully obvious, he seems to have forgotten about making something actually entertaining. At least there's some cool kills, and a few sparse (un)deadpan laughs. The best part might be Tom Waits playing a hippie-ish "Hermit Bob" character that narrates things and provides the most intriguing wisdom. The rest of it, though, isn't that memorable - except to remind us that it's all going to end badly and there's not much we can do about it even if we try. I'm on Jarmusch's side, I totally get it, and I agree with him – I just found the film to be quite underwhelming and unexciting. Not even Bill Murray can save us from doom.
Alex's Cannes 2019 Rating: 6.5 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing
I'm not much of a fan of zombie movies and have only liked Ghost Dog from this director. I've seen clips and trailers for this film and it looked like all of the actors were trying too hard to be both funny and playing it dead pan at the same time. I didn't like what I saw.
thespiritbo on May 14, 2019
Sounds like you took a hit for the team @dawisebuddha:disqus. Thanks for the solid review and confirming our suspicions. Great aspirations with minor substance/delivery.
THE_RAW_ on May 15, 2019
Hmm, couldn't you also call Romero's Dead-Trilogy "social commentary covered with blood and zombie make-up", though? And he wasn't exactly subtle with his criticism of consumerism in "Dawn" either (f.ex.). I don't think it's a fair criticism, but there may be something about the way Jarmusch executed this (pun not intended) that didn't make it work for you. I'm hearing from your review that it's not funny enough. That alone doesn't deter me from giving it a watch, if only for the cast (especially Tom Waits!), and the "meta goofiness" sounds intriguing too.
Terry Craig on May 16, 2019
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