Army of the Dead

Army of the Dead ★★★

Zack Snyder’s earlier works don’t typically invite biographical analysis. They are certainly mined for nuggets meant to reveal his core values, but I haven’t seen any focused on how they were inspired by his personal life. Since his exit from Justice League because of the tragic death of his daughter, it has been harder to see Zack Snyder as just a director. His personal life has become public knowledge, and now it is impossible not to read into his work with this in mind.

That said Army of the Dead, Snyder’s epic zombie heist movie, is possibly his most personal film. It is the story of an emotionally distant father trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter as they come under assault by zombies and eventual nuclear annihilation. Dave Bautista plays Scott, a badass soldier whose life shattered after the zombie apocalypse claimed his wife. Now he is a fry cook at a greasy spoon on the outskirts of Las Vegas, which has been cordoned off and turned into a zombie zoo. His daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell), is a volunteer at a refugee camp for the displaced citizens of Vegas. Their paths cross after Scott is approached by Mr. Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada), a businessman with a proposal: put together a team, sneak into Vegas and take $50 million from a vault under a hotel casino. Scott needs Kate’s help getting the team in, but she is determined to join them when one of her friends in the camp obtains the help of a coyote to sneak into Vegas on her own to try to claim some of the riches lying around so she can get her kids out of the camp and off to a better life. Father wants to protect daughter from a suicide mission, but there is nothing he can do about it. Where there is a will, there is a way, and Kate bullies her way onto the team.

Before we talk more about Scott and Kate, we have to briefly mention the team. After all, this is a heist movie. We have Scott’s number one, María (Ana de la Reguera), who obviously holds a candle for the big guy. Then there is Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), a tough bastard who takes a shine to the beta male German safecracker, Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer). There are a few others who have names and fun moments, but they mostly distract from the main story. My favorite of the group is Peters, played by Tig Notaro as all piss, vinegar and moxie. She is always fun, and had the movie been about her, I would have been all for it.

But the movie is really about Scott, Kate, and the fight to reconcile a father-daughter relationship being torn asunder by zombies. The tenderness Bautista shows during his scenes with Purnell show incredible depth from the former wrestler, proving that he is one of the best action movie stars we have. You can sense that while this two-and-a-half hour movie is packed with tons of meaningless video game-inspired zombie carnage, the only scenes Snyder really cared about were the ones with Scott and Kate. These scenes are the only ones that connect, and boy are they layered with sadness.

Our relationship with our children is always fraught and complicated. It’s almost like they are programmed to hate us on some level as they see us with clearer vision and recognize our humanity underneath that mythology they built around us. Casting Bautista is inspired in this way. He presents as the Superman our kids think we are, although he is anything but. At one point, as Kate’s antipathy towards her dad begins to crack, she reminds him of how long she has hated him, and how that isn’t likely to change soon. Bautista’s reaction is the truest moment in the movie, as he puts on his Clark Kent glasses and tries to brush off the sting of those words. It doesn’t work, of course; our children’s remonstrations are the most devastating words we could ever hear, for they sting with failure and regret.

In spite of the disastrous ending, Snyder does give his father-daughter a reconciliation, even if it, too, comes with one final sting. But you sense that Snyder is putting some wish fulfillment into his ending—if only it had been me . . . This is every parent’s wish when tragedy befalls their children. Thankfully, in fiction, we can fulfill those wishes.

Army of the Dead is bloated and uneven. Snyder’s cinematography relies so heavily on shallow focus that I can’t help but agree with Brett Arnold’s take on Twitter about how this might be the first movie shot entirely in iPhone portrait mode. The soundtrack is jarring at times with its reliance on covers of classic songs: “Viva Las Vegas,” which plays over the opening title montage is brilliant, “Bad Moon Rising” is not. And the pacing is inexplicably turgid at times. Why is this movie not 110 minutes? Snyder needed a more vocal editor to reel in his indulgences.

Still, even with the film’s problems, I could see Snyder’s heart beating in this movie, and it moved me. The final scene between Bautista and Purnell is more emotional than any moment he has directed in his career. I think underneath all of Snyder’s iconographic aesthetic is a director with real soul. I hope one day he manages to make a film that serves as a better delivery mechanism for it than this one.

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