Cannes 2019: The Dead Don’t Die
The Dead Don’t Die is a curious film. Taking the skeleton of Romero’s famously political Night of the Living Dead and deconstructing it for a post-ironic, late-stage-capitalistic audience, it’s a coolly funny, occasionally laugh-out-loud slice of the surreal. Like most broad-brush attempts at political genre filmmaking, however, the effect is ultimately underwhelming.
Adam Driver, Bill Murray, and Chloe Sevigny star as a trio of police in the quiet, slowly-turning-Trumpian Centreville. When (other) things start going wrong – phones stop working, pets disappear, and days seem to last longer than they should – people appear vaguely concerned, but never fully accepting of the gravity of their situation. As soon as his phone clocks off, Driver tells us ‘this isn’t going to end well’ without any emotion or gravitas, as if begrudgingly accepting the inevitability of the tidal-wave of shit racing towards him. Before long, as you’ve probably guessed, the dead start re-animating. In typical Jarmusch style, everybody continues to not really give a shit. This is the movie.
The veteran director sets out his thesis, and he sets it out fast: late-stage capitalism has effectively turned us into materialist zombies – a leaf taken straight out of Marx’s commodification fetish playbook. It is, apparently, because of this that we are sleepwalking into the apocalypse – on both political and environmental fronts. It’s the older generation who both cause and ignore this problem, whilst the young people (represented by a group of middle-class white kids on a road trip in a Pontiac, and a trio of minority children imprisoned in the town’s correctional facility) are the thoughtful, concerned parties. The director makes a big show of having the adults bloodily eviscerate one of the groups, whilst the other is released into a destroyed world. All relatively clear and obvious, so it’d be nice if Jarmusch trusted the audience a little bit with these ideas, but, instead, we’re bludgeoned over the head with the metaphor in the film’s final frames so hard that it almost feels like self-parody. Still, the first (and only) review I’ve read of The Dead Don’t Die, in a high-profile magazine that shall remain unnamed, managed to totally miss this obvious, forefront political slant. Poor journalism, for sure, but the kind that betrays an underlying glitch in the artist’s vision.
We have to ask ourselves, however, even if Jarmusch did satisfactorily put forward his thesis, is it A) correct, and B) worth saying? The answer to the former is dubious at best – there are more answers to the question of collective apathy than economic systems. As to the latter, it’s surely trite to argue that materialism makes us object-obsessed and driven? This is, in my view, the general issue with broad-brush genre political filmmaking: the director and writer always seem so obsessed with ideologies, images, and surfaces that they fail to ever make or argue a point. Like Bonello suggested in his masterful Nocturama, people obsessed with ideologies are generally blinded by them, just as ignorant as those they accuse of ignorance. What is the use in making a political statement if that statement contains no exploration or convincing element with which to change people’s minds? Awkward metaphors, like warped jigsaw pieces, form distorted pictures which fail to reflect reality.
Chloe Sveigny’s introduction as an emotionally hysterical police officer also comes off as grating and quite possibly sexist. Amidst a sea of calm, droll male faces, it’s only her character that routinely bursts into tears or has to be shielded from the horrors of the world. I’m not exactly sure how that was supposed to come off, but it doesn’t come off well whatever the intention. Jarmusch is, as far as I’m aware, hardly a noted chauvinist, but there isn’t a female character (unless you count Tilda Swinton’s vaguely human Zelda) who has anything really interesting to do except, well, die.
But look, let’s forget the politics for a moment – this is a zombie comedy. Does it succeed in that regard? Well yes, mostly. There are some pleasingly outré moments – the script twice turns meta in the best scenes of the whole film, and there’s some weird shit involving Tilda Swinton, a Scottish accent, and a UFO. There are also some pretty damn funny jokes – Adam Driver’s fatalism makes for particularly amusing viewing, especially when others seek solace in his reassurance and instead receive damnation. But the film eventually settles into a sort of rut – confining our main ensemble to a single car and tracking them as they simply drive around, trying to make jokes and quips as they go. The fact that none of these actually land was evidenced by the pretty quiet press screening I attended. Sure, there are amusing moments, but Jarmusch’s trademark deadpan gets old pretty quickly, and doesn’t fare well over a particularly sluggish runtime. Still, I can’t help but throw praise at how original, and consistently amusing (even if not laugh-out-loud) this is – it’s an unchallenging, laidback watch with an auteur edge.
The production value, in effects terms, is also pretty high – there’s a lot of practical gore – which makes the bizarre choice to fill the zombies with CGI mist a little disconcerting and disappointing. You can really see that the filmmakers find the slow-motion shots of zombie evisceration satisfying, but they’re akin to swinging a sword through a dusty room – disturbing the air as opposed to cutting through flesh. Similarly, a perplexingly long shot of ‘stock special effect’ birds flying through the night-time air looks like a Snapchat filter. Nevertheless, the ‘Twin Peaks meets American Gods’ rich, neon aesthetic of the production design and lighting is impressive and great at bridging the gap between Romero’s universe and Trumpland. Its schlocky and purposely B-movie like, but in a way that betrays its higher-minded intentions.
For an afternoon at the cinema, then, The Dead Don’t Die is perfectly serviceable. Those still enamoured with the post-modern ironic style of filmmaking will probably have a blast – although one doubts how many people still associate nonchalant irony with ‘cool’ rather than ‘outdated’ and ‘obnoxious’. Those not Jarmusch-obsessed will probably also have a good time: it’s a star-studded, determinedly unusual and political zombie movie, after all. But I suspect the memory of this film has a short half-life. When it dies, it’ll stay dead.