At this point I only really have myself to blame for deciding to review Army of the Dead. It’s been eight years since I enjoyed a Zack Snyder film, Man of Steel, until the headache-inducing last thirty minutes, and fifteen years since I liked one of his films, 300, which was good at the time and also created the quickly diminishing bag of tricks from which Snyder still pulls. Yet, because of the director’s striking visuals and talent for attention, along with star Dave Bautista being one of the most intriguing characters actors of out there, I truly hoped that Snyder’s return to a genre he understands, unlike the DC Universe outside of Batman, would make for an enjoyable film. Seriously, how hard it is to make a fun, balls out zombie-heist film set in Las Vegas? Apparently, when you have a director dedicated to scattershot plotting, slow motion, somber music, and dialog with all the subtlety of closing a zombie movie with The Cranberries “Zombie”: next to impossible.
As with Las Vegas itself, Snyder films are built entirely on flash with no substance. However, unlike Vegas which embraces its emptiness, Snyder still wants his films to contain the illusion of depth. Rather than craft the Ocean’s 11 meets Zombieland film the trailer promised, or a flat-out action movie, or even a sardonic satire, Snyder tries to cram all of these together into one film. The result is an unfocused mess shedding undeveloped subplots as it shambles far too long. Army of the Dead seems to want to say something about the use of chemical weapons and the silencing of dissonant voices (with a very vague allusion to the current Covid-19 pandemic) but, like so many of Snyder’s previous films, never goes beyond the level of “Oh hey, this is a thing that happens.” Meanwhile it’s these very pretentions, along with the characteristic over-abundance of slow motion, somber music, and faux epic scale that hold the film back from being the roaring good time it could be. There’s a fickin’ zombie tiger! There’s a dude who carries a giant buzzsaw into a city over run by zombies and only uses it in the opening credits! Turn off the somber acoustic cover of “Bad Moon Rising” and have some ******* fun!
What strikes me as so maddening about Snyder’s recent (as in, decade-long) output is that there are always some truly brilliant ideas in his films buried under the rubble of gloom, pretention, and excess. Batman v. Superman combined three interesting films into an unfocused heap in which to bang two action figures together. Justice League wrapped the wrenching story of Cyborg and his father in nearly 25 minutes of slow motion hero shots and overwhelming depression. Even Sucker Punch lost a potentially empowering film in dense layers of constant rape. Army of the Dead introduces the simple and yet innovative idea of a zombie society. By establishing a hierarchy of zombies with the original zombie and his thralls at the top and their more mindless offspring at the bottom, Army of the Dead essentially brings long-standing vampire culture to zombies. And this is the only new or novel element of the entire movie. Night of the Living Dead made zombies allegorical. 29 Days Later made them run. Shaun of the Dead made them funny. Army of the Dead makes them intelligent. But, unlike those other films, the only sign of intelligence is the zombies.
For many people the appeal of a film like Army of the Dead is in being a dumb action movie. Personally, I think Mad Max: Fury Road proved the best action movies don’t need to be dumb, but if people want to turn off their brain, that’s cool. Yet in introducing its undeveloped themes, Army of the Dead seems to want the audience to keep their brains engaged, while doing nothing to hold that attention. At one point, Lily (Nora Arnezender) insists that (Ella Purnell) Kate’s friend Geeta is dead because Lily took Geeta into the zombie city for some unexplained reason and Geeta never returned. Kate refuses to believe this and demands a place in the group’s mission. Only twenty minutes later Kate insists that Geeta is dead while Lily tries to convince her Geeta is alive by telling the other story another group Lily left behind only to have them return. Both interactions are obvious set-ups to keep Kate around, which is an obvious set-up for other events to then happen for Snyder to get the ending he wanted. Just the same, Scott (Bautista, who really is good in this movie and deserves so much better) apologizes to his daughter for years of being a bad father and later is crushed to learn that his daughter doesn’t hate him for just one thing he did. The trouble isn’t that dialog is written as on-the-nose as literally putting your finger on someone’s nose and saying, “That is your nose,” it’s that the characters shift motivations without any cause other than what is necessary to make the plot happen. In a film with a dozen characters, it’s sad that there is only one relationship worth seeing, and it’s two side characters. Of course, all of this is happening while Snyder’s insistence on the illusion of depth operates in a sort of cinematic Dunning-Kruger Effect making an incredibly dumb film think it isn’t dumb because it hints at deeper theme. The dialog is so dumb that to stop the lingering headache, I started rewriting the script in my mind. Worse yet, the action, Synder’s raison d’etre, isn’t even that good. It’s the same scenarios we’ve seen in ever other zombie movie: hordes and headshots.
Speaking of being on-the-nose, there’s the music. Ever since the Watchmen love scene set to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, Snyder has littered his film with equals parts overbearing epic scores and somber licensed songs. In Army of the Dead somber (yes, I’m using the word “somber” a lot, because Snyder insists on that feeling) acoustic covers are as oppressive as the overbearing pseudo-epic classical pieces of Justice League. Even the opening luster of “Viva Las Vegas” eventually dulls into a sad dirge for the darkened city. Punctuating a zombie movie with an acoustic version of The Cranberries amazing protest of the Warrington bombings is bad, but it takes a truly special level of hackery to gather a team for a suicide ride to a zombie city with The Raveonettes “The End” and prepare to fight a zombie king to Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me.” Whoever chooses the music for Zack Snyder’s films needs to be fired in slow motion to a somber, acoustic cover of “Hit the Road, Jack.”
Typically I try not to use the first person pronoun in writing my reviews. With Snyder’s films however, it’s necessary to recognize that he has an audience. There are people who will love Army of the Dead as fervently as they loved Zack Snyder’s Justice League and make as many as excuses for it as they do for Sucker Punch. I am not one of those people. Snyder’s films have become more frustrating than they are enjoyable, mostly because it appears the filmmaker himself insists on sucking the joy out of his work. Filmmakers such as George Miller and the Russo Brothers don’t need to sacrifice fun in elevating dumb action movies into intriguing, engaging cinema. This has never been true for Snyder. It’s telling that his last good film was the last which embraced being a dumb action movie.
At this point, I only have myself to blame for deciding to watch Snyder’s films. Barring a creative overhaul or me being desperate to write reviews (as I have been for over a year), Snyder has joined Quentin Tarantino and Matthew Vaughn on my personal never-watch list. I’ve had enough of this frustration. I’ve had enough headaches. I’m done.