Film Review – Army of the Dead
Army of the Dead
Only a few months have passed since Zack Snyder dominated the pop culture landscape with his restored version of Justice League (2021). And now here he is with yet another actioner, Army of the Dead (2021). As the title would suggest, Snyder has returned to horror, once again delving into the flesh-eating fun of the zombie apocalypse. His remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004) kick started his career, so coming back to the genre feels somewhat like completing the circle. Whether he has improved as a filmmaker in the seventeen years in between is a matter of opinion.
Not only does Snyder direct, he also co-produces, co-writes (with Shay Hatten and Joby Harold), and operates as cinematographer. At this point, you are either already on board with his style or not. Some may dig his overly stylistic action, the dark and moody atmosphere, and abundant slow motion. Others may be turned off by his moral ambiguity, adolescent humor, and hyper machismo. I sit somewhere in between. There are moments where his movies feel big and splashy, like it was ripped right out of the pages of a comic book. Other times he goes for the lowest common dominator, like a pre-teen who just learned their first swear word.
If there is one thing Snyder is very good at, it’s his openings. This is especially true for his opening credits. He has a creative way of establishing his worlds, bringing us in while the credits roll. Many fans still point to the opening credits of Watchmen (2009) as a key example of his style working well. The same can be said for Army of the Dead. After an early prologue shows a civilian car crashing into a military convoy – releasing the first zombie – we are gifted a montage of the zombie horde overtaking Las Vegas. Exotic dancers chase clients down hotel hallways, patrons are overwhelmed on casino floors, and Elvis impersonators bite the dust as fighter jets drop napalm along the strip. While violent and gory, there is an exuberance in this sequence that is hard to ignore. It’s too bad the rest of the film does not maintain that momentum.
Fast forward in time and we learn that walls have been built around Vegas to contain the zombie outbreak. The President has decided to nuke the entire city to destroy the zombies, which have evolved into a kind of society with its own king and queen. Outside the city, businessman Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) offers mercenary Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) an opportunity. Secured underneath one of the casinos is $200 million in cold hard cash. If Scott can successfully retrieve the money before the city is bombed, he can keep $50 million and split it with a team of his choosing. The film then shifts into a heist story, with Scott assembling his team and journeying into the quarantine zone.
Scott’s crew is a variety of conflicting personalities. A few stand out. Lilly (Nora Arnezeder) is “The Coyote,” who has made several trips into the city and knows how to survive in it. Dieter (Matthias Schweighofer) is the safe cracker, who has no idea how to kill a zombie but can pick a lock like an artist. Tig Notaro – who replaced Chris D’Elia – is the getaway driver, but instead of a car she pilots helicopters. Also along for the ride is Martin (Garret Dillahunt) who represents Tanaka’s business interests, and Kate (Ella Purnell) Scott’s estranged daughter.
For a runtime of two and half hours, Army of the Dead feels very thin. It takes a full hour for Scott to assemble his crew and step foot into Vegas. The narrative is straight as an arrow, and whatever surprises there are feels lackluster. There is an odd parallel between what happens here and the real world, with Vegas being “quarantined” because of the “outbreak,” but it goes nowhere. Social and political elements are introduced but never developed. I’m not sure if this was intended or a strange coincidence. Nearly all of the characters are one dimensional, with only a few showing individual traits. Dave Bautista is capable of delivering a believable and empathic performance, but he’s strapped with a cliched father/daughter storyline. Scott’s relationship with Kate feels written and directed instead of natural and organic.
What about the action, you say? It’s the usual Zack Snyder fare, with lots of bloodshed and gunfire with somber music laid on top. One scene does play convincingly, in which the crew navigate through a pack of sleeping zombies cloaked in darkness. The odd thing about the action – and the movie as a whole – is how Snyder decided to shoot it. Visually, he opts for a narrow depth of field, meaning the camera lens will keep a subject in focus within a small space. Because of this, there are numerous instances where the camera shot goes completely blurry. At one point a character – who is in focus in a close up – steps away from the camera and immediately dissolves into blurriness. The problem is that Snyder holds this shot – and many others – way too long, making all of us wonder if we need prescription glasses.
Army of the Dead is the kind of movie that requires less thinking and more experiencing. Whether that’s a positive or negative will depend on the viewer. If you just want to see people kill zombies or get torn apart in gruesome ways, then by all means have fun. If you’re looking for something…anything…slightly more than that, you’re going to come away empty handed.