“I don’t know how I got this job, I really don’t, but I was excited,” Murray goes on. “The script was funny. [Jim] lives in black and white in a funny way. It’s about shadows. A lot of day for night. He comes at you in the daytime but dressed as darkness.”
Adam Driver plays his doom-laden offsider, who recognises the zombie attack for what it is, thanks to his deep knowledge of comic books. Tilda Swinton plays an undertaker with secret ninja skills; Steve Buscemi is a local farmer who sports a cap reading “Keep America White Again”. Needless to say, he meets a satisfactorily gruesome end.
Selena Gomez is in there as a delinquent in social care; so is RZA from the Wu Tang Clan as a truckdriver, dispensing homespun wisdom with every delivery.
The purest heart is that of Hermit Bob, played by a very hirsute Tom Waits, who lives in the woods on whatever he can pin down – including a copy of Moby-Dick he finds buried under grass.
“I wanted the character of Hermit Bob to be someone who would appreciate this,” says Jarmusch. “Hermit Bob having divorced himself from the social order but still receiving inspiration somehow from some human expression.
«My optimism lies with Hermit Bob and the teenagers in the detention centre. People who had already been pushed out or by choice left the social order. I love teenagers. I have a lot of hope in teenagers.”
It’s certainly a starry cast, which may explain why a genre film with a distinct slacker feel came to open the world’s grandest film festival. Even so, says Jarmusch, it was very difficult to get the film financed.
“Even with my cast! With this cast, they were paid with oatmeal,» he says. «I mean, they were not paid well at all. They did this because we are from a tribe and they are like, ‘OK, Jim’s calling on us so we do it.’ Which is, you know, very moving to me.”
Like all good zombie films, The Dead Can’t Die lends itself to metaphorical interpretation. A horde of the undead emerges in Centreville, a town with just one diner for entertainment, albeit one in a memorable art deco style, as a result of a tilt in the earth’s axis we are told is caused by “polar fracking”.
First, the power goes off intermittently; next, the day refuses to slip into night. Time itself has been warped by human meddling which, in Jarmusch’s view, truly is the stuff of horror.
“Watching nature decline at unprecedented rates in the history of humans is terrifying,” he says. And what really concerns me is the kind of failure to address something that threatens all living species immediately. That scares me more than anything.”
“I find Cannes frightening,” Murray chips in, poker-faced.
At least there are no zombies walking Cannes’ famous Croisette.
“Says you!” he retorts.
He turns serious, however, when asked what is more important when making a film: making art or addressing issues. Work is his only way of being engaged. “I’m at my best when I’m working. When I’m not working, I’m lazy, so I feel the vitality of film is pretty much the highest point in my state of mind in a week or a month or a year,» he says.
«My concern for the planet is demonstrated by my work on a film. This is how I operate, this is my opportunity, my chance, the thing I bring most of myself to. Even this is part of my work in film. I am trying hard to be with you here. This is my little ice floe I’m standing on and I hope it doesn’t melt.”
Neither of them wants to delve into politics: the T-word is off the menu. “I don’t think the ecological crisis is a political issue,” Jarmusch says. «Politics is essentially not of interest to me. Politics doesn’t seem to save anything. Politics is a distraction. And now politics is controlled on the planet by corporations, this is the problem.
«The sad thing is that it’s in our hands. If everyone here, for example, decided to boycott a particular corporation because we don’t like their activities, we could take them down. We have the possibility to do these things, but time is running out very quickly. And I am as guilty as anyone. What am I doing? I’m making silly films with wonderful people.”
The Dead Don’t Die pays explicit tribute to the zombie genre’s master, George Romero, whose films Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead are echoed in Jarmusch’s small-town setting; the way his zombies behave (Romero was adamant zombies couldn’t run, for example); and the fact they are quite obviously acting out a political allegory.
For Jarmusch, Romero’s zombie classics rewrote the book on screen monsters in general. “Monsters in films like Godzilla or Frankenstein come from outside the social structure,” he says. “With Romero, the monsters come from within our collapsing structures. They are also victims themselves.”
The awkwardness of slow-moving predators with limbs that fall off under pressure could be turned to his own advantage.
Reviews of The Dead Don’t Die have been mixed, partly thanks to Romero; plenty of critics specialising in horror point out that the new film is still stuck with the conventions of films made 40 or even 50 years ago. There were also quibbles over the balance of humour and gore. The nastiest scene comes early on, when two “hero zombies” – played by Jarmusch’s wife Sara Driver and Iggy Pop – savage the intestines of the waitresses working late at the local diner.
In fact, there isn’t much gore beyond that, because don’t bleed or fall into tags of flesh when killed; they immediately turn to black dust.
“I didn’t want to make too much of a splatter film,” Jarmusch says. “I think of it as a horror-comedy, although the balance of that I’m not a position to understand yet.”
Asked for a maxim, RZA’s beatific driver says: “The world is perfect. Appreciate the details.”
“Appreciation of human consciousness is something so beautiful,” says Jarmusch. “We don’t even know how rare it is to appreciate the tiny moments of our lives every day. I wanted that in the film, too, not just the sense of fatalism. And humour was important; I wanted that there too because without jokes and comedic things, it would be very difficult to stay alive.”
The Dead Don’t Die screens at the Sydney Film Festival on June 14-16. It opens in general release on October 24.
Stephanie Bunbury joined Fairfax after studying fine arts and film at university, but soon discovered her inner backpacker and obeyed that call. She has spent the past two decades flitting between Europe and Australia, writing about film, culture high and low and the arts.