I’m gonna give it ev’rything I’ve got / Lady luck please let the dice stay hot / Let me shoot a seven with ev’ry shot, ah / Viva Las Vegas, Viva Las Vegas
Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead is, like most Netflix productions, the result of a director being given 100% control over his product and going for broke. Like most Netflix productions it runs long (2 1/2 hours) and feels built to be watched while distracted. I wouldn’t have put my chips on Army of the Dead feeling longer than Snyder’s four-hour Justice League from earlier this year, but them’s the breaks I guess.
Also co-written by Snyder, Army of the Dead is a heist movie without a compelling heist and a zombie movie with few blood-raising zombie sequences. At times, it feels like Snyder is working as hard as he can to distance himself from the overly edgy nihilism that fed the superlative 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake that launched his film career. He’s a different man and a different artist than he was 20years ago. Whereas his first zombie movie reveled in gore and cruelty, this one seems more concerned by the troubled father-daughter relationship between team leader Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) and his daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell). In Snyder’s Dawn remake, zombies were mindless, cannibalistic monstrosities; here, they’re something else. What precisely that means is ambiguous, except to say they’re closer to the vampires in I Am Legend (the book) than the shambling zombies we’ve come to know and love as a culture. We can sort of empathize with them is what I mean to say. Not that it goes anywhere in this story.
The differences between Snyder’s two zombie outings can be succinctly described by the change in Snyder’s production company over that time. What was once Cruel and Unusual Films has become The Stone Quarry — more mature and thoughtful but far less intriguing and exploitative.
Story-wise, Snyder goes for broke, setting his heist in a fallen, quarantined Las Vegas filled with zombies. The crew has 24 hours before the city is annihilated by a low-yield nuclear warhead. The opening credits depict the fall of Las Vegas (as the song “Viva Las Vegas” plays, the first of many obvious but pleasant needle-drops). It’s one of Snyder’s best sustained sequences, recalling his iconic opening to 2009’s Watchmen. It’s a perfect premise for Snyder to go wild with the pop-auteur aesthetic choices that define his films — plenty of slow-motion, mixed-focus, bright colors, lots of explosions and gunshots.
Unfortunately, like Watchmen, Army has a credit sequence with energy and playfulness to which the rest of the story never lives up. For whatever reason, the maximalist interpretation of an operator-porn zombie thriller doesn’t spend much time setting up an interesting heist or allowing its characters to contribute their unique abilities to get the job done. They talk a lot and shoot a lot, but the balance is off.
Nowhere more so than the use of gore throughout. There are moments where Army provides the exploding brains, blood and guts that come with the cinematic territory, but the movie frequently cuts away from big violent money shots when human characters are at stake. The horror of these films comes when people we like face terrible ends. Most of the handful of stomach-twisting deaths happen during the opening credits. Without those moments of horror punctuating the story, it all starts to feel plodding and arrhythmic.
Not to mention the dissonance between the heist A-plot and its two subplots. It’s not uncommon for a crew to open a safe and discover nothing is as it seems, but the path Snyder takes here isn’t quite that. In fact, there are three parallel stories being told that never feel like they mesh together: a heist, a rescue operation and a betrayal. They happen in tandem and inform one another, but the real estate he devotes to each of them only interrupts the momentum of the main plot. The rescue operation in particular feels unnecessary, an emotional B-plot that just never justifies itself to the A-plot. The conflict between the two feels like Snyder in conflict himself — the flash, gore and style of the heist plot harkens back to his lean, mean Dawn remake where the more emotional B-plot feels like the project Snyder wants to make in 2021. If he ever finds a story that lets him truly mix the two, he may be onto something really special, and I would argue his cut of Justice League comes closer to merging those two aspects of his artistic energy.
Army of the Dead, all told, periodically delivers the death and destruction the title implies, albeit amid an inflated running time filled with meaningless chatter and attempts at pathos that don’t land (although your mileage may vary). If Dawn of the Dead was lean and mean, Army of the Dead (which is, to be clear, unrelated) is the exact opposite. I didn’t walk into the film planning to compare the two so heavily; I’m a recent convert to Snyder’s Dawn, having avoided it for decades due to my enjoyment of George Romero’s original. I’m not evangelical about it. Army of the Dead just lacks the energy and mayhem of Snyder’s earlier work due to a bloated second act that doesn’t engage the characters in problem-solving and drama but still, weirdly, avoids showing them die in horrible ways. Like most Netflix auteur films, it’s too much of everything good and bad about the director they hired to sell the release.