Synopsis: After a zombie outbreak causes Las Vegas to be overrun and walled-off, ex-mercenary Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) assembles a crack team to infiltrate the zombie-infested City of Sin in order to break into a heavily guarded vault and steal the $200 million inside it. The mission, of course, does not go as planned, thanks to complications like the involvement of Ward’s estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) and a pair of Alpha Zombies who have evolved to become smarter and stronger than the rest of the shuffling horde.
1. Zack Snyder is a bizarre filmmaker. In many ways, he reminds me of Michael Bay – they both work primarily in the realm of big budget action, but somehow manage to remain stubbornly iconoclastic, thanks to signature styles that are both instantly recognisable and frustratingly incoherent. There is a certain auterism that pervades their filmography, which results in these bloated blockbusters somehow revealing a muddled, confused, and quite frankly awful philosophical bedrock beneath all the sound and fury. (1) This makes both filmmakers extremely hard to ignore or dismiss, made particularly pronounced in Snyder’s case thanks to the baffling cult of personality that has sprung up around him. Yet, for all his (many, many, many) flaws, Snyder remains a fascinating figure, a man of obvious talents and seemingly zero idea of how to harness these talents.
2. Now here’s the thing. That paragraph above was designed to start my review of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, but lord help me, it’s been two months since its release, and I just cannot bring myself to invest my very limited time into that four-hour long monstrosity. So instead, this little thesis on Zack Snyder comes courtesy of … a relatively low-budget (only in comparison to The Snyder Cut) zombie heist movie released on Netflix. And yet, everything in that first paragraph not only applies to Army Of The Dead, but might even be a better fit here. After all, instead of using pre-existing characters and comic book plotlines, this movie is an original (that word is used here very loosely) idea that is written, directed, and even shot by Snyder himself. It’s pure, uncut Zack. No studio interference, no bullshit social media hullabaloo, no (fine, one) costly reshoots and re-edits. It’s just a straightforward Zack Snyder movie, filmed and released with no (fine, a little) bullshit whatsoever.
And it’s … ok. Maybe a little worse, maybe a little better, depending on what you’re looking at. It’s fine. Passable. Serviceable.
3. I know. All that digital ink spilled over Zack Snyder, and all for a movie that is alright at best. Army Of The Dead‘s elevator pitch is simple. Hey, what if Ocean’s Eleven, but with zombies and the plot of Aliens? This is not to say that a simple (and derivative) premise like that one cannot result in a good movie, but part of the problem of Dead is how much it wastes the many inherent opportunities of ‘zombie heist film’. Here’s a good example. Heist movies always have a team. Each character is supposed to have something different – a specialty of some kind. And yet, half of the team in this movie’s skills are ‘they shoot guns gud’. No, seriously. We have one pilot, one safecracker, and one coyote (who knows the lay of the land and the behaviour of the zombies). And the rest? They shoot guns gud. Unsurprisingly, those three characters with specialised skills stand out, with the rest falling into generic tough guy/gal stereotypes. The acting on the whole is largely credible though, and I have to give credit to Snyder for at least casting a diverse group of actors, for the homogeneity of the characters would have been even worse had they all been played by generic white male meatheads. Bautista also gives a semi-decent lead performance, thanks to his ability to convey pathos and gravitas – a quality that has been utilised by far better directors like James Gunn and Denis Villeneuve.
5. Another major problem with this movie is how terrible the action scenes are, which is very ironic considering that Snyder has made his name working in the action genre. This has long been a weakness of his, however, largely thanks to the way that he conceives of his action setpieces. There is an excellent essay by Film Crit Hulk (2) that, while not specific to Snyder, pinpoints the general issue of how contemporary action scenes focus far too much on ‘cool’ and not enough on ‘engagement’. Great action directors like Spielberg, Cameron, or Chad Stahelski (director of the John Wick films) understand that action must be about goals. The best action scenes set up an objective that the protagonist must reach, place clear obstacles in their path, and then force them to react accordingly, with a well-defined series of cause and effect. Think of the truck chase in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, or The Matrix’s rescue of Morpheus, or the entirety of Mad Max: Fury Road. Army Of The Dead, to put it mildly, does not do these things. And it’s not like Snyder is unable to craft a good action scene, for his very best one (Batman vs. Superman‘s rescue of MARTHA) follows these rules to a tee. Army Of The Dead‘s action scenes, however, tend to be hopelessly generic variations of ‘we must get from Point A to Point B’, or go so far over the top in terms of the heroes’ abilities that it never feels like they are in real jeopardy.
6. Another problem with the action scenes (and the movie as a whole) is just how long it is. There is no reason for this film to be two and a half hours long. None whatsoever. Numerous scenes are drawn out for no good reason, which has the unfortunate effect of dampening Snyder’s usual strong sense of imagery. A great example comes in the scene where Zeus, the king of the Alpha Zombies is revealed for the first time. The scene starts strong with a beautifully composed tableau of the zombies gathered around a pool, before Zeus enters in a John Woo-ish shot of billowing curtains and slow-motion. Fantastic. And then the scene keeps going … and going … and going, filled with nothing more than zombie roaring and terrified victim screaming. Similarly, the death of a major character at around the two-thirds mark is impossibly self-indulgent, a non-stop gorefest that feels completely unnecessary. In general, the word ‘self-indulgent’ could describe much of the movie, with nearly every scene going on for about 50% longer than necessary.
7. I would also be remiss if I did not say something about how downright ugly Army Of The Dead looks. For some bizarre reason, Snyder chose to shoot the movie using an outdated camera lens and this, in conjunction with his shooting on digital cameras (he normally shoots on film) results in the movie being a blurry, unfocused mess, to the extent that I thought something was wrong with my TV or my WiFi for the first fifteen minutes or so. The depth of field is extremely shallow throughout, which reminded me of László Nemes’s Son Of Saul – a pretty terrible point of comparison because (i) that film was deliberately shot in shallow focus for artistic effect and (ii) it’s a fucking arthouse movie about the Holocaust, which is kinda not what you want your big dumb zombie heist movie to look like. Once again, this has the effect of bringing down one of Snyder’s strengths – his shot composition – by making everything look muddy and unclear. It is a truly mindboggling decision, and one that has already caused a major technical glitch by resulting in ‘dead pixels’, or white dots on the screen that should not be there.
8. And yet, with all that said, is Army Of The Dead bad? Honestly? No. It’s a not-unenjoyable (always a sign of a great movie when I have to bust out the double negative) piece of genre fare that hums along relatively innocuously for most of its overlong runtime. While it may be derivative as all hell in terms of plot and character, could stand to be at least 25% shorter, and looks like you’re viewing it through a dirty windscreen, Snyder remains competent enough in most aspects of his craft to produce a relatively entertaining piece of cinema. The usual ‘good Snyder’ aspects are there – his unerring sense of how to compose a single powerful image, his over-the-top bombast, his uncanny ability to make a compelling opening credit montage (surely one of the most specific gifts any director has) – and the ‘bad Snyder’ aspects, while present, remain low-key enough that they do not disrupt the momentum of the movie too much. It is highly unlikely that the cult of Zaddy will latch onto this and make it a cause célèbre like his superhero work, but stranger things have happened. If nothing else, it’s free of charge (if you have Netflix) and there are worse ways to kill time while you are stuck at home.