1.5/4, 2020s, Action, Review, Zack Snyder

Army of the Dead

Army of the Dead (2021) - IMDb

You know the thing about ensemble pieces? They’re hard to do right. This is a great example of an ensemble piece having a dozen different elements swirling around each other, the majority of which never come to anything at all, and the movie as a whole suffers greatly for it. What could any of this matter if the trailers are right that this is just a crazy and epic example of zombie action? Well, if more than half the run time is dedicated to thinly written characters that never really amount to anything then that level of crazy, epic zombie action gets reduced in general and the emotional impact of the deaths that happen gets immensely reduced.

There’s been a zombie outbreak in Las Vegas, and the American government barely managed to contain it. Their military effort was led by Dave Bautista’s Scott Ward who helped save the Secretary of Defense in the final seconds of the action. He had to kill his own wife in front of his daughter Kate when the whole thing started, and now, some years later he’s a burger cook at a crummy dine-in restaurant when Tanaka, a billionaire businessman, walks up to him and offers him fifty million dollars to steal two hundred million dollars hidden underneath the zombie infested Strip before the president’s ordered nuclear strike of the city is scheduled in a few days. He, of course, takes the job and needs to assemble his team.

I immediately felt something was wrong when the assembly of the team felt so contracted. The personalities of Ward’s team are unclear at best, which is a weird thing for a heist movie that’s two-and-half hours long. There’s Maria, a mechanic, Dieter, the safecracker, Vanderohe, a soldier with a circular saw as a main weapon, Marianne, a helicopter pilot, Martin, Tanaka’s right hand man, and Mikey Guzman, an internet personality who seems to sneak into Vegas to pop zombies for clicks. Along the way, they also pick up Kate, Ward’s daughter who is volunteering at a refugee camp just outside of Vegas, Lily, a coyote who sneaks people into Vegas to try and reclaim possessions they had left behind, and Burt, a camp guard who treats Kate and Lily poorly. This…this is a lot of characters. What’s driving them? Money, mostly. Is there some kind of thematic idea that they share in some way? This is a movie about people going into the post-apocalyptic wasteland infested with zombies where people used to live. Some of these characters (definitely not all) have previous relationships with each other. Is there something that could possibly unite them? Something, perhaps, about reclaiming something from their past? Maybe ultimately about letting go of the past? I’ve just given this movie’s thematic construction more thought that Zack Snyder did, I think, because nothing at all combines these people. There’s nothing.

Well, are they at least well-written interesting characters? Not really. This is a vehicle for zombie action, not character drama. After the team is assembled (a process that feels way too short in one way and way too long in another, namely how many people they have to get to go in), they walk through the shipping containers that form the boundary with Vegas and enter the world of the zombies. One thing that seems interesting in concept but ultimately feels under-considered in execution is the world building around the zombies. They’re not just shambling, Romero zombies, they have a hierarchy and are ruled by a King with a Queen. This sounds fascinating, but that’s about where it ends. There are shamblers (Romero zombies) and alphas (fast zombies), and that’s kind of it. What this ultimately does is give Snyder a certain amount of freedom in terms of what kind of zombie action he can portray on screen.

We get our first death fairly early in an action sequence that extends beyond internal believability, a character that makes no impression who ends up blowing herself up after she gets bit, and then the movie slows down significantly as characters take time to talk while they get close to the casino in question with the money. Ward and Kate have a moment where he discovers that the real reason Kate won’t talk to him isn’t because he murdered her mother in front of him but because he cut himself off from her after Vegas.  Vanderhoe and Deiter begin a cute bromance. Marianne yells at the helicopter on top of the casino to try to get it to work. Lily sacrifices Burt to the Queen to get safe passage. It’s a lot that’s going on, and very little of it is of much interest. The stuff between father and daughter feels like it should be the bedrock on which the entire film is built, but their spat doesn’t affect or interact with anyone else in the group, and it’s a shockingly small part of the overall film. So, we just end up with all of these different little story beats that just move in different directions for a while the plot grinds to a screeching halt.

And then the nuclear strike gets moved up by more than a day, giving them an hour and a half instead of more than a day, and it doesn’t really seem to affect much. We’re suddenly given a ticking clock, and it feels like an afterthought half the time. We also end up with a double cross that has no impact because the whole mission has felt like a second thought for about an hour, untied to the characters’ actual emotional journeys, and then the big end climax begins. The zombie King decides to kill the humans because they kill his Queen (well decapitate and carry around her head which doesn’t die because she’s already dead), and the party dwindles down even further. There’s zombie action, zombie action, and then more zombie action until the movie comes to an attempted emotional ending that falls completely flat.

So, here’s the thing, I was kind of with the movie through about the first two-thirds until the start of the big action climax. It wasn’t really good, but it was okay. It was the sort of thing that could come together in the end, but nothing really gelled. It was a completely empty spectacle of an ending that I could easily imagine some people getting a fairly amount of out. However, because the movie ends up emotionally inert with way too many characters killed off with no impact, the action becomes literally nothing but the spectacle, a demo reel for stuntmen and CGI artists. There’s a shallow enjoyment to be had with it to some degree, but it’s not enough to actually make the movie that came before it work any better.

I need to take a quick moment to talk about Zack Snyder’s cinematography. I have no idea why, but Snyder did not bring his previous cinematographers (either Larry Fong or Fabian Wagner) to shoot Army of the Dead. Instead he shot it himself, and I think it was a bad choice. I couldn’t say why, but about 60% of the film is shot in really shallow focus close ups. I find big movies frustrating when they’re shot predominantly in close ups in general, but the really shall depth of field makes the images feel wrong. Actors, if they move an inch forward or backward, begin to waver out of focus. Their faces dominate the screen so completely that they might as well be in front of nondescript backgrounds instead of on set. It’s surprisingly off-putting over time, especially when it spills over into action scenes.

I was kind of looking forward to this. The trailers had me fooled, though. This is another one of those movies where the marketing is selling a wild and crazy time at the movies, but the actual movie doesn’t deliver on that promise. I think of Suicide Squad in particular. Guardians of the Galaxy and Mad Max: Fury Road may be the only movies where the level of fun insanity implied by the trailers actually played out in the movies. Instead, Zack Snyder delivered an overly somber, emotional inert, and visually unpleasant epic action film. I was sorely disappointed by this.

Rating: 1.5/4

2 thoughts on “Army of the Dead”

  1. Now you’re making me question the only thing I’ve ever defended Zach Synder on: his visual skill. I thought, if nothing else, he knew how to make visually interesting stuff. Now I’m wondering if that was all just his cinematographers and that Zach is just a hack all the way around, otherwise….

    His Dawn of the Dead version was good, though inferior in all ways but visually to the original. Smaller cast there, which probably helped him avoid this ensemble mess.

    Thanks for the review, I’ll pass on this.

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    1. I read a snippet of an interview where Snyder was really excitedly talking about the lenses from the 60s that he used on a cutting edge digital camera, talking about how it’s both old and new together. It’s almost like he found the lenses, they weren’t really appropriate for what he was shooting, but he decided to keep with it anyway because the idea of the lenses was just too good to be true.

      The only time the movie opens up is in special effects shots. It’s so weird. He had Netflix throwing tens of millions of dollars at him without ever questioning him on a single choice, and this is what we get? If I were a producer, I think there are maybe three directors alive I would give that level of trust to, and Zack Snyder is not one of those three.

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