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Cannes Review: The Dead Don’t Die Brings Jim Jarmusch’s Intimate Touch to the World of Zombies

Jim Jarmusch’s deadpan zombie-invasion haiku tone poem The Dead Don’t Die opened the 72nd edition of the Cannes Film Festival on Tuesday, and it’s hard to say if it was a daring choice for an opener or a “We can’t really find anything else that will work” shrug. That’s not a slam directed at the movie: The Dead Don’t Die is an amiable picture that happily and quite obviously borrows from the zombie canon, particularly as it was laid out—and then revived and tweaked, often with staggering effectiveness—by Night of the Living Dead filmmaker George A. Romero. The large and festively varied cast is a reunion of sorts, featuring many actors who have worked with Jarmusch before, including Adam Driver and Bill Murray as two cops serving and protecting the cozy little town of Centerville, trying to figure what the heck is going on as the zombie hordes descend. We also get Tilda Swinton as a recent and exotic transplant to the town, a Scottish samurai warrior and undertaker. (That shouldn’t work, but then, it’s Tilda.)

That cast tells you something. The Dead Don’t Die doesn’t reinvigorate the zombie genre, as Jarmusch’s gorgeous, elegiac 2013 Only Lovers Left Alive did for vampire mythology. But it’s still an intimate picture, even for Jarmusch, who would never be caught making a noisy, in-your-face one. This is really more of a scrapbook, not just of zombie-movie lore but of the places, figuratively speaking, Jarmusch has been before and the people he likes to see in his movies. If you’re a Jarmusch fan, or maybe even a newcomer, the movie—which opens in the States June 14—will play beautifully as a weekend jaunt to your local theater. As the opener to the most prestigious film festival in the world, it left me somehow wanting more—though again, Jarmusch could never make a splashy film in the conventional sense. His ideas are like secrets slipped from classmate to classmate under the desk. Their progress is steady and slow, and the Eureka! moment is never a shout but a whisper.

That’s certainly true of The Dead Don’t Die, which is almost exactly half goofy and half melancholy. The story is set in that bucolic, close-knit town of Centerville—its welcome sign calls it, David Lynch-style, “a real nice place.” Officers Clifford Robertson and Ronnie Peterson (Murray and Driver) have just investigated a possible case of chicken-stealing: The local hermit who lives in the woods (he’s played, wonderfully, by Jarmusch regular Tom Waits and he’s called, marvelously, Hermit Bob) may have stolen a chicken from perennially crabby—and overtly racist—Farmer Miller (a funny-acrid Steve Buscemi). As they’re driving off in the squad car—it’s marked 001 on the hood, but you can bet there’s only one—they notice that something’s off. Ronnie’s cell phone has gone kablooey. The radio signal from headquarters—where Chloë Sevigny’s Officer Mindy Morrison is holding down the fort—keeps blipping out. And even though it’s near nightfall, the sun is still shining bright. We know—as they don’t, not yet—that what we’re seeing is an endless day of the living dead.

Then the zombies arrive, fresh from the cemetery, twisted, grimy and grunting. These newly undead men, women and children stumble through the town seeking out the things they loved best in life, an idea borrowed unapologetically from Romero. They grunt the significant keywords: “Toys!” “Candy!” “Chardonnay!” “Wi-Fi!” They also maul and feed, and the people they kill will also turn into zombies. The only way to get rid of them is to, as the characters keep repeating, “Kill the head.”

But that’s only the “what happens,” not the “how it happens,” and with Jarmusch, it’s the how that counts. The best zombies are the first ones, played by Sara Driver (a filmmaker and also Jarmusch’s longtime partner) and Iggy Pop (the subject of Jarmusch’s superb 2016 documentary Gimme Danger): They show up at the local diner, after hours: Only two employees remain, closing up. (One of them is Ezster Balint, star of his 1984 breakthrough Stranger Than Paradise.) The zombie duo pounce on their prey, wreaking comically bloody havoc, until they notice the coffee pots still steaming on their burners. Forget the entrails. The two lurch toward the brown elixir of life with unblinking eyes: “Coffee!” Anyone who’s ever loved it, or had to quit it, knows the feeling.

As always, Jarmusch knows how to get laughs with timing. It’s so integral to his movies that he probably wouldn’t be able to explain how he does it; it’s probably more like waiting for a bird to land on a branch than anything. As Officers Clifford and Ronnie banter and bicker, long stretches of air fill the space between their lines. The empty space is funny even when it isn’t. The Centerville locals take note of a trio of kids who have shown up, with out-of-state plates, in what one Centervillian calls a “very George Romero” 1968 Pontiac LeMans. (The driver and ringleader is Selena Gomez, and her pals are Austin Butler and Luka Sabatt, all newcomers to the Jarmusch universe.) The townspeople are polite enough to the outsiders’ faces, but later decree them “hipsters from the city.” The gag could be read as derisive, but maybe Jarmusch, now 66, is thinking about how wary, straitlaced folks used to label him the same way after Stranger Than Paradise.

But hipsterdom is temporal; cool is forever. And so are zombies unless, as the characters say a little too often in The Dead Don’t Die, you kill the head. There is also, toward the end, a stretch of preachiness—in the form of a Hermit Bob monologue about the materialistic impulses of humans—that doesn’t sit right. The Dead Don’t Die is better when it’s riffing on zombie heritage, or just being silly. But it’s best when Jarmusch is acknowledging, in that characteristically Jarmuschian way—half resigned, half jubilant—that the world of people, even with all their terrible flaws, is worth preserving. As one character puts it, when—even before the zombies invade—another asks him for solace: “The world is perfect. Appreciate the details.” That’s good for me to remember, and maybe it is for you too. But it’s especially good to keep in mind if you’re a zombie who’s been miserably reanimated and the detail, spotted while you were supposed to be doing other things, is a pot of leftover coffee.

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