Army Of The Dead
Your cup runneth over Snyder fans. Yes, he’s back, only a few months since the Justice League film with his name on it trumped the odds and made it into a deliverable format, for better or ill. In many ways I would say that I was looking forward a lot more to this one though. While ZSJL was undoubtedly a fascinating project just because of how it came to be, it was, when you get right down to it, a regurgitation of something already experienced. A regurgitation that ended up better than the original meal, but a regurgitation nonetheless. Army Of The Dead promised Snyder the chance to be a bit more original, even as he goes back to something approximating his directorial roots, after his debut 2004 feature Dawn Of The Dead that many consider to be his best film.
Army Of The Dead really sets itself up as a unique take on the frankly very tired sub-genre of the zombie film though. The meshing of concepts – a living dead apocalypse with a Vegas heist – is more than enough to get me interested, before you throw in the really interesting looking cast, or the chance to see what Snyder is capable of doing as his own cinematographer (I’m not saying that’s a guaranteed good result, but whatever the result is it should be fascinating). The length was certainly eye-raising, and concerning, but then again this is the era of original home streaming movies, and unlike ZSJL I wasn’t so intent on taking this all in on one sitting. So, has Snyder hit paydirt for me twice in 2021, or are we back to him being very much an acquired taste?
Years after the city was quarantined following the emergence of a zombie threat that turned most of its inhabitants into “shamblers”, the US government prepares to drop a nuke on Las Vegas. Scott (Dave Bautista) a veteran of the initial campaign now reduced to menial work, is approached by casino owner Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) with a chance to make millions by secretly entering the city and cleaning out an abandoned vault filled with unclaimed cash. Assembling a crack team – former special forces friends Maria (Ana de la Reguera) and Vanderohe (Omari Hardwicke), safe-cracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighofer), influencer/deadshot Guzman (Raul Castilho), helicopter pilot Peters (Tig Notaro), Tanaka’s shady representative Martin (Garret Dillahunt) and people smuggler Lily (Nora Arnezeder) – Scott undertakes the job, but things are complicated by the unexpected presence of his estranged daughter Kate (Ella Parnell), looking for a friend lost inside the city, and a group of intelligent zombies more deadly than anything so far experienced.
Man, that is a long plot summation, but it is reflective of the surprising amount of stuff that is happening in Army Of The Dead, Snyder’s effort to create a true zombie epic. This is a marriage of the zombie film, with all of its conventions – a Patient Zero, infection spread by bites, self-sacrifice, euthanasia, desperate last stands, etc – with a heist film with all of its conventions – the team, the goal, the complications, the greed and the betrayals – but it is, remarkably, also an attempt at character study. The problem is that Snyder just isn’t the director required to marry these three tentpoles, and Army Of The Dead is, as a result, a fascinating but fatally imbalanced piece of entertainment.
As a zombie film, it works without doing much to re-invent the wheel. All of your tropes, as outlined above, are here. Save for the odd bit of uniqueness, like a zombie tiger, Snyder settles in to the kinds of things that have been done before, by Romero et al, right down to some “fast” zombies (28 Days Later says hello) in the form of the “Alphas”, let by a particular intelligent zombie warlord named Zeus (hey, there’s Romero again) in the script. There’s very little about this aspect of Army Of The Dead that actually thrills, because we really have seen it all so often before: the effects and CGI have just gotten better. Zombies as an entertainment tool were tired a few episodes into the woefully over-rated The Walking Dead, and the legions of copycat TV shows and movies that have tried to keep that ball rolling have only dulled their impact more (see my thoughts on The Dead Don’t Die as an example). I can turn off my brain (or put a metaphorical bullet in it) for 150 minutes to deal with this, but Army Of The Dead is not a stand-out in the sub-genre. It might be impossible for anything to ever be again.
As a heist movie, it again works without doing too much to re-invent a wheel that Danny Ocean made a franchise out of a little while back. The usual plot beats of such a sub-genre, are present. Save for the occasional bit of originality, like a certain focus on the vault and German cracker, the director largely concerns himself only with replication, right down to the “assembling the team” montage (only missing a “Son of a bitch, I’m in”) or booby-trapped safe. There isn’t much in Army Of The Dead in this regard that I think draws that much interest, because it’s something we have experienced in the not-too-distant past, even the Vegas setting. The film gets by with some infrequently whipsmart dialogue and the tension of mixing the heist aspects with the zombie menace, but I would not call it a real top tier example of the sub-genre. Heist films might not be as over-saturated as zombie films, but there are enough of them that it is hard to appear different.
So if Army Of The Dead is going to pull this combination off, it needs to really nail the third part of the tentpole, and that’s the character study. Now, there are good and bad aspects to this. The good is the variety: we have jaded special forces types, manic civilians not used to this kind of operation, social media influencers making videos about them shooting zombies in the head, morally ambiguous pilots looking to grow a conscience and coyotes battling exploitation of women in refugee camps. Lots of female voices in that mix, lots of minority voices too. One has to appreciate this aspect of Army Of The Dead, its efforts to craft a group of characters who are both interesting in their own right, and ethnically and gender diverse. And in the way that they are treated, as veterans of a war long over, Army Of The Dead reaches out and tries, for a little bit anyway, to be a better adaptation of World War Z then Brad Pitt was able to pull off. Many of the characters are heroes of yesteryear now working menial jobs – Scott flips burgers for example, with his medals long forgotten – thus imbuing things with a sense that we are viewing a commentary on the relentlessness of a military machine that values heroism until it is no longer useful
The bad is that there are so many of them that it’s hard for any of them to make a big impact on you. Even Bautista’s Scott ends up being defined almost entirely by his horrific past (he had to euthanise his wife when she was bitten, with his daughter watching) and little else. Snyder attempts to make up for this by throwing up a lot of sentimental melodrama in the second half of the production, tugging at the heartstrings in a manner that is genuinely unlike the director in my view. But melodrama will only get you so far, and having come from a first hour where there was real excitement in meeting these characters, seeing them interact with each other and watching them go about their deadly mission, we go into an elongated final 90 minutes where it feels like the production team doesn’t really know how to make you properly care about their fates. To give the best example, you can’t suddenly introduce a potential romantic plot-line, and then instantly have one half of that plotline killed in a totally gruesome manner. That causes shock, not genuine emotional engagement with the characters. Army Of The Dead, despite the running time, just can’t stick with anything.
The cast generally does fine. Bautista is slotting in nicely into a tried-and-tested action hero type, and Army Of The Dead does not tax him too much as an actor. Of the others there are a few who stand out: Schweighofer as the safecracker, apparently due a spin-off, is probably the most fun of the characters, especially in scenes with Hardwicke; I love Castilho’s influencer/zombie hunter, probably a little out of his depth but unwilling to admit it to his followers; and Tig Notaro does really well as the out for #1 pilot, with the actor parachuted in digitally – something you won’t notice – as a replacement for the disgraced Chris D’Elia. But there is just too many to keep track of, enough that in some ways you only really notice the mid-steps, like Garret Dillahunt’s cackling special ops villain, or the over-wrought stuff involving Zeus and his Queen.
Visually, Snyder does fine in his first outing as a flat-out cinematographer, taking cues from all over the place: Romero, Ocean’s 11, Escape From New York, even Excalibur. Army Of The Dead looks pretty good: the money shots of CGI hordes are great, an apocalyptic Las Vegas is very well captured in its ruin and the director is able to find the moments of fun and mirth in amid all the misery at least on certain occasions (case in point: the initial outbreak is a result of soldiers chatting distractedly about aliens and a newlyweds performing oral sex whilst driving). An opening prologue is a very effective bit of horror, and is followed by a main title sequence where Snyder takes what he did for Watchmen and adds some brilliant satirical elements, as the insanity of Vegas is overtaken by a zombie threat (and it takes a little while for some to notice).
Some of the set-pieces are really well constructed, like a silent jaunt through a confusing web of corridors filled with hibernating zombies, or mano-a-mano fights with Zeus or his tiger friend. But at the end of day, there is only so much of seeing the undead getting shot in the head that you will be able to tolerate: at nearly 150 minutes, Army Of The Dead is a little hard to get through sometimes, and the last 30 minutes especially, where there is only the odd bit of slow-mo to break up the monotony of headshots, does tend to get a little taxing on the visual front. Like I said, it’s fine visually, but that’s about it. Musically, there are parts of Army Of The Dead that I like – Richard Cheese and Allison Crowe’s cover of “Viva Las Vegas” in the opening is a treat – and parts that I strongly dislike – using The Cranberries’ “Zombie” in the conclusion for no other reason than the title – so that’s sort of par for the course for this director.
Army Of The Dead has pretensions of being an all-out zombie epic, a film that wants to be at the head of the sub-genre. It tries to achieve this through the blend of undead apocalypse with heist, and with an expansive, diverse cast. But the effort only gets so far. With the strange twin faults of being too long and too packed with characters, Army Of The Dead too often turns to cliche and stereotype, when it isn’t lathering on layers of bland sentimentality or blatent efforts at emotional manipulation. Zombie aficionados will find plenty to cheer about here, and I will say that there are many parts of the film that I would highly recommend people check out, not least that amazing title sequence. But, for too much of the rest, Army Of The Dead is a bit of a shambler itself. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).