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Zack Snyder is unquestionably an impressive visual storyteller. He has a definitive style, a sharp eye when it comes to shot composition, and flair to spare composing exciting action set pieces. He has a talent for constructing memorable sequences, and is unburned by scope – as best exemplified by his best movie to date, 2009’s Watchmen. All of those skills are fully on display in his latest movie, the zombie-filled action/heist flick Army Of The Dead, but the problem is that they are all elements stacked on a nothing foundation that quickly lets the whole thing fall apart into a pile of clichés and over-indulgence.
Rather than being a movie lacking in ideas, it’s actually packed with them, but instead of engaging with anything new and interesting it puts its heavy focus on the well-worn material and paper thin characters. It has contributions to the mix of classic genres it throws together, but they all feel like footnotes to potentially be explored in a string of sequels while presently amounting to absolutely nothing. The result is that you’re expecting every beat before it comes, and adding insult to injury is that the bloated runtime means that you’re regularly tapping your watch waiting for them to finally arrive.
Written by Zack Snyder, Shay Hatten, and Joby Harold, Army Of The Dead begins in the aftermath of a zombie outbreak from an Area 51 transport that winds up taking down Las Vegas, with the military containing the city by walling it off. Plans are made to reduce the whole place to rubble with a low-level nuclear bomb, thus neutralizing the threat, but before those orders can be carried out a businessman named Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) formulates a plan that would net him hundreds of millions of dollars.
Prior to the invasion of the undead, Tanaka stored stacks upon stacks of cash in a safe below a Las Vegas casino, and while insurance has seen him reimbursed in full, that means actually retrieving the money would double his fortune. In order to pull this heist off, he enlists the help of Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), who was a soldier on the ground in Vegas and is now working a short order cook at a diner.
Offered a substantial portion of the retrieved treasure, Ward begins to start putting a team together, including fellow veterans Maria Cruz (Ana de la Reguera) and Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick); world-class safecracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer); helicopter pilot Marianne Peters (Tig Notaro); and social media influencer zombie killers Mickey Guzman (Raul Castillo) and Chambers (Samantha Win). Unfortunately, Ward is forced to have one of Tanaka’s men (Garret Dillahunt) as part of the unit and breathing down his neck, and the only way he knows to secretly get beyond the wall is with the help of a coyote (Nora Arnezeder), which means reconnecting with his estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell).
Of course, the way circumstances unfold results in Kate coming along with the crew, and together they get beyond the barrier – and what they face is not just mindless, shuffling eating machines, but an established zombie society.
Zack Snyder is throwing everything against the wall in Army Of The Dead, but there really is no wall.
That idea of a zombie society is an interesting one. For starters, there is an special hierarchy established, with there being two classes of the monstrous undead, but it also creates the question of whether or not that means it is okay for them to be exterminated. If they are still conscious beings, albeit very aggressive and contagious ones, does that not mean nuking them out of existence qualifies as genocide? And if they are biologically diverse, does that suggest the potential for evolution?
If presenting any of these questions has tickled your brain, you really should go elsewhere for your horror entertainment, because while Army Of The Dead certainly brings all of those issues to mind as it plays out, it only barely pays them any attention, and certainly doesn’t present any insightfulness or conclusions. There are a number of strange and compelling details thrown in – such as natural zombie birth, dehydrated zombies that reanimate in the rain, and even what looks like a Terminator zombie – but the hope to find any interesting depths discovered in the third act dwindle as the focus is on wrapping up character arcs.
That shouldn’t give you high hopes for the personal, intimate stories the movie has to offer, though, as reducing the zombies to scary window dressing doesn’t mean the human side of things is bolstered. The worst trope in heist movies is bringing together an ensemble of characters with specific skills and then never expanding the characters beyond that one dimension – and Army Of The Dead jams its boot down hard on that trap. At one point Tig Notaro’s Peters talks with Dave Bautista’s Ward about the priority hierarchy when it comes to saving characters’ lives, and while it feels like it’s meant to be read as clever, meta commentary about party members’ expendability, it instead feels like the movie pointing a finger at the fact that it treats its protagonists solely as boring plot devices.
From the wimpy, shrieking safecracker to the ripped philosophizing soldier, the ensemble brims with tired, stock personalities. Dave Bautista is easily given the best material to work with, and further proves his skills as a bona fide leading man, but even Scott Ward’s emotional arc is your basic “estranged dad trying to earn back his daughters love” that telegraphs its conclusion from miles away.
If you want to see Zack Snyder direct zombies, just rewatch Dawn Of The Dead instead.
Really the best way to illustrate Army Of The Dead’s lacking is by comparing it to the first time he told a zombie story: his directorial debut Dawn Of The Dead. The 2004 remake, penned by James Gunn, recognized the brilliant social commentary that writer/director George A. Romero tapped into with the original film, and as such the movie is in part a reflection of our consumer culture while also being a sincerely scary ride. So what is his new movie about? That’s not something that can be easily and significantly pinned down, and that’s a problem. There’s a lot of ball-juggling, but it’s all flash and zero substance.