Zombie Films at Cannes: What's Up With All the Undead?

Cannes Film Festival
'The Dead Don't Die'

The subgenre might be hot on the Croisette, but one exec says, "If you are thinking about making [a zombie movie], you can just count China out. It's not happening.”

No, it’s not the zombie apocalypse.

It just feels like it, given the phalanx of undead hitting the Croisette, namely a number of films being sold at the market in Cannes.

In the wake of Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die kicking off the festival as the opening-night film, the ghouls continue to invade, from Mati Diop’s Atlantics (playing in competition and being sold by MK2) to Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum, which stars Fear the Walking Dead actor Michael Greyeyes, appropriately, and is being sold by XYZ Films at the market.

But how do zombie films play internationally? When it comes to China — the most important market outside of the U.S. — the subgenre just can’t penetrate the Great Wall. In fact, China won’t allow in movies that feature zombies or ghosts. That's one of the reasons why pics like Zombieland and Get Out never landed a release in the Middle Kingdom.

“It's not cultural, it's government policy,” says Solstice Studios CEO Mark Gill. “And the reason it's government policy is you have got a government that is trying to keep control of a population where there is a fair amount of unrest. One of the things that seems to particularly stir revolts or riots is superstition.”

One knowledgeable source says China’s zombie film ban is the single biggest reason that Paramount wouldn’t greenlight a $200 million David Fincher-Brad Pitt teaming for a World War Z sequel. Still, Sony is bringing back its undead for Zombieland 2 on Oct. 18, albeit at a budget level that can withstand the likely cold shoulder from China. Focus is releasing Dead Don’t Die in the U.S., while UPI has worldwide rights minus Japan. But a source says the film won’t be released in China.

Still, Cannes artistic director Thierry Frémaux was clearly enamored with the subgenre this year. In addition to Dead Don't Die in competition and Atlantics, he also programmed Bertrand Bonello’s French-language Zombi Child in the Directors’ Fortnight section.

As for why so many directors got (re)animated about the subgenre at the same time, converging in a zombie-filled Cannes, the answer remains unclear. Jarmusch may have been inspired by the Trump presidency, as he makes several not-so-veiled references to an apocalyptic administration in Dead Don’t Die (politicians keep on fracking despite the environmental havoc, and Steve Buscemi sports a red hat that reads “Keep America White Again”).

The film’s producer Joshua Astrachan says Jarmusch isn’t apt to offer a great deal of explanation as to his intent. “He lets his art speak for itself,” he notes.

Frémaux, on the other hand, was more explicit.

"It's a very anti-Trump film," he said at the festival’s opening press conference. “With Jarmusch, we can [surmise] that he is not very happy with what’s happening at present."

But as far as selling a zombie film, at least one country won’t bite.

“If you are thinking about making that story, you can just count China out,” adds Gill. “It's not happening.”