The zombies hobbling around the streets of the fictional, bucolic US city of Centerville have been awakened by global warming (specifically, from the ruthless fracking of the Earth’s polar caps), and that’s possibly the single most inventive spin in Jim Jarmusch’s latest, the Cannes opener The Dead Don’t Die. Ghouls can’t be killed, and neither can the tropes so many previous classics of the genre have crafted around them, and which Jarmusch’s star-studded comedy happily rehashes in a ride that offers plenty of chuckle-inducing moments, but ultimately stalls in a swamp of meta-textual references and cinematic detritus.
To be sure, the deadpan chemistry between Adam Driver and Bill Murray’s officers Ronnie and Cliff is something to cherish. Bespectacled cops patrolling the streets of a countryside town in which nothing wrong could ever happen, the two awake to the Horror when the first Centerville denizens show up as disemboweled and half-devoured corpses. It takes Driver a quick glance and a few seconds to declare this isn’t the work of a wild animal (nor of several wild animals, as the running joke has it), but of “zombies, ghouls, the undead”–the first in an endless series of Cassandra-like omens which intersperse the cops’ antics.
Driver’s straight-faced performance incarnates Jarmusch’s dry humor with a series of pitch-perfect deliveries, but The Dead Don’t Die thrives as a choir, its cast a gang of deranged lunatics that will no doubt find room in the pantheon of Jarmusch’ most memorable misfits. There’s a hillbilly Steve Buscemi sporting a Make America White Again hat while hanging out with Danny Glover; a trio of hipsters from Cleveland entering Centerville aboard a 1968 Pontiac Lemans driven by Selena Gomez; cinephile-cum-drugstore owner Caleb Landry Jones; WU-PS truck Driver WU-Tang Clan’s RZA delivering life lessons and parcels; and of course, stealing each and every single scene she’s in, the town’s new undertaker, an anemic Tilda Swinton with a profound devotion for the Buddha, a penchant for katanas, and a heavy Scottish accent. If you thought the prospect of watching Driver chopping zombie’s heads with a machete justified the hype The Dead Don’t Die floated all the way across the Atlantic and over to the Croisette, wait for Swinton’s alien-looking lady to slash them with a samurai sword and apply make-up to the corpses as if they were extras from Pink Flamingos.
A U-turn from the contemplative and gentle-paced reveries of his previous Cannes entry, the 2016 Paterson, The Dead Don’t Die beckons Jarmusch back into that supernatural milieu that birthed one of his most interesting and surreal recent offerings, Only Lovers Left Alive. Storylines sprout and bifurcate, Jarmusch’s regulars mingle with new faces, and a flair for vintage props (set in a present-day US locale, the mise en scène harkens back to a universe from a few decades prior) dons The Dead Don’t Die a hipstery aura.
But while the idea of watching Driver and Murray slash their way through the hobbling undead to the beats of Sturgill Simpson’s The Dead Don’t Die promises–and indeed, does deliver–a few rollicking scenes, the comedic liftoff is achieved by and large through meta-textual references and cinematic nods. And the gimmicks–enjoyable and entertaining as they may first appear–gradually lose steam, as Jarmusch’s comedy plunges into a plethora of tropes already seen (and executed far more piercingly) in the classics The Dead Don’t Die bows to.
Indeed, Jarmusch’s undead are propelled by their thirst for human flesh as much as their past lives’ addictions. Zombie Iggy Pop and Sara Driver, the first ghouls to limp into screen, slaughter and devour a couple of Centerville denizens before rushing to chug jugs of coffee with spirited eyes and blood-covered faces. Moments later, as the apocalypse spirals out of hand, the streets get paved with ghouls scavenging for Wi-Fi and Xanax. It’s a gimmick that would have been a hilariously inventive jibe were it not essentially a present-day adaptation of George A. Romero’s zombies-go-back-to-what-they-recall joke, and stands out as little more than an appendix to the overarching trope of zombies as metaphors for a moribund and consumerist society.
As the script hits a plateau of self-aware and meta-textual references, things get even murkier. While a few characters are essentially caricatures of their off-stage personas (Tilda Swinton’s Zelda Winston, RZA’s WU-PS driver), Jarmusch’s script offers the occasional cross-universe trespassing (Adam Driver proudly showing off a Star Wars spaceship-shaped keyring, nodding that the franchise is indeed some great science fiction). And when the film makes its cinematic nods most explicit, as when Selena Gomez congratulates Caleb Landry Jones’ “impressive” movie taste after the latter name-drops George A. Romero, they carry of a self-congratulatory and self-indulgent aftertaste. A baffling fourth-wall rupture ushers in the final showdown, Driver and Murray ranting against none other than Jarmusch himself and the horrific finale the script skyrockets both toward. It’s a clumsy ending for a comedy which, past its few meme-friendly and most inspired one-liners, staggers and hobbles like the living dead it resuscitates.
The Dead Don’t Die premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and opens on June 14.