Army of the Dead

Army of the Dead ★★★

I saw this in the theater, which I think was the right call. The fact is, I can’t see this as a Netflix original; never thought I’d say this, but this is honestly comparable to the Scorsese film The Irishman, or Director Bong’s Okja, in that it’s a little too good to be a Netflix original, the vast majority of which are just these bland, televisual affairs. This thing, for as messy as the script could sometimes be, was an ELECTRIFYING theatrical experience.

So, yeah, Zack Snyder’s having a hell of a year, isn’t he? Not only did his Snyder Cut of Justice League clear the low low low low low low bar of being better than the 2017 shitstain that had come before, but it actually managed something I hadn’t been counting on; it was pretty good in its own right. Fucking imagine that; a four hour superhero movie from the director of Watchmen and BvS - neither of which I like very much - that not only didn’t make me want to kilo myself, but was honestly pretty solid! 

And this continues that trend, which I guess means at some point between BvS and his version of Justice League, Snyder finally figured out pacing. Not that I was especially dreading this movie; far from it, even if the Snyder Cut turned out to be garbage (or worse, just mediocre), I had reason to be hyped for this. Snyder, for all his strange idiosyncrasies, is a filmmaker with significant strengths - he’s terrific at in-the-moment sensation, for one - which are borne out best when he’s working in stuff like the zombie genre. This is evidenced by his first film, the Dawn of the Dead remake nobody wanted, easily being his best film.

I don’t know if I’m ready to call this better than Dawn of the Dead - it’s been years since I last saw it, and I wanna do a rewatch - but like Dawn, this sees Zack operating in his wheelhouse. More than that, actually; this might be the most quietly confident direction I’ve ever seen from Snyder, who tackles this zombie heist story with a level of restraint and, dare I say, honest maturity. I mentioned during my Snyder Cut review that part of what made that film so appealing was that Snyder seemed to have finally grown out of the pathetic edgelord provocateur pandering he’d been dabbling with in his previous movies, and I’m glad to say that trend continues here.

Not to say this movie represents Zack Snyder all grown up; there’s still a zombie tiger prowling the premises, ripping off faces and whatnot. But for the first time since Dawn, I got the sense that there was more at play in this film than empty posturing; that the film actually seemed engaged with the characters at its center. No, no one would ever confuse the writing with Mamet, but just the sheer fact that Snyder (who also wrote the screenplay, along with John Wick 3 writer Shay Hatten and King Arthur But He’s A British Bloke writer Joby Harold) seems actively invested in the inner lives of its characters puts this above most ever other film in his oeuvre (and most other modern movies of this nature, I might add).

The direction here is legit fantastic. I’ve actually always been slightly leery of the claim that Snyder’s “more of a visual storyteller than a regular storyteller” - Watchmen and 300 I can understand, but there were huge swaths of BvS (especially the climax) that were just butt-ugly - but with Army of the Dead he mostly ditches the overreliance on tableau-like montages, slow-mo, and empty posturing in favor of gritty docu-style naturalism that totally plays. And even when it does go in for the Snyder Montages, it works better than I can remember it working in most other previous Snyder films. The filmmaking benefits the story, rather than coming off like it’s showing off.

That goes for the runtime as well, and at this point I have no idea what’s going on. I’m always going off on how much I prefer shorter films, and how one of the great scourges of modern moviemaking is how every movie feels inflated by at least 45 minutes, but not only did I just review a movie from Disney where my main complaint was that it felt overstuffed for how short it was, but here not only do we have an over two hour movie, but it kinda sorta earns its length? Somehow? I haven’t been this surprised since the last Zack Snyder movie’s running time didn’t drive me up the wall! What is HAPPENING?!?!?

I really liked this. It’s all these disparate genres, one part heist movie, one part stealth horror movie, one part political allegory/satire, and the tone somehow hits a pretty good balance between gory nihilism and a light, breezy air (again, “light and breezy” while somehow being over two hours). And I liked all the characters, too; they weren’t super deep, but they had real presence, achieving that kind of archetypal spirit that Snyder usually goes for but so often doesn’t achieve. Tig Notaro absolutely steals the show, but I continue to be amazed at just how incredible an actor Dave Bautista turned out to be. I had no idea who he was before Snyder’s old writing partner cast him as a blueish/grey guy in a superhero group I’d never heard of, but between that, Blade Runner 2049, and this…I dunno, this dude might have surpassed The Rock for most successful wrestler-to-actor transfusing, at least in terms of dramatic chops.

At a certain point, Bautista is confronted by old pal Ana de la Reguera right when they’re about to embark on the heat, and she directly challenges him, “All this better not be some excuse to reconnect with your daughter.” It’s impossible, given the death of Autumn Snyder, not to see a personal dimension to the father-daughter conflict on which this story is built, and while I’m usually wary of that kind of reading into the personal psychology of the people making the film (especially with a subject matter like this) I actually think the film is intelligently made enough to be able to withstand that kind of analysis. I was especially impressed with the satirical bent this movie has: Snyder is working with a well-work template here, his setting - a hollowed-out Vegas - mirroring the pointed commentary presented by the shopping mall from the original Dawn of the Dead (in a weird way, this is more a Romero joint than Snyder’s own Romero remake).

But what really makes this movie work is that, unlike the unearned ponderousness of his earlier superhero flicks, Snyder actually seems to be having fun here. It’s bombastic, but not self-important and dreary in the slightest (ironic, that this is one of the deeper-feeling movies he’s made). Part of what made films like Man of Steel and BvS so frustrating to so many wasn’t the total absence of talent; rather, it was the very obvious talent that was being utilized in all the wrong ways. Here, he not only seems in his element, but having abandoned the scowly self-seriousness of his previous work, he seems to be having way more of a good time with this stuff. At least, I hope so. God knows the audiences are. I never thought I’d say this, but this movie is way too good to be dumped on Netflix.

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