It’s been 15 years since the release of Shaun of the Dead, and 10 years since Zombieland, with its fabulous Bill Murray cameo, so it might seem odd that the glitzy opening-night film of this year’s prestigious Cannes Film Festival should be a zombie comedy starring none other than Bill Murray. Sure enough, Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die isn’t likely to go down in the Cannes annals as one of its greatest ever choices. A quietly quirky homage to 1950s sci-fi B-movies, most obviously Plan 9 From Outer Space, it shambles along at the pace of a reanimated cannibal, and it contains no anti-consumerist satire that wasn’t in George A Romero’s seminal zombie films decades ago. But there is something genuinely sad going on beneath its hipster hijinks, and for an absurdist undead-apocalypse pastiche, that’s quite something.
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Murray plays Cliff, a tired but good-natured police officer who works with two young partners, Ronnie (Adam Driver) and Mindy (Chloë Sevigny). The three of them, who have matching Buddy Holly glasses along with matching uniforms, have the easy job of patrolling sleepy Centerville, a scenic rural town with a three-figure population and a signpost declaring it “A Real Nice Place”. It’s not all nice, though. The mightily bearded Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) takes pot-shots at Cliff and Ronnie when they visit him in the woods. Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi) sports an ungrammatical “Keep America White Again” baseball cap. No one has much time for Bobby Wiggins (Caleb Landry Jones), whose petrol station is also a shop selling pop-culture memorabilia – zombie memorabilia specifically. And everyone is suspicious of the new Scottish undertaker (Tilda Swinton) with long white hair and a samurai sword.
That’s just the beginning. Within minutes, animals are disappearing, watches and radios are malfunctioning, and night doesn’t fall when it is supposed to. Meanwhile, there are reports that “polar fracking” might have knocked the Earth off its axis. When corpses start climbing out of the ground to snack on the local diner’s staff, rather than on its doughnuts, no one is too surprised.
It works best if you think of it not as a zombie comedy but as a zombie tragicomedy
Most of the humour in The Dead Don’t Die consists of winking references to other zombie films and to the actors’ public personas: RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan turns up as a delivery man who works for WuPS instead of UPS, for instance, and Rosie Perez is a newscaster named Posie Juarez. As for the zombie Iggy Pop, well, he’s more or less the same as the living Iggy Pop. This deadpan (or undeadpan) postmodernism will irritate some viewers, but it has a purpose beyond prompting a few wry chuckles. The point seems to be that the characters – like all of us, perhaps – are trapped in roles that are beyond their control. It’s an idea that is there from the opening of the film. As the credits roll, a country ballad by Sturgill Simpson called The Dead Don’t Die is playing. Soon afterwards, Cliff and Ronnie hear the song on the radio. Why is the tune so familiar, asks Cliff. “Well, because it’s the theme song,” explains Ronnie.
Silly and arch as The Dead Don’t Die may be, its vein of fatalism is touching and even profound. The characters aren’t just stuck in a zombie movie. On some level, they know they’re stuck in a zombie movie – and there is nothing they can do about it. Jarmusch, who wrote and directed the film, appears to believe that’s where our society finds itself. At one stage, just when we want Cliff and Ronnie to come up with an ingenious plan to defeat the ravenous undead hordes, they decide that they might as well surrender. Considering the parlous state of the world today, that despair is more bleakly resonant than any number of jokes about US materialism.
Sevigny is heart-wrenching as someone who, instead of being the tough cop we might expect, is too upset to keep fighting. And Murray’s trademark droll understatement gives way to a revelatory depiction of a desperate, vulnerable old man. The Dead Don’t Die probably works best if you think of it not as a zombie comedy but as a zombie tragicomedy. The message isn’t that the dead don’t die: the message is that the living do die, every last one of us.
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