Several of the many films featured at this year’s Cannes festival seem likely to capture mainstream attention. Rocketman, the splashy Elton John biopic by Dexter Fletcher, will seek to replicate the inexplicable success of Fletcher’s previous outing, Bohemian Rhapsody. Quentin Tarantino’s highly anticipated ninth film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, will no doubt attract the excitement that his work typically commands. And critics’ darling Terrence Malick returned to Cannes with A Hidden Life, an uncharacteristically grounded story about the Austrian conscientious objector and Catholic martyr Franz Jägerstätter.
But it was arguably Jim Jarmusch’s star-studded zombie comedy The Dead Don’t Die that held the most potential to combine widespread popularity with critical buzz.
For one thing there’s the cast. Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Selena Gomez, Danny Glover, Tom Waits—the list goes on! Jarmusch is one of those auteur directors—like Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers, and Tarantino, along with Bergman, Hitchcock, and Kurosawa before them—who tends to work with a stable cast of go-to actors. This helps imbue these directors’ films with a kind of mythic weight; the stories and costumes change, but the faces stay the same. For roughly the same reason, this practice also serves to take the audience out of the viewing experience, reminding them that they are watching the product of a very particular imagination (as is often painfully the case with Anderson’s films, for instance). But here form serves function: it is precisely this postmodern gap between author and audience that The Dead Don’t Die wants to direct our attention to.
Which raises the question of genre. Neuroanatomy suggests that laughter and crying originate from the same part of the brain, and filmmakers have long played off the boundary between the two. The ‘zom-com’ arrived in earnest in 2004 with Edgar Wright’s brilliant Shaun of the Dead, but the camp roots of the horror genre run deep, from the Nightmare on Elm Street films to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead all the way back to Jean Yarbrough’s 1941 King of the Zombies. The Dead Don’t Die partly works in this same tradition, but ultimately it never really decides where to land. The first half of the film builds some genuine suspense, and there are even a few legitimately gory deaths to whet the appetite of horror purists. But by the final third of the movie we’ve caught enough winks and nods to know what Jarmusch is playing at, and the tension slacks considerably. By the final sequence, all we’re really left with is a pile of (un)dead bodies and a hollow monologue about the futility of life delivered by Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), a forest-dwelling vagrant who we’re left to assume speaks for Jarmusch.
This metatextual playfulness never goes anywhere. At one point Cliff (Murray) and Ronnie (Driver), sheriffs investigating the fledgling zombie threat, cruise around town chatting uneasily. The wizened Cliff recognizes a song on the radio, and his deputy, Ronnie, promptly fills him in: “It’s the theme song”—meaning the theme song to the film they’re in (an original ditty by Sturgill Simpson, as it happens). These diegetic moments recur throughout, as if the film is talking to itself. At another point, when Cliff asks Ronnie why he keeps saying “This is going to end badly,” Ronnie responds, “Because I read the script. Jim sent it to me.” (A flustered Cliff then huffs, “I only got the scenes I was in.”) These moments are genuinely funny often enough, and they hint at some rich themes: the way in which Hollywood seems stuck on telling the same story over and over, for example, to the point that even the characters know what’s coming. But we’re also forced to contend with equally big, unformed ideas about Trumpism, consumerism, the media, the American tolerance of violence—even aliens! The end result is something of a muddle (if an interesting and entertaining one), and we find ourselves agreeing too quickly with Ronnie about that bad ending.