Written by: Zack Snyder & Shay Hatten (screenplay), Joby Harold (screenplay)
Directed by: Zack Snyder
Starring: Dave Bautista, Ella Purnell, and Omari Hardwick
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"You all keep talking about the city like it's their prison. It's not. It's their kingdom."
When Zack Snyder remade Dawn of the Dead in 2004, a chorus of critics and fans (including yours truly) noted its debt to Aliens. It wasn’t an accusation so much as an acknowledgement, and a generally favorable one at that: Snyder had taken Romero’s sacred text and infused it with a different kind of energy cribbed by another genre pillar. No harm, no foul, especially since Dawn was one of the era’s best remakes. Ironically enough, it took this kind of double deja vu to reinvigorate the zombie genre, and Snyder (with a huge assist from screenwriter James Gunn) crafted a stylish, irreverent update of a classic, infusing it with a morbid wit that wasn’t trying to ape the original’s satire. Dawn of the Dead takes itself just seriously enough that it doesn’t feel like a desecration—it’s obviously taking its inspiration from Romero, but it does its own thing. It’s arguably the best kind of remake because of it.
So you can see the appeal of Snyder returning to this sandbox after spending the last decade infamously toiling away in the DC universe. He’s circled back around now with Army of the Dead, a project he hatched fifteen years ago and that’s been in development hell ever since. It’s back from the dead now in 2021, when the undead landscape couldn’t be more different than it was in 2004. Somehow, zombies—once the avatar for the obscure, cult corner of the horror genre—have become oversaturated, if not downright boring. I never imagined I’d see the day. And history does repeat to a certain extent with Army of the Dead: once again, Snyder has turned to Aliens for inspiration and has completely doubled down, almost like an eager child repeating a bit for its parents. If you liked Aliens with zombies before, maybe you’ll like more Aliens with zombies, the thinking must have been. Sound logic, I guess, but it doesn’t work out since Army of the Dead doesn’t bring along much of the other stuff that made Dawn such a hit—the energy, the style, the wit. Somehow, after fifteen years of development, it still just feels like a rough draft, one that’s full of intriguing ideas that never come to fruition because Snyder is more interested in chasing the dragon—er, Xenomorph.
One of the more interesting ideas comes right at the top, when it’s revealed we’re not dealing with a typical, planet-wide zombie apocalypse. Instead, an army transport group carrying a mysterious payload runs into some trouble on the road that winds up unleashing their secret cargo: a zombie that winds up spreading an infection to nearby Las Vegas. Most of its population succumbs to the undead, and the United States declares it a quarantine zone. Years later, it’s a wasteland that the government has finally decided to nuke, much to the dismay of casino owner Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada), who has $200 million wasting away in a vault. Even though insurance covered his losses, he wants to recover what is essentially free money, so he recruits a team led by Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) to infiltrate the city and fly out with the money before the bomb drops.
Despite the lean premise, Snyder bloats Army of the Dead out to 148 minutes, which would be forgivable if the surrounding detritus were either interesting or even properly explored. Instead, we’re dealing with the typical protagonist processing grief and trauma since Scott had to knife his zombie wife right in front of his now estranged daughter (Ella Purnell), who conveniently works at a refugee camp just outside of the city. On its face, this isn’t so bad because it gives Bautista—always a compelling screen presence—something to chew on, and he rewards Synder with a great, vulnerable performance that’s sprinkled with great little moments. A recurring gag has him bouncing ideas about the food truck he’s going to start with his share of the cash, and it’s exactly the kind of thing that brings these men-on-a-mission movies to life. Unfortunately, Snyder only sees the father-daughter dynamic as an obvious avenue to rip off Aliens since Kate insists on joining the group to search for a family that was abandoned within the town, where they’re being held captive by the undead inhabitants.
I’ll circle back to the main reason the father-daughter stuff ultimately falls flat since it involves spoilers, but let’s just say Snyder doesn’t find the proper emotional or tonal wavelength for the entire subplot. Even worse, though, is that it consumes those more interesting ideas surrounding it, like the undead civilization that’s flourished within Las Vegas. We’re not just dealing with fast zombies this time; now, they show obvious signs of intelligence and emotion as they shamble through the city’s decay. They’re led by a king and queen (Richard Centrone & Athena Perample), and they don’t necessarily kill intruders on sight. The mercenaries’ “coyote” (Nora Arnezeder), who ferries people in and out of Las Vegas, has developed a rapport with the duo, allowing the group to stage their heist without the interference of the undead. The zombie couple is even expecting a child, and their sentience raises questions about zombie autonomy (we learn there have been massive protests against dropping a bomb on the undead). You might be led to believe that Snyder is exploring class warfare, with the grunts and zombies going at each others' throats, all at the behest of a billionaire pulling all of the strings--right in the middle of the middle of a capitalist Mecca, no less.
Likewise, the refugee camps outside of Vegas—where corruption and abuse flourish—lead you to believe Snyder might draw some parallels to real-world atrocities. But he never engages any of it and is content to take some obvious potshots at a certain ex-president. Even this falls flat, though, because we just survived a term where the President of the United States once seriously asked why we can’t fire nuclear missiles at hurricanes. No joke you write into a movie will be more damning than reality. All this stuff just winds up becoming baggage that weighs down a routine Aliens rip-off that may have made Bruno Mattei blush. One character even wears a headband just like Jenette Goldstein’s Vasquez, which feels less like an homage and more like an act of contrition. We know you’re remaking Aliens, my dude—we don’t need such mundane visual cues that double as permission.
But the most surprising thing is that it’s not a particularly thrilling Aliens riff. Action is quite sporadic, confined to the prologue, the opening credits sequence (a slo-mo tableau of zombie mayhem set to the tune of Richard Cheese covering “Viva Las Vegas”—this might be the Snyder singularity), and a pair of action bursts once the team finally infiltrates the city 50 minutes into the movie. To be fair, the second one comprises nearly the entirety of a 30-minute, non-stop climax, but Army of the Dead feels remarkably light on action and violence. So little of it flashes the kind of wild, stylish imagination we’ve come to expect from Snyder, too, and the whole film is awash in a shallow focus that blurs the frame, rendering everything flat and dull.
While it’s intentional, it’s no less unsightly—at the very least, the words “Las Vegas,” “Zack Snyder,” and “zombies” conjure up some wild possibilities that rarely play out on-screen since so much of the film is set in dingy corridors and generic, hollowed-out rubble. You could have probably set this movie anywhere, quite frankly, and I’m half-convinced Snyder only settled on Vegas so he could work in another Aliens reference by having the refugee camp employees wear shirts with the letters LV. Maybe the film’s biggest surprise is that he didn’t explicitly label the camp LV-426.
Also surprising: the sheer number of dangling threads and unpaid setups. When the team first infiltrates Vegas, they encounter a group of dormant zombies who we’re told reanimate with water. For some reason, it never rains. When the Burke surrogate (you’re never going to believe it, but Tanaka sends his own guy in with ulterior motives) turns heel by locking a character in a room with the zombies, the would-be victim dramatically escapes, setting up a big confrontation that never happens because zombies kill them three minutes later anyway. When the team arrives at the vault, they discover the remains of a previous outfit that Tanaka must have sent in, and one of them notices the eerily similarities between the two teams and wonders if they aren’t stuck in some endless karmic loop. Fittingly, I guess, this goes nowhere. A character makes a big deal out of wielding a huge circular saw, but a different character only uses it to cut down a wall during the actual heist.
The entire fate of one character is left up in the air even after the climax makes an entire, harrowing detour because Kate insists on saving them. Don’t even get me started on how this entire team of seasoned badasses doesn’t question why Tanaka is having them break into a vault that he owns instead of just handing over the combination. Ditto the absurd security traps in place that feel like they were designed by fucking Jigsaw. You have to wonder how many casino workers were accidentally crushed to death on the job in this house of horrors. Army of the Dead is full of stuff like this leaves you wishing Snyder had taken another pass at the script. Instead, we have what feels like every idea Snyder flung to the wall, and they all stuck, for better and for worse. Between this and his Justice League recut, we can safely say he doesn’t subscribe to the “less is more” school of thought.
I probably could have been okay with Army of the Dead landing with an underwhelming, half-assed thud had it at least had the conviction to stay true to its colorful tableau of characters and allowed them to thrive within a movie that dared to have fun with a premise that involves Las Vegas and the undead. There’s an assortment of fun personalities here, at least, with Matthias Schweighöfer and Omari Hardwick especially developing a nice rapport as a skittish safecracker and a veteran soldier. Some of their bits—including one where they have to trick a zombie into setting off the fatal traps surrounding the vault—give hope that Snyder has harnessed the right kind of devil-may-care approach to a movie that demands it.
But he obviously doesn’t agree, so Army of the Dead plummets during its climax, where a mild but sturdy disappointment crumbles into flaming wreckage. Snyder takes a turn for the ponderous here, dropping Joseph Campbell quotes and forcing us to endure yet another sequence where a character has to reckon with a loved one turning into a zombie. I’ll readily admit that I’ve just had a personal aversion to this sort of bleak shit in recent years—after a while, it just becomes deadening to see the zombie genre trade in misery porn, especially when The Walking Dead resorted to it on a near-weekly basis. In this case, though, it doesn’t even fit the kind of story Snyder seems to be telling up until this point because nothing about Army of the Dead screams serious business. What Snyder supposes at the last minute is that maybe it is, and, like so many reckless gamblers in Vegas, he winds up losing it all. This is to say nothing of the final scene, which I thought was going to be some kind of quick gag before it labored on to an inevitable twist that only doubles down on the nihilism and leaves you wondering what the point of it all was. Imagine if the prologue of Alien 3 was tacked onto the end of Aliens.
Snyder pulled off that trick off in 2004, but here it just feels like a desperate attempt at reclaiming former glory. Army of the Dead doesn’t just wind up resembling Greatest Hits record—it's more like someone doing a half-hearted cover album, which is maybe a touch ironic considering Snyder’s fondness for cover songs. Some inspired moments do capture the old spark, like when the much heralded zombie tiger dispatches one of the movie’s most despicable characters* by literally biting their face off. The opening sequence and credits are also a reminder that Snyder’s capable of telling stories in bursts or with the assistance of well-timed music (and, yes, the soundtrack is littered with both obvious and odd needle-drops, including that Cranberries song). Don’t get me wrong—generally speaking, I like Snyder’s work, and even his misfires (Sucker Punch, most of his DC output) are at least interesting misfires, the unmistakable work of a singular vision that nobody else could have made. Army of the Dead is the last thing I expected from him, though: a dull, generic rehash that lacks the visual panache and rambunctious energy we’ve come to expect from one of our most vulgar stylists.
*Not the most despicable character, though, not when Sean Spicer appears for a cameo without being devoured by zombies for some goddamn reason.
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