Army of the Dead is Zack Snyder’s second exorbitant pet project of 2021 (the first being the infamous “Snyder Cut” of Justice League). A true auteur, Snyder serves as writer, director, and cinematographer on this horror/heist flick, with Netflix footing the bill and seemingly giving him carte blanche. The result is an underlit, overlong, glee-less gore-fest. If you’re expecting a diverting Ocean’s 11-meets-Zombieland kind of movie, this isn’t it. Bloated, bleak, and bleary, Army of the Dead takes an entertaining action zombie film premise and sucks the life right out of it.
That premise will be familiar to anyone who has an inkling of knowledge about the genres Army of the Dead borrows from. A military convoy carrying a zombie from Area 51 crashes in the desert. A zombie outbreak then occurs in nearby Las Vegas. Survivors—mercenary Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) and his daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell), as well as his pals Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick) and Maria Cruz (Ana de la Reguera)—fight their way out of the zombie hordes. The city is walled up, allowing the zombies to reign within its confines. Cut to a few months (years?) later: a billionaire (Hiroyuki Sanada) hires Ward to recover/steal $200 million from a casino vault before Las Vegas is nuked. Cue montage: a team of specialists is assembled by Ward: a pilot (Tig Notaro, digitally inserted into the film), a safecracker (Matthias Schweighöfer), a sharpshooter (Raúl Castillo), a guide into Vegas (Nora Arnezeder), and the billionaire’s assistant (Garrett Dillahunt). A plan unfolds; stakes are laid out; witty quips are made. Of course, the plan goes awry—the unexpected occurs, team members betray one another, and characters are killed off one by one in increasingly gruesome ways. There are attempts at melodramatic character development—Ward and Kate are estranged, and thus many of the pauses between action sequences involve their dialogue-heavy attempts at reconciliation. It’s all quite familiar, really.
Still, along the way we learn that these zombies are different, that they have developed intelligence and a societal structure with a queen and king as their leaders. But that’s about the only fresh idea Army of the Dead has to offer, and even that notion is a bit derivative of George Romero’s other iconic “…of the Dead” films. There are attempts at humor, primarily coming from Schweighöfer’s squealy German safecracker, which mostly fall flat. There is also an ugly subplot with a misogynistic refugee camp security guard (Theo Rossi) who harasses both Kate (a WHO volunteer) and Geeta (Huma Qureshi), a refugee mom. This half-assed attempt at political resonance (a type of #MeToo meets ICE) feels unnecessarily tacked on, as does a bizarre cameo from former Trump stooge Sean Spicer. Yet Army of the Dead seems less interested in developing some of its potential themes and more interested in go-for-broke violence. Bodies are shot, bit, crushed, split, sawed, or blown open in an expressive variety of ways. Snyder’s camera revels in the viscera; were it not for the overtly artificial CGI aesthetic, this might be one of the most gory films in the past decade. This is true to form for Snyder, whose Dawn of the Dead, 300, and the godawful Sucker Punch all took pride in showing us uncut slow-motion shots of some people killing or maiming other people, all for our apparent diversion.
Right from its opening moments, Army of the Dead is dark. Not in the typical Snyder sense of serious-and-brooding (although it is that as well—the film ultimately borders on nihilism in its violent denial of anything meaningful), but in the sense of “did Netflix forget to include lighting in the budget?” Many of the shots in Army of the Dead are a hazy, dusky blur; if you enjoy seeing what is happening in a film, this movie may frustrate you. The digital images are somehow smeary, the color palette a vibrant smorgasbord of beiges and grays. Snyder has a reputation of being a visual filmmaker whose slow-motion compositions often can generate a sense of awe. The visual approach here is a marked shift away from such imagery, instead adopting an uber-shallow focus digitized aesthetic shot either in harsh sunlight or murky darkness; the closest parallel I can think of is the Hungarian Holocaust film Son of Saul, only without a sense of moral complexity or reasoning behind the visual decisions. While such a visual approach tends to generate both suspense and gravitas—we have to wait for horrific images in the periphery to become clear to us, while the intense focus on the on-screen character stokes our sympathies—Snyder utilizes this style in ways which are only distracting or frustrating, then undermines the images’ impact by juxtaposing them with wide clearly-CGI shots of burned out landscapes or zombie hordes. Army of the Dead is then simultaneously conventional and anomalous to the Snyder cinematic tradition—it’s an ambitious crowd-pleaser which lacks ambition and ultimately provides little pleasure.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0993840/