Jim Jarmusch’s ‘The Dead Don’t Die’ starts Cannes off on an apocalyptic note

Film Critic

Times critic Justin Chang is filing regular dispatches from the 72nd annual Cannes Film Festival, which runs May 14-25 in France.

The 72nd Festival de Cannes began Tuesday with a vision of the end.

In “The Dead Don’t Die,” Jim Jarmusch’s bleak, bone-dry shrug of a horror-comedy, Adam Driver, Bill Murray and Chloë Sevigny play small-town police officers fending off a zombie apocalypse. There’s little ambiguity about what caused the epidemic, and even less about what it represents. A culture of moral idiocy and capitalist greed, signaled by a huge uptick in “polar fracking,” has fatally shifted the Earth’s rotational pattern. Now the sun takes forever to set, radio signals have gone haywire and the dead are rising up from their graves to feast on the flesh of the living.

There’s something to be said for kicking off the world’s most prestigious film festival with a bloody aperitif, especially one served up by one of the festival’s favorite sons. With “The Dead Don’t Die,” Jarmusch has pioneered his own sub-subgenre: the undeadpan comedy. His dialogue scenes are as drawn-out and poker-faced as ever. When two diner employees are brutally disemboweled — the movie spares us very little — the people of Centerville (population 738) respond with more confusion than panic. The movie milks their comic bewilderment for all it’s worth, which isn’t terribly much.


Driver’s cop turns out to be the town’s resident genre scholar, at one point invoking George Romero, whose aesthetic signature is apparent in the movie’s old-school, slow-shuffling zombie hordes. They’re nothing like the fast-moving denizens of “World War Z” or the armed-to-the-teeth White Walkers of “Game of Thrones,” but what else would you expect from Jarmusch, never one to hurry a scene along? (The director’s major stylistic innovation: the nifty clouds of ash that emerge whenever his zombies are shot in the head or decapitated.)

The Romero references are hardly the only blatant wink-wink moments. In addition to Murray and Driver, the ensemble is crawling with Jarmusch collaborators. Tom Waits plays a bearded hermit. Iggy Pop is a zombie with a caffeine addiction. Whenever Tilda Swinton appears as a mortuary cosmetologist with a rigid gait, a samurai sword and a thick Scottish brogue, the movie gleefully shifts gears — even genres — to become a tone poem on the inscrutable Zen weirdness of Tilda Swinton. Selena Gomez, Luka Sabbat and Austin Butler play out-of-town visitors who are unflatteringly described as “urban hipsters,” which is nothing if not self-referential on Jarmusch’s part.

Even if Steve Buscemi didn’t turn up as a gun-toting racist wearing an even stupider version of a MAGA hat (“Keep America White Again”), you’d have to be pretty obtuse to miss the political rage simmering just beneath the movie’s jokey surface. It’s clear enough what Jarmusch is saying: We’ve become a nation of zombies, lazy and inattentive and addicted to things that don’t matter. The Earth is dying, our leaders are morons and a new age of extinction is upon us. Our only shot at redemption — salvation has long since ceased to be an option — is to go down fighting.

It’s clear enough what Jarmusch is saying ... The Earth is dying, our leaders are morons and a new age of extinction is upon us.

“This isn’t going to end well,” Driver’s character says more than once, until it feels less like a joke than a prophecy. It’s not the most cheerful thought as we head into a new election season, though whether this movie will resonate beyond 2019 (Focus Features is releasing it June 14 in the U.S.) remains to be seen. You can share Jarmusch’s despair — I certainly do — and still find its expression here too tired, bloodless and self-satisfied by half.

I say this as an ardent admirer of the director’s previous horror experiment, the sublime vampire romance “Only Lovers Left Alive,” and as someone who can usually groove on his work even at its most laconic and self-reflexive (see “Paterson,” but really, take your pick). If you walk into “The Dead Don’t Die” marveling at the oddity of Jim Jarmusch making a zombie movie, you are likely to walk out thinking it’s the only zombie movie Jarmusch could have made. I wish that were more of a compliment.


Still, “The Dead Don’t Die” certainly fulfilled its purpose where the festival was concerned, which was to put a lot of star wattage on the red carpet on opening night. It also served to remind all of us in the audience that, after last year’s relatively slim Hollywood presence, the 2019 festival lineup would boast a bonanza of high-profile American titles, including Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life,” Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” and Ira Sachs’ “Frankie,” plus a splashy studio offering in the form of “Rocketman,” the Elton John biopic from the British director Dexter Fletcher.

Some might well see this is as a form of rejuvenation, a chance to bring Cannes itself back from the dead after a 2018 edition that was widely and incorrectly dismissed as lackluster. (If this festival produces a single picture on par with last year’s “Burning,”“Shoplifters” and “Cold War,” it will have been a great one.) My hopes and expectations for Tarantino and Malick are as high as anyone else’s, though no higher than they are for the latest works in competition by Céline Sciamma, Jessica Hausner, Diao Yinan and Kleber Mendonça Filho, to name a few.

It is ridiculous to conflate a program’s quality with its star power, or to suggest that its worth is tied exclusively to the strength of its Hollywood presence. This festival wears many hats, blockbuster launchpad and Oscar-buzz generator among them, but its first and last job is to showcase the best in world cinema, whatever that happens to look like. To the extent that Cannes lives up to that mandate, it’s truly the last film festival that needs to be made great again.

Jim Jarmusch, from left, Sara Driver, Tilda Swinton, Luka Sabbat, Adam Driver, Selena Gomez and Chloë Sevigny arrive at the Cannes premiere of "The Dead Don't Die."
(Christophe Simon / AFP / Getty Images)

I attended my first Festival de Cannes in 2006. The Palme d’Or was awarded to Ken Loach for “The Wind That Shakes the Barley.” The jury gave other major prizes to Pedro Almodóvar’s “Volver,” Bruno Dumont’s “Flandres” and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s “Babel.” Elia Suleiman was on the jury. Meanwhile, over in the Directors’ Fortnight, a program that runs parallel to the official selection, relatively new talents like Bong Joon-ho (“The Host”), Corneliu Porumboiu (“12:08 East of Bucharest”), Christophe Honoré (“Dans Paris”) and Albert Serra (“Honor de Cavalleria”) made their mark.


I mention this because all those filmmakers are back at this year’s festival. Dumont, Honoré and Serra have new films in the Un Certain Regard sidebar. Loach, now a two-time Palme winner, will compete for a third with “Sorry We Missed You”; Almodóvar, a perpetual Palme bridesmaid, is still vying for his first with the semi-autobiographical opus “Pain and Glory.” Bong, Porumboiu and Suleiman are all in competition too, with “Parasite,” “The Whistlers” and “It Must Be Heaven,” respectively.

As for Iñárritu, he’s the president of this year’s competition jury, and so will have the task of bestowing the highest honor in international cinema on a lucky filmmaker. Will it be Hausner, Sciamma, Mati Diop or Justine Triet, thus bringing an end to Jane Campion’s regrettable ongoing streak as the only female director to have won the Palme? Or could it be someone who has already taken the big prize, like Tarantino, Malick, Abdellatif Kechiche, Loach or the Dardenne brothers? The next 11 days will tell.

The return of so many directors from that 2006 edition of Cannes is a curious but not exactly wild coincidence. Such reunions are only to be expected from a festival that turns promising talents into revered auteurs, in part, by inviting them back again and again, cementing their legacies and its own in the process. It also allows the festival to establish a sense of consistency, of commitment to a coherent artistic philosophy, in an industry that faces rapid change at the best of times.

Even still, it’s hard to consider some of the differences between Cannes 2006 and 2019 and not feel a twinge of nostalgia. Most of that year’s pictures were still projected on 35-millimeter film, which would be unheard of in today’s DCP-friendly age. Back then, Netflix was still primarily a DVD-mailing service; it had yet to become the movie-streaming, content-producing powerhouse that would one day engage in a high-profile spat with festival organizers.

The 2006 program featured at least two films with environment-conscious themes, Bong’s “The Host” and Davis Guggenheim’s soon-to-be-Oscar-winning documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” whose title feels woefully optimistic in retrospect. This year’s Cannes lineup also features a climate-change documentary, the Leila Conners-directed, Leonardo DiCaprio-narrated “Ice on Fire.” I don’t think it’s a “Game of Thrones” reference.