Leave it to Jim Jarmusch to put the dead in deadpan.
The writer-director brings his trademark laid-back style and delight in subverting genre to “The Dead Don’t Die,” a whacked-out zombie movie that, much to the filmmaker’s surprise, opened the Festival de Cannes on Tuesday night.
“I never thought I’d be in Cannes at all; I especially didn’t think so with this film,” says Jarmusch, an appealingly relaxed silver-haired presence dressed in his usual all-black outfit with sunglasses to match.
Referring to an eclectic cast that includes Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloë Sevigny, Selena Gomez and Tom Waits as Hermit Bob, Jarmusch said he told festival topper Thierry Frémaux, “Cannes may be a big circus, but we brought our own clowns.”
Opening in the U.S. on June 14, “Dead” details what happens when “a full-on zombie apocalypse” hits the mythical town of Centerville (“A Real Nice Place,” it says right there on the sign).
In typical Jarmusch fashion, “Dead” has a lot of amusing idiosyncratic touches, including self-referential comments that Murray and Driver, as the town’s police chief and top deputy, make about the film — cracks about having read the script and the chief asking the deputy if he’s improvising.
Fun is also had with the film’s Sturgill Simpson country-inflected title song, which features the stirring chorus, “After life is over, the afterlife goes on.”
When you add the playful touches to the film’s bleak conclusion and metaphorical references to American life today, critics have treated “Dead” with a seriousness Jarmusch finds a little daunting.
“It’s not intended to be dark and fatalistic; I think of it as a funny film,” the director says.
“It wasn’t like ‘I shall make this grand Pirandellian effort.’ It was ‘Is this amusing me while I’m up at night writing?’ Beyond that I didn’t know. My motto was, ‘We’ll burn that bridge when we get to it.’ ”
In fact, though as a full-on film buff he can name-check everything including horror genre touchstones “Nosferatu” (seen on a T-shirt) and the works of Dario Argento and Mario Bava (not to mention Sam Fuller, whose name appears on a tombstone), Jarmusch is not particularly a fan of the undead.
“I’m not an aficionado of zombie stuff. I’ve never seen ‘Walking Dead’ on TV. I prefer vampires,” he says. (And indeed one of his more recent films was the vampire romance “Only Lovers Left Alive” with Swinton and Tom Hiddleston). “They’re more mysterious, more — I don’t know — intelligent, sexy. And they’re immortal. Zombies are lifeless vessels.”
But Jarmusch appreciated the opportunity a zombie plot gave him “to make a ridiculous film where I could have actors I love holed up in little places, saying a lot of stupid dialogue in those spaces.”
In fact, putting together the cast (also including Danny Glover, Rosie Perez, Iggy Pop, RZA, Carol Kane, horror maestro Larry Fessenden and “Stranger Than Paradise” star Eszter Ballint) turned out to be the best part of the entire venture.
“The hardest thing was our shooting schedule and that we didn’t have a big enough budget and it rained every day,” the director remembers of shooting in a small town two hours outside of New York. “Everyone was doing it as a favor or for very little money, and we were squeezed to death. It’s like that old line: ‘Good, fast, cheap. Pick two.’
“But if we waited to get more money, we would lose parts of our cast. It was get squeezed or we don’t make this film. I talked to (cinematographer) Fred Elmes about whether we should wait, and he said, ‘Why would we do that? Let’s give it our best shot.’”
Still, Jarmusch strove to keep things light on the set, as is his habit. When he shot his previous film, “Paterson” — a lyrical ode to a sweet bus driver also starring Adam Driver, which premiered at the 2016 Cannes festival and went on to collect a slew of critics prizes — he riffed on an alternate film he could shoot next.
“I called it ‘Peterson.’ It was about a psycho bus driver with a .357 Magnum who blows people away. ‘Sometimes he’s sad, sometimes he’s glad; he’s always bad, bad, superbad.’ ”
Though Jarmusch is serious about the ecological concerns the film references (“It’s the biggest thing facing us; it’s about survival”), he adds “I don’t like didactic movies. And I’m making a ridiculous zombie movie; I’m as guilty as anyone.”
When it comes to other political issues — a character played by Steve Buscemi wears a red ball cap with the phrase “Keep America White Again” — Jarmusch says, “The metaphor was so inherent in zombies that I couldn’t avoid it.” But, finally, something else matters more.
“I don’t care about politics, I don’t give a … about Donald Trump,” he says. “Who was the most powerful person when Bach was writing his music? Most people don’t know, but Bach’s gift still reaches us today.
“I fought to be able to make films. It’s my job, and it can be rough, but what a lucky thing to be able to do.”