Army of the Dead

Army of the Dead ★★★

Try not to get nuked. Or murdered by the undead.

Marking director Zack Snyder's return to non-DC feature film project AND it's under the zombie horror subgenre? Consider my Snyder fanboy mind blown to its last freaking particle when it's first announced! I mean, since his directorial debut came in the form of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead remake and it actually turned out to be a modern classic of a zombie film instead of an artless and mindless cash-in, is a pretty spectacular achievement and now he's well returning to his genre roots to boot. An original work and not an adaptation of any kind, Army of the Dead, is also Snyder's passion project where he manages the roles of the directorial chair, the writer's room, as well as the DP's lenses, certainly lends another look towards what type of auteurist shit he's going to pull off with this Netflix-backed free reign in terms of both creativity and production scale. Plus, you know, those $90 million budget put to use. The result, however, is an unfortunate case of a filmmaker who's given too much power that it ends up going way over his head. A product of a singular yet chaotic vision; too much ideas at stake, too much time spent on some while the runtime itself is a little less than accommodating for each. As much as it's painful for me to admit it, this movie just isn't that good as an obligatory Snyder watch. Is it fun? Yeah. But even that entertainment factor isn't up to par with what you'd expect from an unchained Snyder.

Judging from its concept, Snyder's Army of the Dead very much amounts to a thing that calls itself "zombie heist"; a typical heist for the millions of dollars during the apocalypse, which takes it to the next level by setting the vault in the zombie infested Las Vegas. Bly Tanaka, the owner of such magnificent vault as stationed in a casino, makes a deal with a group of mercenaries, which is consisted of Latin sharpshooters, a German safecracker, a black dude with a chainsaw, a French smuggler known as The Coyote, and Garrett Dillahunt among other, led by the brutish yet veteran zombie killer Scott Ward, to infiltrate it and recover the $200 million by which it would also act as their payment. Sounds good? Definitely sounds a little Star Wars-y good. Well, on paper, at least. For me, Snyder has always been an excellent visual director but a lacklustre writer to his movies, which explains why most of his best ones are adaptations rather than fully created by his own voice. With this script, which is wholly written by Snyder and aided by, really showcases one of his critical weaknesses as a filmmaker. Much of the dialogue is flimsy and awkward sounding, simple logic be bastardized and plot holes aplenty, whilst stupid character decisions run rampant in ways that will remind you of the worst of the worst, failing at even being the by the numbers horror movie there's. Not so helped by its twists and turns, the cliche-ridden plot even fails to stand on its own when the five-minute thought session is dedicated towards it - the essence deader than the undead that live within. Zack thinks about the possible where to go and what to do though disregarding how go through with it, he checks these little tipsy tips of the zombie/thriller rulebook but is unable to follow them up with a concrete justification. What's supposed to be a lean and mean zombie mixed with heist machine is instead shoehorned with numerous ideas set to an "epic" tone and a bunch of sequels, including the appearances of UFOs, alpha zombies with blue blood, zombie queen (fuck's sake) robot/cyborg zombies, zombie fetus, as well as a too-long-to-be-discarded Hell-loop theory entertained and outright said by one of the characters during the heist. I always appreciate Zack's penchant for worldbuilding and respecting the grand scheme behind such "small"-scale operation, but clearly none of those things are even properly set up, being more of a "what if" circumstance than an actual companion that matters to the plot. Which, as I've said, becomes super disorganized and plain illogical when you think of the twist presented.

Minus the decent outline for its beginning and end, Snyder's lack of focus on the story due to being enthralled by side ideas for future sequels/prequels is the main problem here, and his story handling suffered as a result. His limitations as a writer to imbue sense to the narrative is another, given the incredibly dumb ways in which he depicts some of the characters' deaths (chalk this up to in the moment type of thinking for them but goddammit several of them could've easily survived), the amateurish conduct of the heist part (there are so many things wrong with the safecracker guy, one of which is the fact that they literally pulled him out of a random street shop, and his bypassing of the extremely complex vault is... something), and key elements pertaining to the villains make this his worst written script up to date. I'm all for a zombie shoot 'em up dumb fun, but sometimes this film is way too dumb to be enjoyed without guilt. If only Zack leans into the dumb aspect without trying to be all winky smartass about it then the whole thing might actually be redeemable. He did the same thing with Sucker Punch even though that was more of a marketing problem and there are real allegorical gems under the core of it. In Army, you got exactly all of the complaints previously directed to Snyder in the past decade put into one single movie and it's just sad to see it clearly now from a fan's perspective. This is pretty much to be expected based on the immense creative freedom given to him by Netflix, until he lost sight on the core story in order to typically set things up for the long run. Romero's script isn't there to save him just as it's for the Dawn remake, and the absence of meddling studio executives prove to be the death of restraint when there are practically no one is willing to say "NO WE SHOULDN'T DO IT ZACK THIS IS A BAD IDEA!". At the very least, the entirety of the first act, from the prologue and the introduction of the characters (who are likable at best), are decent enough. And the emotional heart of it all, that of the father-daughter reconciliation between Scott and his daughter, too is relatively nice to build some solid ground for the themes and such; albeit it's funnier when one of the characters virtually says it out loud at one point. Oh, Zack-a-doody-doo, subtlety really isn't one of your strongest suits.

As director, Snyder remains among the most intriguing and exciting modern auteurs around, especially so after the end of his DC career. Few (or none) directs the way he does, so along the line of his other movies, Army looks, feels, and moves with the same passion and artful sensibilities as his Dawn of the Dead, 300, Watchmen while retaining the surface "maturity" of his post-Justice League dealings; still a very gnarly, very stylized, very Snyder-y overlong of a feature film. For any of the director's diehard fan expecting his trademark pop visual style, the Dead would absolutely be another dynamic feast for the eyes and ears: resuming the love for cool slow-motion, kinetic gun-fu action plus munchy zombies, music video montages (now even more beautifully put to the songs of Bad Moon Rising by Thea Gilmore and...acoustic version of Zombie by The Cranberries), muted yet still gorgeous color palette, and some heavy doses of tasty gore. The tone is somewhat whimsical and comparatively serious for a film about a heist operation in the kingdom of the undead, only recognizing the absurdity of it all during the opening montage of the zombies waging war against Vegas aka the Zombie War (which, as noted by some, looks more interesting than what they came up with), synchronized with the cover tune of Viva Las Vegas! Making montages is one hell of an art form and Zack really takes it to the next level with this one like he always does with each and every one of his films, assuredly also being the best part of Army of the Dead. It's reminiscent of Zombieland's, but with less humor and more of that good 'ol tragic lining; I'd rank it on the level of Watchmen's intro sequence. On the other hand, Snyder directs with a level of precision towards having a fittingly mournful quality (not for the atrocious script) that also strives to possess an empathetic soul, similar to, say, Justice League rather than the violent kinetic energy of Dawn of the Dead. The initially painted as disposable characters (some has termed the film as Zack's Suicide Squad, a title only applicable for the imitative poster) are given much of the primary attention before being expectedly disposed of, as in you kind of feel attached to them one way or another. The scene always take their time in absorbing the moment, trailing for what's akin to a humanist element during the first act, which by itself could've been great if the story doesn't have such a snooze of a payoff.

Otherwise, the second half of the film does contain many of the tricks and techniques one would associate with the infectious giddiness of Snyder; the action sequences, lesser in occurence than I expected, are still infused with the cool as fuck mentality and maneuvered with high amount of coke energy throughout. The gore work is awesomely realized when it needs to, making the zombie action even more hard-hitting and untamed with splashy blood galore all over. In particular, there's one badass fight sequence which also represents the movie at its peak, involving the Latin sharpshooter (who, mind you, confessed to her companions that she's never shot a single zombie in her entire life), Chambers, who got betrayed by you know who based on the cast list and is forced to shoot her way out of literal hordes of zombies by herself, John Wick style. Coming from the guy who directed among the best female action stuff of the decade in Sucker Punch, it should hardly comes as a surprise to see it again in Army of the Dead. Oh, and there's a zombie tiger as well, which is handed its own rightful meal of squirm-inducing mauling scene. The point is, those action violence and spectacle are never the problem in this as much as Zack's handling on other technical/narrative aspects until they manage to derail what's left of the enjoyment by the end. The cinematography, for example, while beautifully captured in many parts, seems very unfitting for the type of genre movie Zack desires it to be. The use of shallow depth of field, which grants the entirety of the visuals to have constant out-of-focus background, and combined with Zack's own favorable but depressingly gray palette (in contrast to the deceiving colors of the poster), make for a distracting watch at times. Zack usually has a great eye for visuals and such (and there are still lots of beautiful shots in Army), but it's evident he needs Larry Fong to either restrain or enhance his artistic imagery in order for them to fully fit with the story. Army is big, its premise vast, and the initial trailer constructs it to be epic trash, yet the directorial/cinematographic attitude prevents it to be anything but any of those things, bearing more intimacy with its strict, handheld camera focus on the characters than gliding across the bigger picture. Therefore, in terms of visuals and imagery, this is way, way below Snyder's usual work and definitely the weakest of the bunch. It's a handful of great ideas that are, sadly, unable to come to actual fruition in the end. I'm really puzzled and disappointed by many of Zack's directorial choices with this film.

In regard to the actors and their performances, no one really stood out or to that degree. You have Dave Bautista who's as always that kind of charming wrestler turned mainstream actor, and him being in a lead role in a blockbuster-level movie here is just okay. Even though he's star charisma and some necessary emotive capabilities, I do think he's better in showstopping supporting roles like in the Guardians of the Galaxy films, that recent James Bond stuff, and Blade Runner 2047. I can't figure what it's that he's lacking when placed as the main star, maybe it's the constipated expression, as if he doesn't want to be there somewhat? Maybe he got some botox going on because I'm not kidding, he does look constipated in this. Hell, I'd too if I was given such a generic script. Don't get me wrong, I love Batista! He's The Animal who ended Triple H's Reign of Terror and that's no small feat, simply better than any other accolade he's received over the years too! When he did a spinebuster on that one slick zombie you just have to appreciate that shit, man. On the other hand, the rest of the cast don't fare that much better anyway. Ella Purnell can deliver a succinct act and she did her best in this, yet as Batista's stock character's daughter, Kate, she's written to be nothing more than a blubbering mess of cliches and tropes which ends with the majority of viewers disliking her more than the actual antagonists. Omari Hardwick (looking like a Blade audition in this), Nora Arnezeder, and Samantha Win, as the chainsaw-wielding Vanderohe, Coyote the Smuggler, and sharpshooter Chambers - all geared to have awesome looks and purported skillsets, but Snyder and the actual film really fails to make them live up to their respective characters. To sum it up, everyone's freaking wasted.

Overall, Army of the Dead is an alright zombie movie and a bad heist movie. There's some good content of around 1 hour and 30 to 45 minutes buried somewhere in this mess but that's to be expected from Snyder, coming from a big fan of his. Again, the concepts and ideas are badass and could've made for a unique, epic synthesis between undead spectacle and heist thrills, and Snyder should've been the right person to do that job. Alas, it's instead one hell of a misfire and his execution represents a new low among all his previous efforts. I can't believe he released one of his best directed movies (Justice League) and his worst (Army of the Dead) in the same year.

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