Zack Snyder’s latest film, zombie/heist flick Army of the Dead, represents the best and worst of the auteur. It’s bombastic with copious amounts of gore while also containing heartrending philosophical notions regarding survival amidst nihilistic horror; however, it’s also a lot of flash with little meaning, relying on intertextuality to convey significance, which is Snyder’s signature move. The result is a film that’s entertaining and enjoyable but doesn’t break the mold the way it wants to. And it wants to; you can see it in the detail work of the world. But wanting something isn’t enough; you need to be able to pull it off.
When a convoy carrying a mysterious package is derailed outside of Las Vegas, a zombie infection decimates the City of Sin, turning it into the Land of the Dead as the military fails to do more than quarantine it off from the rest of the country. Days ahead of a scheduled demolition of the whole area, businessman Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) presents former soldier Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) with an offer: gather a team to sneak into the bottom of the Bellagio the quarantine area where the vault contains $250 million of his money. If Scott and his team can get the money and get out, they get to keep $50 million for themselves. Seeing this as a long-shot second chance to fix some wrongs, Scott puts together a crew of friends and other skilled individuals who can handle themselves under pressure as slow-moving shamblers are rampant throughout the city. Once inside the quarantine zone, though, Scott and his team realize that there’s a lot more inside of Las Vegas that they don’t know and it could very well be the end of them all.
Famed film critic Roger Ebert reportedly once said, “No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.” While film criticism is about analysis of work, there’s no denying the impact of resonance that informs the subjective reaction to a work. Put another way, consider this tweet by writer/director Christopher McQuarrie that’s been making the rounds on Twitter recently, “After 25 years of making them, I’ve learned to measure movies not in terms of quality, but of resonance. Some resonate with me. Others don’t. Some resonate with the masses, others don’t. I wasted years of creative energy arguing quality. I was wrong even when I was right.” When it comes to Snyder’s return to the zombie trough (2004’s Dawn of the Dead), it is both the right length and resonance, while remaining disconnected and in need of reediting. In another one of Snyder’s musical openings, a montage shows the audience the destruction of Las Vegas and introduces our main players set to a showroom-rendition of “Viva Las Vegas.” Snyder gets too much credit for his use of music in Watchmen as songs were constantly referenced in moments in the graphic novel, but here it’s all him and is almost perfectly constructed. It is humanity clinging on with every shred of hope it has as a threat, which cannot be reasoned with, scared off, or otherwise diverted, barrels onward with terrifying ferocity, inevitably overwhelming our heroes again and again. I did shed tears on more than one occasion during the film before the journey into Las Vegas began. Considering it was originally written by Joby Harold (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword) before being shelved for years until Snyder himself picked it back up and brought in writer Shay Hatten (John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum) to tweak it to their tastes, it’s hard to say which narrative parts are from the original and which are from the updates, but this opening very much feels like a Snyder opening: musical, evocative, substantial. The opening works because it not only establishes this alt-world, but the emotional stakes that propel it forward. Zombie films almost always explore some gnarled aspect of humanity and this opening sets the parameters of how we’ll view Scott and his primary team moving forward: they aren’t in it for the money alone, they’re in it to right some wrongs and maybe come back feeling more whole.
This is the resonance that connects. Scott is former military, as are the characters played by Ana de la Reguera (Maria Cruz) and Omari Hardwick (Vanderohe). They fought and lost a great deal in Vegas, something which the film takes the proper time to explore and examine both overtly and in subtext. In a way, the positioning of Scott and his team going back to Vegas is like a soldier signing up for another tour in an area that needs help. It’s high risk, high reward with the fore-knowledge that with every new tour, the chances of not returning grow higher. Headed into a zombie-infested city, death is a near certainty; however, the return offers a chance to rebuild their lives after everything they’ve lost. In this way, while the money is a reason to go in, to bet big and risk it all, none of them are greedy. It’s a realization that, frankly, goes against just about everything we’ve seen in zombie flicks where the team slowly eats itself out of fear of death. Thanks to that opening and their respective training, each one knows that getting out is the real prize and signing up means they know what to do if they get caught. When Army breaks away from the familiar like this, the film is absorbing and hums right along. Quick hat tip to the brilliance of shifting the zombies away from simply fast (new hotness) or slow (traditional) and giving them a bit of sentience beyond Bub in George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985) in the form of Alphas, led by one dubbed “Zeus” (Richard Cetrone).
It is, however, not always so neat, so clean, or so inspired.
The making of the film involved a smaller crew than Snyder’s previous projects. If I’m inferring correctly from this Hollywood Reporter interview between Aaron Couch and producer Deborah Snyder, the whole shoot was purposefully trimmed down so that the least number of people were used. For instance, she explains that Snyder didn’t want chairs on set, not out of some draconian desire to create discomfort, but because someone would then be needed to manage the chairs when they moved locations. As part of the smaller crew, Snyder took on the role of Director of Photography, making Army as close to a Snyder production as one can get as he serves as co-screenwriter, director, and DP, while also working with Editor Dody Dorn (Memento) as they shoot. Unlike the ruckus with Justice League (2017), there is no question that Army is decidedly Snyder’s, which means the issues fall directly on his shoulders as well. For instance, when the film introduces the zombie queen (played by Athena Perample, stunt double for Kathyrn Hahn in WandaVision), she walks out of a visual haze, slowly coming into focus as she moves closer to the camera with each footfall. It’s a fantastic visual slow reveal, enabling the audience to process what they’re seeing in the same way the eye shifts its focus to take in its environment. The thing is that she leaves the same way, stepping back into the haze. It’s a cool look, but it’s all about style and not function. She’s not backing into smoke or some other physical means of obscuring how she looks to either the audience or the characters, she literally just backs into the haze she appeared from. It’s a moment that comes across as silly instead of intimidating. Strangely, it’s the same approach with the zombie tiger shown in the trailer for the film. Snyder opts to show off the zombie side (camera-facing left) versus the less injured-side (camera-facing right) which is intriguing in the sense that it breaks convention, but it also reduces any kind of suspense or dread. There’s no tension as to what the tiger is doing there, no reveal of its new existence as a dead horror. It’s style over substance, robbing the film of a chance to be truly terrifying.
Similarly, Hardwick’s Vanderohe, shown to possess a M.A. in Philosophy, often discusses various aspects of his situation in a thoughtful, introspective manner. Despite being forced into violent action to survive, this is a man of contemplation. The fact that he drops a quote from Joseph Campbell, the author who literally wrote The Hero’s Journey exploring the 12 stages of what a hero goes through from start to finish, is so on-the-noses it almost breaks it. Snyder doesn’t do tempered; it’s either a low idle or full throttle and it’s moments like these which highlight just how much Snyder needs someone to focus his vision so that he gets what he wants without losing the energy of the scene. There’s even a scene that feels so out of place with the stakes that it should’ve happened earlier in order for the audience to have (a) time to process the information and (b) because the timing of the conversation undercuts the new urgency of the moment. There’re a few moments like this which, when considered against how well everything else is structured, aren’t terrible, but they bring down the consistent strength of the narrative pacing.
I also have a gripe about the inclusion of someone who shows up playing themselves when anyone could have played a similar character which would’ve been less divisive and wouldn’t remove the audience from the movie in the moment when that person appeared. Snyder went to great lengths to replace comedian Chris D’Elia with comedian Tig Notaro in the finished film after D’Elia was accused of pursing multiple young girls, so it’s not that he’s unaware of what the “right thing” is or of the potential optics. The fact that this particular person appears at all creates some question as to where the line for Snyder is and it may well ruffle other feathers of the audiences who are not so distracted by the copious amounts of well-staged action.
When all’s said and done, Army of the Dead is a good time. Snyder and Hatten create a reasonable world filled with smart characters brought to life by a talented cast who make you care about each one of them. The real MVPS of the film are Bautista who once more demonstrates that he’s a leading man capable of any genre; Nora Arnezeder as Lilly, a.k.a. The Coyote, whose performance highlights the complexity of trying to survive not just in a war zone but when the rules of engagement are destroyed by broken laws of nature; and Notaro whose dry delivery adds a little flare to the consistently dire circumstances and pairs well with Bautista’s level delivery. Due to the character investment the audience feels from these and other performances, when the body count starts (and it will, it’s a zombie film after all), there will be a measure of loss felt by the audience. Because we care, the meat grinder that is the new Las Vegas hurts all the more. Snyder even breadcrumbs some interesting aspects of how Zeus exists and the implications could just be the thing he needs to grow the franchise beyond the upcoming animated prequel and a film prequel, Army of Thieves. There’s a chance for this franchise to get really weird and cast off the chains of the subgenre in intriguing ways. Only time will tell which direction it will go in, but, for now, Viva Las Vegas!
In select theaters beginning May 14th, 2021.
Available for streaming on Netflix beginning May 21st, 2021.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.