A ripple of expectation and goodwill ran through the crowd awaiting this year’s Cannes Film Festival opener. The Dead Don’t Die promised a B-movie premise elevated by an A-list cast: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton and Chloë Sevigny leading a zombie comedy from indie darling Jim Jarmusch.
It begins like Fargo crossbred with Shaun of the Dead. Murray and Driver are two yawningly insouciant cops in a middle-American small town seeing the first stirrings of uncanny activity: eclectic electrics, faltering phone coverage, then a hand emerging Carrie-like from a grave. The population is 738 and soon falling.
Murray and Driver investigate with all the urgency of two sleep-deprived basset hounds, the actors deadpanning delightfully all the way — anything you can do, I can do more laconically. They are joined by a permanently startled Sevigny and eventually a samurai sword-swinging Swinton, whose character grows more out-there with every appearance: “She’s strange; she’s Scottish”, comes the explanation.
The star turns come thick and fast — Steve Buscemi ranting in a “Keep America White Again” cap; Selena Gomez as a perky hipster — and with them the first knowing nods towards life in the 21st century. The first zombies are dealt with amusingly and bring more cameos — Carol Kane must have spent hours in make-up for her transformation; Iggy Pop perhaps not so much. The dominant mode is slapstick splattercore, with yucks (of all kinds) aplenty.
Yet Driver keeps intoning “This is gonna end badly” and he’s not wrong. As the film wears on, it becomes clear that, unlike the doggedly plodding zombies, The Dead Don’t Die has little notion of where it is heading. We get some thinly sketched eco-allegory (news reports on polar fracking) and segues into sketch-show satire as screen-fixated members of the undead groan things like “WiFi”. By the time we’re treated to Tom Waits’s sermonising voiceover on the perils of consumerism, it is the audience that is groaning as running gags begin to limp and land with the same dull thud as the decapitated heads of the undead.
The trouble is the zombie comedy has already been done to near-death over decades — Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy, Peter Jackson’s Braindead, Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead. Jarmusch has a proven ability to take old genres and give them new life, even horror ones — in 2013’s Only Lovers Left Alive he gave the vampire movie a fresh twist by reimagining bloodsuckers as Byronesque bohemians — but here he comes up short on ideas. Attempts at mirthful meta-commentary — references to soundtrack, script, even director — might seem fresh if Looney Tunes hadn’t deployed them 60-plus years ago.
Instead the biggest laugh of the night came before the film had even begun, when, during a live stream of the festival’s opening ceremony, Murray was caught “resting his eyes” before the director hurriedly cut away from him. Perhaps he was dreaming of better films to come in Cannes — there will no doubt be plenty of them.
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