Shuffling in hordes, dead eyed, slack-jawed, echoing a trail of grunts with every inch gained and each yard hobbled, cinephiles took pilgrimage to Cannes this past May, lining up for world cinema’s annual grand buffet. Festival favourite Jim Jarmusch was tasked with appetisers, kicking things off with a bang, as guns blast, katanas swing and heads inevitably roll in his latest feature, The Dead Don’t Die (2019). A zom-com with Trump on the brain, the film side-steps subtleties with a heavy foot and a wry smile as our environmental abuses stir the dead from slumber.
Marching us toward a deadpan apocalypse, Jarmusch offers no simple solutions, leaving us instead with an inkling – soon becoming the movie’s unofficial mantra – that “this is not going to end well”. And with world leaders still drastically at odds over climate action, it’s hard not to agree. Slow moving, unreasonable, with the power to bring human civilisation to its knees, a zombie uprising draws the perfect parallel to our global warming crisis. As onscreen allegories go, its résumé is nothing to scoff at. The fear of eco-annihilation has outlasted that of Nazis, epidemics, red scares and recessions, so what are the ingredients that go into such an evergreen formula?
Although concerned with recent political calamities, The Dead Don’t Die explores eco-themes harking back to the movie monster’s infancy. In 1818, against the murky backdrop of the industrial revolution, a re-animated corpse with a limited vocabulary plodded from the page and into our cultural consciousness. Granted, not technically a zombie, the patchy prototype that Mary Shelley zaps to life in Frankenstein mirrors, not only the outbreak of the fatal diseases brought about by rapid industrialisation but more poignantly, the moral rot inherent to man’s reckless ambition.
By the time it gained an appetite for human flesh, zombie cinema had evolved from the gothic stylings of voodoo superstition – with films like White Zombie (1932) and Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943) – into an emblem of 60’s counter-culture. In George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) windows shatter, doors splinter and walls crumble as zombies gut out our last line of defense: home. And as real world skeptics deny the effects of climate change, they essentially ignore the clawing against the Earth’s barricades. But no matter where you hide, one thing remains certain: “they’re coming to get you Barbara”.
Expanding on Romero’s vision, Jorge Grau’s Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974) opens with an equally ominous outlook. London streets, paved with rubbish sprawl out below a miasma of sputtering exhausts and smoking chimneys. Out in the countryside things don’t get much better. Two government workers are testing out a new form of pesticide which unfortunately has a habit of contaminating newborn babies and, less surprisingly, the dead. Intriguingly, in the picture’s final moments, we’re spared a final fright or simple cut to black. Instead, the director ends on a freeze frame of the pesticide machine in question, leaving little doubt in our minds what the real threat is.
Fast forward to the 80s and things are much the same. Films like Mutant (aka Night of Shadows, 1984) and The Return of the Living Dead (1985) reflected a growing fear over the Reagan Administration’s dismantling of US environmental protection. Spawning from power plants, toxic waste and acid rain, these chemically infused monsters came with a message: toxins released into the atmosphere will have a toxic effect. Such films saw generation gaps violently pried apart, leaving younger generations a common delicacy among ravenous skull suckers. From babies to beatniks and everything in between, chances are, if you’re under thirty, you’re in for a bumpy ride.
At the same time, authority figures either refuse to listen or act ruthless beyond reason. “Why are you sitting here wasting time? You’re the ones who are crazy, not me”, our shaggy haired hero, George warns the unamused Inspector McCormick in Let Sleeping Corpses Lie before suffering an atomic slap across the face. Using a more cunning combination of deception and misinformation, one news broadcaster from Romero’s Diary of the Dead (2007) labels the zombie infestation “a monstrous hoax” in what soon proves to be an ill-fated attempt in sugar-coating a slow-moving menace.
But as we stumbled into a new millennium and our consumption of fossil fuels sped up, so did our zombies. Seemingly unshackled from the stiff restraints of rigor mortis, movies such as 28 Days Later (2002), Resident Evil (2002), and Zack Snyder’s 2004 rehash of Dawn of The Dead, swarmed with a new breed. Fast zombies replaced the horror creeping through the Romero era with the immediate terror of the 21st century. That witless ghoul who once waddled up your driveway was now picking brain bits from his teeth before you had a chance to draw the curtain.
As time becomes our most vital natural resource, it also proves the most abused. Eaten up by squabbling factions who fail to unite against the larger threat, if there’s any truth to be gleaned from the tangled fables of Game of Thrones (2011-19) it’s that “the true enemy won’t wait out the storm. He brings the storm”. And like the show’s villainess, Dennis Hopper’s – Trump inspired – Kaufman, waits out his own invasion, preferring to spend most of Land of the Dead (2005) pent-housed, insulated with the ignorance only money can buy.
Though when the aim is survival, it begs the question: Do we even deserve to survive? While we continue skull-fucking the planet into oblivion one carbon footprint at a time, zombies might be doing the world a favour after all. “Man has only been around for a few blinks of an eye” says Sergeant Farrell in 28 Days Later, “so if the infection wipes us all out, isn’t that a return to normality?”
Restoring the world’s natural order is exactly what Jim Jarmusch’s zombies set out to do on a planet literally tilted off its axis by environmental degradation. In The Dead Don’t Die, our director taps into a timeless global anxiety through a sub-genre built upon the broken social systems that govern the world, and asks us to aim for the head. Because if there’s one undying truth running between zombie cinema and our climate conundrum, it’s the belief that the greatest threat to ourselves is each other.