Cannes Film Fest 2019: Dead Don’t Die–Jarmusch’s Light, Slight Zombie Comedy, Starring Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton

The best thing to be said about Jim Jarmusch’s light horror-comedy, The Dead Don’t Die, which served as opening night of the 2019 Cannes Film Fest, is that it features a large, illustrious ensemble of the director’s regulars (Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny, Tilda Swinton, Iggy Pop, Steve Buscemi, Tom Waits), as well as newcomers (Selena Gomez, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Carol Kane).

The tale is set in the sleepy, fictitious small town of Centerville.  Something is not quite right: The moon hangs large and low in the sky, the hours of daylight are becoming unpredictable, and animals begin to exhibit unusual behaviors.  No one quite knows the reasons for this social disorder. The news reports are scary and incoherent, and the scientists are bewildered, to say the least.

No one foresees the strangest and most dangerous repercussion, which begins plaguing Centerville: The Dead Don’t Die.  They rise from their graves and savagely attack and feast on the living, forcing the town’s residents battle for their survival. (Start counting, who gets killed first, when, and under what circumstances).

As writer and director, Jarmusch aims high, intending to 0ffer a raucous, rueful and satirical glimpse at American habits and desires now.  But after the first reel, it becomes clear that the tale is not only slender, but also quite repetitive. Some of the repetitions in verbiage and dialogue are deliberate, while others are not. You keep waiting for something really scary or really funny or really significant to happen, but nothing does.

This movie represents a step down for Jarmusch, who over the past several years, has made some of his strongest films, such as Paterson, starring Adam Driver, and Only Lovers Left Alive, a much more satisfying take on the vampire genre, starring Tilda Swinton, than this deconstruction of the popular zombie genre.

Jarmusch is a regular presence at the Cannes Film Fest.  The Dead Don’t Die marks his tenth trip to the Croisette, having last appeared at Cannes in competition with Paterson in 2016, the same year he also premiered Gimme Danger, a documentary on Iggy & The Stooges, out of competition.

The filmmaker has been at Cannes with most of his previous features, including Only Lovers Left Alive, Broken Flowers (winner of the Grand Jury Prize), Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Dead Man,
Mystery Train, Down by Law, Stranger Than Paradise (winner of the Camera d’Or), and “Coffee and Cigarettes,” which won the Best Short Film prize in 1993.

The organizing principle of the narrative is a triad.  The characters are divided into groups composed of three members. Thus, Bill Murray, Adam Driver and Chloë Sevigny play police officers in the
three-cop town of Centerville. After doubts and hesitation, they are forced into action when flesh-eating zombies invade their tiny hamlet.

To his credits, Jarmusch offers a garden variety of zombies, there are cell phone zombies, fashion zombies–in fact every kind of zombie imaginable. 

The Dead Don’t Die is more effective as a depiction of gruesome bloodbath (the entire last reel), but less convincing as a droll metaphor for America’s current predilection, caused by a corrupt administration, headed by President Donald Trump.

The cause of the malaise per Jarmusch is the U.S. conducting polar fracking, which has led the earth to slip off its axis.  As a result, the ice caps melt, the sun stays up during the night, the moon stays up during the day, and the dead start coming out of their graves.  Crucial scenes are set in the town’s cemetery, an all-too obvious allusion to Romero’s classic, The Night of the Living Dead.

Adding a semi-poignant, quasi-comedic touch, Jarmusch’s undead lurch back to life in search of a past hobby or fixation, capable of uttering only a single beseeching word.

Who are the characters?

Country singer Sturgill Simpson, who composed the film’s theme song, appears in a cameo as an undead musician, stalking the streets of Centerville with an acoustic-electric in tow, gutturally croaking “Guitar!”

Tilda Swinton, who returns to the Jarmusch fold for the fourth time, has one of the movie’s better written roles. Stealing every scene she is in, Swinton plays the Scottish-accented mortuary owner, Zelda Winston, who talks to the dead before abruptly killing them with her long, sharp sword. The character’s origins and last name are, of course, self-referential–Tilda Swinton is Scottish.

Larry Fessenden, the cult horror director (Depraved), appears as a motel owner named Danny Perkins, referencing in both reel and real name Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates of Psycho.

The major fault of the film is not its episodic structure, which is necessary, but its lack of narrative ideas, character development, and so on.  Only sporadically whimsical, The Dead Don’t Die is an extremely slight film, one that promises but does not deliver, one that barks lightly but seldom really bites.

If the Cannes world premiere (which I had attended, tux and all) is of any indication, Focus Features, which releases the movie, faces an uphill battle in putting this one over.  The reaction of the first audience was polite but mute, with brief and quiet applause, but no loud cheers or standing ovation (which almost every premiere in Cannes gets as a matter of routine).