Cannes 2019: The Dead Don't Die Review
All of George A Romero’s classic zombie films functioned as social commentaries on America; Night of the Living Dead was a bleak essay on race relations, while Dawn of the Dead bit into the country’s descent into mindless consumerism. Jim Jarmusch’s take on the horror sub-genre also has social commentary in mind, taking aim at the corporate interests of energy companies that have accelerated the climate crisis - and our indifference in the face of such existential danger.
But despite pointed satirical intentions, The Dead Don’t Die doesn’t make points beyond stating the obvious, and even those are lost amidst a tribute to campy B-movies: two disparate elements that don’t work in tandem. Jarmusch is not normally attracted to material that could have a deeper political meaning - and the sheer clumsiness of this allegorical tale shows why he has evaded such subject matter for so long.
Due to fracking in the North Pole, the world has stopped spinning on its axis, accelerating a climate crisis in unexpected ways. This shift in the atmosphere initially only affects the weather, with the sun remaining high even in the deaf of night - but soon, in the middle American town of Centreville, the dead start coming back to life and terrorising the citizens. Local police officers Cliff, Ronnie and Mindy (Bill Murray, Adam Driver and Chloe Sevigny respectively) aim to try and keep the town’s citizens safe after the owner of a diner and a patron get viciously mauled, but with everybody in this universe knowing the grim outcome of every zombie movie, they don’t hide their pessimism as to how this one ends.
Although not a zombie film, Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof (part of his Grindhouse project with Robert Rodriguez) is the clearest analogy for The Dead Don’t Die: a director trying to imitate a form of B-movie he sincerely appreciates right down to its low quality, hoping that filtering it through his stylistic lens will make it less arduous for the audience. On this level, it feels like a chore; a deliberate attempt to mimic a maligned form of cinema that results in something desperate to be hailed as a cult movie, practically begging to bypass casual audiences and be thrown straight into a midnight circuit it feels reverse engineered to please. Throw in the political commentary and the whole thing becomes insufferable, where a serious message is buried under endless layers of knowing hipster humour. You could call it intentionally nihilistic in how it ignores anything beyond the basics of the issue it’s addressing, much like the audience does on a daily basis. But you can’t hide the fact that it has nothing new to say.
Outside of the confused balance between commentary and unashamed B-movie tributes, the film throws a whole host of ideas at the wall in the hope that any of them will stick. Most notably, within the first five minutes, it throws a fourth wall breaking meta gag, only to forget about this until the dying moments of the final act - and evokes a meta commentary on the relationship between the message and the person expressing it in the laziest way possible. The only positive is that Jarmusch, one of cinema’s most inherently cool filmmakers, has still delivered the unexpected: the first effort in his filmography that could be described as lame.
The Dead Don't Die will open in US cinemas on 14th June and hit UK cinemas on 12th July.