(ARMY OF THE DEAD is out on Netflix on May 21st)
ARMY OF THE DEAD is Zack Snyder at his purest and most unfiltered. According to the credits, he is one of the producers (his wife is another), one-third of the writers with an original story credit, a cinematographer, and the director. In essence, this is the Snyder Cut to end all Snyder Cuts. So, without any studio interference to blame, it’s very easy to see the film for what it is.
That result is a juvenile, two-and-a-half-hour, overwrought mess that wastes a talented cast in an ugly, CGI-drenched videogame pastiche you want to end within a half-hour.
Putting the team together
Set some years after a zombie outbreak in Vegas engulfed the entire city, ARMY OF THE DEAD finds the iconic shrine to capitalism gated and sealed from the rest of America. Not that this stops anything, as people keep going in and out without a hitch. In the desert surrounding Vegas, a hapless war veteran, Scott, flips burgers for a living as he wonders where everything went wrong.
His prayers for something better arrive in the form of Bly Tanaka, a wealthy billionaire with nefarious schemes to spare. He wants Scott to put together a team to infiltrate Vegas, find his ruined casino, and retrieve the two hundred million dollars still lost within. The only catch is that time is of the essence, as the US military is going to nuke Vegas to kingdom come. Before long, Scott has his group of misfits together, including his headstrong daughter, as they prep to enter the undead kingdom.
There is potential
The basic setup is a damn good one, and I wanted this film to be good. A heist movie that’s also a zombie movie but with an added element of post-apocalypse wasteland scenarios? That’s everything I want out of my horror escapism. But here’s the thing; good zombie films are about something. At least the most memorable ones.
DAWN OF THE DEAD, rightfully considered the greatest zombie film of all time, is a bleak satire about consumerist tribalism as a response to a racist and broken society. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is still one of the most potent allegories for the Jim Crow-era south.
But Zack Snyder isn’t George Romero, not by a long shot. His script is superficial, vulgar, and childishly simplistic to the point of insulting. Sure, there are plenty of moments that outright point at things and go “this bad,” but that’s hardly high-class satire, is it?
Worse are the hamfisted attempts critiquing America’s inhumane border control, casting a throwaway bad guy in the shape of a rent-a-cop who rapes and assaults women just for fun. He’s here to provide simple catharsis before his inevitable end, which makes the entire setup utterly distasteful. For Snyder, women are a means to an end, either to teach a guy a lesson or serve as motivation for them to better.
Inside Vegas, things don’t get any better. The zombies turn out to be a fantasy mix between superhuman warriors and I AM LEGEND-style vampire mutants. The how or the why is unanswered, and it’s clear Snyder’s focus is on other things. Their leader is The Alpha, who naturally has a Queen (guess what happens to her). There are also classic zombies, shamblers, which we see surprisingly little in the film.
It’s not that the location isn’t superb, either. The ruined hellscape that is the Vegas strip looks terrific in the few wide shots we get, and there’s a good kind of childish glee in exploring an undead world where no rules apply. But the entire film hinges on such stupid, glaringly obvious plot holes that all the fun bleeds out quickly.
For example, the team has to carry gas canisters to fuel up a helicopter waiting at the top of a casino. “Vegas is a no-fly zone; you can’t just go in,” Tanaka tells them. “But you can fly out.” Fine, let’s go with that. The opening montage shows the military carpet-bombing Vegas numerous times, apparently to no effect, yet years have gone by without an incident. Why are there refugees at the outskirts of Vegas when there isn’t a border even remotely close by? The zombie tribes are incredibly fast, powerful, and intelligent, yet they can’t get over a wall of shipping containers no more than three crates high?
Further revelations would spoil the film heavily, but suffice to say; they make any early questions feel like nitpicks. ARMY OF THE DEAD is a film that wants you to focus on how cool shooting zombies looks, not how anything works. It disregards any worldbuilding, character moments, and humanity for the sake of something gif-worthy.
If only ARMY looked good, that would save things. But Snyder is only as good as his cinematographers. In the past, his partnerships with artists like Larry Fong and Amir Mokri have resulted in striking singular visuals, if nothing else. Comparatively, ARMY looks cheap and washed out, with none of the flair or style usually attributed to a Snyder production. One notable standout is Tig Notaro, replacing another actor through post-production magic. Her scenes are hilariously out of place, and the constant cuts to remind audiences she exists only emphasize just how much she’s not there.
The only interesting shots are those lifted from others.
There’s a Michael Bay pastiche with characters sipping Coronas on top of a car during sunset. Multiple fawning underhead closeups of military people doing military things. A tracking shot of our heroes unloading weaponry at zombies looks like a CALL OF DUTY cutscene. Romero influences are plenty as well. The zombie genre isn’t original, to begin with, but ARMY seems to make a point of how unoriginal it truly is.
A great cast
This is probably for the best since the original characters are bland at best and offensive at their worst. As Scott, Dave Bautista grumbles his way through a part that now truly is beneath his skills. He’s a soulful and interesting character actor who’s grown into his own this past decade. Omari Hardwick is likewise intensely charismatic in a baffling role that can’t decide whether he’s a meta-commentary on the film itself or yet another alpha-male stand-in for a specific audience.
In the range of insulting is Matthias Schweighöfer, playing the safe-cracking Dieter. Schweighöfer is a talented and exciting performer. It’s a shame his part is that of a late 90s effeminate foreigner who the tough American grunts need to protect. Not a single scene goes by without reminding us how he squeals in a high-pitched nasal voice when scared. Or how dainty his posturing turns as he tries to “be a man.” It’s an ugly, dated stereotype that I hate this film for reviving.
Ella Purnell, Ana de la Reguera, Nora Arnezeder, and Samantha Win are all great actors. I wish they had something to do in this film. But Snyder cares about them even less than he does for the men, and within ten minutes of introductions, you can probably guess where everyone is going. What’s worse is that Snyder relegates other cast members into the role of damsels in distress and then promptly forgets their existence twice in the film. Everyone is here to prop up the men.
Exactly what’s on the tin
But none of this should come as a surprise anymore. This is a Zack Snyder film; you’re already on the bandwagon or not. His filmography of misfires, troubling politics, open nihilism, and the lack of any auteurist flair is well represented. There’s nothing here to indicate he’s grown as a filmmaker. Instead, a return to a genre that made his career only highlights how much he needs other talented individuals to reign in his tendencies.
Snyder’s remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD was written by James Gunn, who went on to major success with his GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY films. While nowhere near the quality of Romero’s original, DAWN had an inkling of wit and fun in its writing. Gunn’s black humor contrasted well with Snyder’s fascination for macho posturing, giving the film a surprising balance Snyder hasn’t seen since.
ARMY OF THE DEAD tries to pull from the same well, even including another Richard Cheese musical montage, but without the sharp eye of another filmmaker to help focus the story. Instead, Snyder feels like he’s playing a mix-tape of covers from better days, all of which only highlights just how much they’re not what they used to be.
In a way, maybe that’s perfectly fitting for a zombie film set in Vegas. It’s a shambling, lifeless husk of an Elvis impersonator aimlessly drifting through a monotonous, gaudy landscape that is novel at first and then intensely distasteful once you look closer.