Zack Snyder, the director of Army of the Dead, busted onto the cinematic landscape with his remake of Dawn of the Dead. That film was not just a fantastic zombie flick it helped usher in a new era of zombie films alongside the likes of 28 Days Later and REC. Not just initiating a debate between fast zombies and slow zombies, the film deconstructed a genre that had laid stagnant for years, revitalizing it and paving the way for the likes of The Walking Dead and World War Z. It still stands up today too. I rewatched it to make sure and the film is still smart, scary, and surprisingly full of great characters. Even the lounge cover of “Get Down With the Sickness” doesn’t feel cliche.
Now he’s returned to the genre he helped revitalize with Army of the Dead, except now he’s not some upstart director with a lower budget. Now he’s Zack “effing” Snyder with all the budget, clout, and baggage that comes with. I suppose it was somewhat naïve to think we’d have a return to the Snyder who gave us Dawn of the Dead but I didn’t think he’d be this far off.
Army of the Dead
Director: Zack Snyder
Release Date: May 21, 2021 (Netflix)
It’s interesting that Army of the Dead comes out at another turning point for the genre. The zombie apocalypse has become such a common subject that the genre has, over the past decade or so, moved away from films about the outbreak itself and begun focusing in on surviving after the fact. Army of the Dead is in this vein… kind of. The premise is that a government-made super soldier zombie experiment escapes during transportation, eventually finding its way to Las Vegas and infecting the entire city of sin. In the past that would have been the film, as we watch the survivors try to escape from the increasing hordes of zombie Elvis impersonators.
That, however, is just the first ten minutes or so of Army of the Dead. The film opens with an absolutely fantastic montage of the city falling, introducing us to a slew of the survivors who fight their way out before the government walls off the entire city and traps the zombie population inside. It, in fact, looks like a really great movie but it, unfortunately, isn’t the one we get to see. After this opening, which introduces us to a few of the main characters of the film, the movie loses any emotional core at all.
The film picks up a bit later, as the government is set to nuke Las Vegas and put an end to the zombie problem altogether. They’ve established a refuge center outside of the city where refugees are kept until cleared of suspicion of infection. Survivor Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) is approached by a wealthy guy to go back into Vegas a few days before the bomb is set to drop to steal millions of dollars from a safe in a casino. Low on cash and struggling to adjust to non-zombie life he recruits a team of other survivors, friends, and people who kill zombies on YouTube, and decides to head back in. Eventually, his daughter, who is desperately trying to rescue a refugee who snuck in to get money to help her children, joins the gang as well.
Once the team enters Vegas the movie just becomes a slog, though. At two-and-half hours long it goes on far longer than it should with little to show for it. Snyder seems to forget that what makes a zombie movie work is the characters who are trapped, not the action. He breezes through his massive team, giving us little reason to care for them. Even Scott, who is the central character of the film, suffers from Snyder’s inability to show emotion and instead have everyone just say what they’re feeling. Zombie movies don’t have to be about character at all but if they aren’t you need to keep them tight and scary, which this is not.
Snyder does do a good bit of genre-busting with this film, exploring some fresh ideas for the film. While most of the zombies are your normal, brain-hungry fast zombies there’s a cadre of them turned by the original zombie who are “smart.” These zombies function more like feral humans than zombie and can even procreate (a subject Snyder explored in Dawn of the Dead as well). It should lead to a bunch of creative and different sequences but instead Snyder does very little with it. The smart zombies do eventually amass together to form an Army but it never feels like they actually needed to be smart to do this.
There are other signs of creativity, like the opening, trying to break free out of the film. One sequence features the crew weaving their way through a maze of “hibernating” zombies, who will wake up if they touch them. It’s tense and thrilling, if slightly illogical, and Snyder once again shows off that he can piece together some of the best action out there when it inevitably all goes to shit. The coolness is never enough, though. For the most part the movie just kind of plods along with little reason to keep watching.
The cast is generally likable but Snyder does absolutely nothing with them. Bautista has shown that he can go deep and emotional but Snyder isn’t able to pull anything out of him here, with even the film’s emotional conclusion feeling clunky. Tig Notaro, who was edited into the film after Chris D’Elia was removed from the film for being a predator, plays a grumpy helicopter pilot with about as much effort as the CGI helicopter puts in. Most of the actors are there just to be zombie fodder and for that they’re fine but overall the performances feel lacking. That’s especially unfortunate because Snyder clearly wants to do some meta commentary on the genre by playing into cliché but he never actually pulls it off so its just cliché.
Army of the Dead is fun enough to watch on a lazy day when you’re itching for some zombie action but there’s so much better stuff that takes so much less time. Snyder Snyders all over this movie but it can’t be as excused as Justice League, where you can just roll your eyes at his excess because that movie was the definition of his ego. Here the overindulgence just feels just like that and it makes all the good that’s inside Army of the Dead feel like its trying to escape from its own zombie onslaught.