“The Dead Don’t Die” was the opening film at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. When you look at it’s star studded cast — Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Steve Buscemi, Selena Gomez and more — it seems like a logical choice. But when you realize it’s a zombie comedy, both the cast and it’s opening slot may provoke a head scratch.
The film was written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, an indie film king famous for “Stranger Than Paradise.” “The Dead Don’t Die” is in homage to the B-grade sci-fi monster movies of the ‘50s and ‘60s. It is full of nods to classic horror and zombie movies. This film provides an interesting twist on the usual campy monster movie.
It focuses on the town of Centerville, which is representative of your average drive-through town anywhere. The film follows various residents as the planet faces life-threatening astronomical change.
This change is sensed early on, as the sun is still high in the sky late in the day, animals are missing and watches and phones stop functioning. Through news reports, delivered by Posie Juarez (Rosie Perez,) we learn that Earth has been tilted off its axis and the rules of nature have been upended. Of course, this leads to a rising of the dead.
The movie is written with a distinct tone that will either draw you in or leave you a little confused. It has a very dry and sincere humor that relies on repetition to land the best jokes. The dialogue and plot move at a leisurely pace that is at times slower than the zombies.
Every element of the movie feels very intentional. The visual aesthetic is set to an extremely minimal soundtrack (there is exactly one song.) Jarmusch also imbibes the script with a heavy amount of self awareness that doesn’t always land its comedic intentions. The film has flashes of campiness that could make the movie fun, but they never last very long.
The cast is probably the strongest part of this film. It is a large ensemble performance and there are no weak links to be found. You can fully believe that this is a small town full of people that have known each other for years.
Bill Murray and Adam Driver build a great buddy cop chemistry. Tom Waits is a great wood-lurking hermit just at the edge of the action observing. Caleb Landry Jones gives a markedly less creepy performance than his role in “Get Out.” Tilda Swinton elevates the material she is given, as she often does, transforming into a bizarre Scottish undertaker with an affinity for Samurai swords. Chloe Sevigny’s performance was a bit frustrating, but that largely boils down to the writing of her character more than her acting.
Honestly, the cast almost feels too big. Other than Bill Murray and Adam Driver, not many characters are given more than one extended scene to work with. You are left wanting to know more about each character than the top line traits they are given.
The depiction of the zombies is the perfect mix of gore and comedy. They rip into bodies voraciously but the low quality practical effects keep the levity.
The film’s biggest downfall is the heavy handed cultural commentary that is threaded throughout. The movie takes aim at too much as it invokes messages of global warming, government conspiracies, rising racial tensions and intolerable hipsters. The latter seems like an odd choice because it seems like this movie is largely a hipster’s wet dream.
In some moments it feels fitting, like when Steve Buscemi’s character is wearing a “Make America White Again” hat while chatting with a black man at a diner. But more often it feels particularly forced. Most blatant is the sudden monologue on consumerism and materialism that is dubbed over the final battle with the zombies.
Overall, the movie is a pretty good watch. If you are a fan of the classic B-rated horror movies you will probably enjoy it very much. It is only disappointing because it easily could have been so much better.