Cannes 2019: In The Dead Don't Die, Jim Jarmusch gives a deadpan hipster spin to the zomcom genre

Prahlad Srihari

May 15, 2019 09:36:37 IST

Firstpost will be covering the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, from 14 May to 25 May. We'll be running reviews, interviews and daily snippets, straight from the sunny seaside town in the French Riviera.

The dead, or rather the undead, really don't seem to die. We have now perhaps seen almost every conceivable cinematic possibility of the zombie horror, zombie comedy and the rom-zom-com narratives. Once the thrill of killing Romero's slow, lumbering zombies was lost, horror and comedy filmmakers alike have been experimenting with this rich horror subgenre for years.

Cannes 2019: In The Dead Dont Die, Jim Jarmusch gives a deadpan hipster spin to the zomcom genre

Bill Murray, Chloë Sevigny and Adam Driver in The Dead Don't Die

Now, the silver-haired, self-styled New York director Jim Jarmusch adds his typical deadpan hipster cool sensibilities to it with The Dead Don't Die, which opened the 72nd Festival de Cannes on 14 May.

In his continuing rebellion against narrative, Jarmusch co-opts the zombie paraphernalia for an offbeat mix of droll and gallows horror. With a cast comprising Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi and Selena Gomez, he had the star power to match Bill Murray's well-tuned comic timing. But Jarmusch wants his film to be more than just a send-up of zombie movies. He is not just at war with a genre but he's fighting mini-battles on the side against Trump's America, climate change deniers and consumerism (in a throwback/modern update to George Romero's Dawn of the Dead). So, he ends up with a film with not enough brains or guts to hold your attention for its entire duration. It's a metafilm which struggles to operate freely from its more overt context.

Murray, Driver and Sevigny play a trio of police officers from a "real nice place" called Centerville. One day, watches stop working mysteriously. TV screens start flickering. And soon with the undead abound, the trio must band together with the katana-wielding mortician, Zelda, if they must survive the impending apocalypse.

Tilda Swinton is a Scottish mortician and a skilled swordswoman in The Dead Don't Die

Tilda Swinton is a Scottish mortician and a skilled swordswoman in The Dead Don't Die

There are plenty of supporting one-dimensional town oddballs: hobo Hermit Bob (Tom Waits, who appears in random intervals and in a jarring expository voiceover at the end), quintessential Trumpian Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi), pop culture reference dropping geek Bobby Wiggins (Caleb Landry Jones) and some hipsters from Cleveland, one of whom is played by Gomez.

But all these characters, like the film, lack specificity and depth. Jarmusch has made a career of upending genres by twisting them to suit his aesthetic. In the past, he has broken down the genre rules and expectations associated with vampire movies (Only Lovers Left Alive), McCabe and Mrs. Miller-like westerns (Dead Man) and road movies (Stranger than Paradise). By pulling back the curtain, he exposes the mechanics of genre filmmaking — offering important lessons in genre deconstruction before reinvention.

However, all the immediately recognisable Jarmusch hallmarks — prolonged silences, measured nonchalance, and a flair for deadpan comedy — fail to have the same impact in The Dead Don't Die. Devoid of a well-set narrative structure or a rewarding conclusion, the only respite is provided by its running gags, metajokes and countless references.

(From L-R) Bill Murray, director Jim Jarmusch, Sara Driver, Tilda Swinton, Luka Sabbat, Adam Driver, Selena Gomez pose for photographers upon arrival at the opening ceremony and the premiere of the film The Dead Don't Die at Cannes 2019. (Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP)

As he has never had to work within the Hollywood studio system — with his films usually financed by European producers, Jarmusch has enjoyed the rare freedom to control every aspect of his idiosyncratic films till now. He somehow made the apathetic hipster seem like the champion of effortless cool. But his deadpan treatment of the undead is frankly, well, lifeless.

The Dead Don't Die had its world premiere at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. It is one of 21 titles competing for the prestigious Palme d'Or. Click here to follow our coverage of the festival straight from the Croisette.

Director: Jim Jarmusch
Cast: Adam Driver, Bill Murray, Selena Gomez, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Austin Butler, RZA, Tilda Swinton, Tom Waits, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Rosie Perez and Carol Kane

Updated Date: May 16, 2019 12:22:01 IST

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