Growing up in Ohio, Jim Jarmusch gained a knowledge of cinema from his mother, who used to drop him at the local movie house on a Saturday afternoon so she could go shopping. "I could see a double feature and it was always Attack of the Crab Monsters, or this kind of thing," he says. "So I saw a lot of those in a theatre, with a lot of other kids throwing gum at each other."
Amid all this, some seeds were clearly planted – even if his early laconic movies such as Stranger than Paradise, Down by Law and Dead Man weren't exactly creature features. Nevertheless, the writer-director, 66, had already brought his indie sensibilities to the vampire movie, with 2013's Only Lovers Left Alive. Now it's the turn of the zombie flick to get the filmmaker's treatment, with the all-star The Dead Don't Die.
Jarmusch maintains he was harangued into this popular genre by actress Tilda Swinton, who featured in Only Lovers Left Alive and returns here as a sword-wielding mortician. "I'm not a zombie guy. I'm more of a vampire guy," he says. "Zombies are just dumb vessels, walking around. They're just stupid entities. They're just the undead coming back. So they're not that interesting to me. But it's such a loaded metaphor that I couldn't resist."
Indeed, ever since the grandfather of the zombie genre, George A Romero, made 1968's Night of the Living Dead, these flesh-eating creatures have been used to symbolise all manner of social issues. While that landmark movie was seen as a metaphor for Civil Rights protests, and even the assassination of Malcolm X, Romero's 1978 follow-up, Dawn of the Dead, set in a shopping mall, came to represent modern-day consumerism.
Jarmusch's comic film is an "update" of Romero's themes, with the zombies that plague the American town of Centreville attracted to their addictions when they were humans, such as coffee and Wi-Fi. Then there are the "phone zombies" – pedestrians who shuffle along while scrolling through their devices. "I am sick of walking in New York City [and seeing this]," he adds. "They don't even know other people are there. They are zombified!"
Yet there's more to The Dead Don't Die than simply comic jibes at technology and stimulants and a dream cast that includes Bill Murray, Chloe Sevigny and Adam Driver as Centreville police officers. The film has a strong ecological message, with "polar fracking" causing the Earth to spin off its axis and the dead to rise from their graves. Jarmusch admits he's worried about the fate of the planet right now. "The idea of ignoring it or not addressing it is very concerning," he says.
The director pays tribute to groups such as Extinction Rebellion and the Sunrise Movement, dedicated to stopping climate change through civil disobedience. "They're mostly young people – often teenagers – who say: 'This is our world. Why is it being destroyed? Why are you doing nothing?' And I'm one of the guilty people. I drive a car with fossil fuel. I fly in planes … I'm not an activist. I respect and admire those who are, especially the young people with the strength and courage to stand up."
When The Dead Don't Die opened the Cannes Film Festival recently, artistic director Thierry Fremaux called it "a very anti-Trump film". Certainly, there is a pointed reference: actor Steve Buscemi's racist redneck character wears a baseball cap that reads "Make America White Again", a nod to Trump's "Make America Great Again" campaign slogan. But Jarmusch is keen to distance his film from the US president. "I don't [care] about Trump. This is not my response to that; it's to the world."
While Trump is a "frontman", Jarmusch adds, the real zombies are the politicians around the globe. "The biggest crisis for us now … well, it's the lack of human empathy, especially among people who are leaders. We have corporate greed controlling everything. We have leaders that are not empathetic. And the result of that is a dying planet."
Thankfully, Jarmusch has back-up in his cast, with opinionated stars such as actress-singer Selena Gomez (who plays Centreville visitor Zoe). "I admire Selena Gomez very much … she's a spokesperson for younger people, especially girls, in a very empowering way. If you read what she talks about … a lot of health issues and personal struggles that she doesn't hide and she gives real strength to young women," he says.
Then there's RZA (who plays a delivery driver), taking time out from his hip-hop collective Wu-Tang Clan. "They're really concerned about climate change, too. They have a huge map in Staten Island … the Wu sign, but it's also a map of planet Earth showing you where things are getting too hot by colour. And the Wu-Tang paid for that – they're like, 'Wake up!'"
It’s a message that Jarmusch and his film is also singing loud and clear.
The Dead Don’t Die is in cinemas across the UAE