Zombie Apocalypse Comedy 'The Dead Don't Die' Can't Quite Live Up to Its Cast or Premise
For more Cannes 2019 coverage, read about our favorite movies of the festival.
The Dead Don't Die, Jim Jarmusch's new zombie apocalypse comedy starring Adam Driver and Bill Murray, works better as an idea than as an actual movie. I can't tell you how many times I scrubbed back and forth on the day the trailer came out to hear Adam Driver say "ghouls" ("guouuls"), or to watch Tom Waits pop up from behind a bunch of bushes wielding binoculars. The Dead Don't Die, which just premiered at Cannes, is billed as a loving callback to '60s B-grade monster movies. Unfortunately, Jarmusch embraces all of the tired, outdated tropes of the genre, and none of the good.
The town of Centerville, "A Real Nice Place," is about to feel the effects of a global catastrophe. Shaken from its axis by "polar fracking," the Earth has been destabilized, and the rules of nature are out of joint. Naturally, this means that the dead are free to walk the earth, bursting from their coffins and digging their way to the surface, intent on consuming the flesh of the living.
Small-town cops Ronnie (Driver) and Cliff (Murray) are caught up in the middle of it, and must help the citizens of their town survive the onslaught, or die trying. Other key players include Danny Glover as Hank, a diner regular, Caleb Landry Jones as Bobby, a video store employee, Selena Gomez as a hipster from the big city, and Tilda Swinton as a Scottish funeral director with an extended katana-wielding scene.
The cast, obviously, is great, and each of them is given a little space to enjoy their roles. Wu-Tang member RZA is particularly funny as a self-serious "WU-PS" delivery driver. But the problem with a movie with so many cast members as slowly-paced as this one is that none of those great characters really get that much to do. They all have a few scenes to themselves, but Driver and Murray shoulder most of the load. Steve Buscemi wears a "Keep America White Again" hat so you know what you can expect whenever he's onscreen. Tom Waits pretty much spends the entire time in the woods, muttering about mushrooms and "toxic lunar vibrations." Chloë Sevingy plays the only female cop -- coincidentally the only cop to immediately lose her cool in the face of violence.
There are a lot of funny moments and little visual jokes as well (the large Adam Driver in a teeny SmartCar), but most of the humor is situational -- as in, it's funny to hear these actors say lines like "toxic lunar vibrations" or "ghouls," but the script itself, after a while, loses a lot of its charm. It also doesn't help that, for some reason, Jarmusch picked a monotone, Yorgos Lanthimos-esque style of delivery for all of his actors, having them speak all their lines as if they worked at the DMV. There's no clear reason for doing it like this, other than that maybe Jarmusch thinks all small-town folks are slow talkers.
The film takes a dive as soon as the inevitable metaphorical nature of the zombie apocalypse is revealed: the zombies, when they're not thirsting for the meat of humans, gravitate towards things they loved in life, murmuring "cooooffeeeeee," "wiiiiiifiiiiiiii," "xaaaaanaaaaax"... it's not hard to unpack. By the end, you can't help feeling like you've seen this movie done before, and better, with much more life in it than in Jarmusch's sodden experiment.
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