Army of the Dead (2021)
Despite an expensive redo into the editing bay for the supersized Justice League 2.0, this is director Zack Snyder’s first movie in four years and the aftermath of his family tragedy, and it’s the first with that sweet sweet Netflix money. Army of the Dead has an easy concept that seems silly as well as questionable why we haven’t seen this kind of movie before. The world loves zombies movies. The world loves heist movies. Why have we waited until 2021, in the year of our Lord, for a zombie heist flick? Our long drought is finally over and Netflix has answered our collective prayers. When I watch a movie described as “zombie Vegas heist” then I know what I’m hoping for, chiefly a fun, goofy, and well-developed action thriller, and that’s what Army of the Dead provides.
Las Vegas is ground zero for a zombie outbreak. The U.S. government has cordoned off the Vegas strip and contained the zombie virus. The president plans to drop a nuclear bomb and eradicate the zombie plague once and for all. That means there’s still time for one last score. A wealthy businessman wants to hire Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) to put together a crack team to break into a casino vault and steal $200 million before everything gets nuked. Scott gathers a crew of Zombie War vets, specialists, a guide to sneak them into the quarantine zone, and his estranged adult daughter who watched dad out mom down after she became a zombie. Together they’ll venture into certain danger to hit a jackpot.
It’s easily Snyder’s most laid back and straightforwardly enjoyable movie since his debut feature, 2004’s Dawn of the Dead remake. It’s a movie that knows what we’re here for and provides a colorful band of characters with big personalities and over-the-top bloody violence. I can’t say that I genuinely cared about whether anyone lived or died in the movie, as many are so disposable that I forgot they were in the group, but I missed their presence when the time came to say goodbye. I enjoyed that two characters as outwardly different as Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick) and Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer) could become best bros, and their chummy dynamic became one of my favorite aspects of the movie. The actual heist component of the movie amounts to less than the perilous journey to get to the giant vault, and the exaggerated booby traps reminded me of Indiana Jones temples. It was just the right splash of ridiculous to make me laugh. This is a movie designed to simply push the right buttons for a schlocky good time. Its opening montage sets the tone with famous Vegas staples falling victim to zombie mayhem. Early on, it’s Snyder assuring you that he’s not taking anything too seriously and that neither should you. There are moments where Snyder just throws out nonsense just to mess with the viewer, like a scene where Vanderohe theorizes that the skeletal corpses might actually be them and they are trapped in a loop, complete with matching edits to link up their clothing and jewelry to make you wonder. I turned to my girlfriend in disbelief; could this actually be happening? It doesn’t at all, but just the fact that Snyder devoted time for this throwaway sci-fi head fake amused me. I almost wished Snyder had given us more of these throwaway joke exit ramps. At one point, a character gets locked in a vault, and I hoped for a brief moment Snyder would frame the film like it’s suddenly evolved into the zombie’s own Ocean 11, where now the zombies need to put together a crack zombie team to break into the vault for some delicious brains. I appreciate that Army of the Dead prioritizes entertainment on all of its fronts.
Snyder and company have also put more deliberation into their world building. Most zombie movies just present a wasteland of the undead, a sea of hands and teeth that serve as a swarming obstacle but without any more thought. In Army of the Dead, the movie presents the beginning of a zombie civilization with a hierarchy. There are zombie alphas and zombie drones and the potential for zombie babies, maybe, but there is the beginning of something we fully do not understand. It reminded me a lot of the 2007 I Am Legend. I liked that the zombies weren’t as dumb as we often see them, and I also liked that the movie presented the possibility of the zombies being open to collaboration. In order to travel through the territory, the zombies demand a payment from the traveling parties, and this understanding and begrudging truce makes these creatures far more interesting than an army of drooling brutes. I liked that even the leader has learned he should be protecting his head from projectiles. There are some solidly constructed suspense sequences here, like where the team has to slowly creep through rooms filled with “hibernating” zombies, taking great pains not to touch them as they pass. It’s immediately accessible and different, as well as working with further world building. I also appreciated that one character who was left for dead went down fighting like a champion. It almost becomes a joke just how far this character keeps fighting, like they’re pushing against being just another disposable stock character in a genre movie. It’s impressive. The action set pieces are fun and well developed and make use of the different expertise from our assorted heist team.
As a zombie movie, the violence is impressively gory and fun in its visceral splatter effects. With one big exception, there is a clear emphasis on practical effects and physical makeup prosthetics. The zombies at their different states of decay look great, as do their alpha higher-ups, enough to distinguish an easily recognizable class system that also portends further analysis. The deaths can also be gruesomely entertaining. Watching the sticky expertise of the gore wizards makes it even more perversely pleasurable and it’s often played for dark laughs. Two characters having to clear through the smashed remains of a smooshed zombie is gross and grossly funny. While I acknowledge that the recreation of a desolate and desiccated Las Vegas strip is an obvious computer effect, the major CGI addition to the movie is the zombie tiger (that used to belong to Siegfried and Roy) and it doesn’t look terribly great. Part of this is how unnatural it’s destined to fatefully appear, but the zombie horses looked great, though that was a practical costume placed upon a real horse. At least Snyder and company recognize that if you introduce a zombie tiger, you better guarantee it eats somebody and somebody we really don’t like so we can fully enjoy the experience.
There are a few issues that detract from the overall enjoyment of Snyder’s escapist entertainment. When the movie goes sentimental between daddy and daughter, it doesn’t really gibe with the rest of the film. I’m not upset that the movie ever attempted an emotional core to ground our investment in these characters, but there’s a reason you don’t see a tearful heart-to-heart in heist movies, let alone in movies with undead Elvises. I found the daughter character to be a nuisance. She falls under that character mold of the person who insists on tagging along to fulfill some personal goal and who inevitably gets people killed for no reason. The daughter’s goal is to rescue this one stubborn lady who ventured into the zombie quarantine, but this comes to nothing and, infuriatingly, gets many of our group killed trying to save her. Had she never tagged along, many of these people could have better survived, especially since her “expertise” did not save the day at any juncture. Therefore, her very presence was a net negative to the group, which helped drag down my opinion of the whole father-daughter drama.
I also found the overall style of the photography to be distracting. Working for the first time as his own director of photography in a movie, pitting himself in the middle of the action and manning his own camera, Snyder is more directly involved in making sure you see what he wants. However, he utilizes a very shallow depth of field, which obliterates much of the background as a blur. This can work in moments of suspense where seeing beyond waves of zombies can make them feel immense and overwhelming, but when it’s everything including people standing shoulder-to-shoulder exchanging exposition in a warehouse? Not as helpful. This singular focus, or limited focus, can get annoying and feel like an artifice that Snyder simply cannot let go of. It feels like the cameras got stuck on this mode and the filmmakers just said, “Oh well.” While Snyder has deigned that color shall exist in this movie (unlike in Justice League), the color palate is still drained and resembling an overused Instagram filter that cannot be undone.
As a side note, originally this movie featured comedian Chris D’Elia as the helicopter pilot of the crew and then Netflix spent millions to digitally erase and replace him with comedian Tig Notaro after it was revealed D’Elia was the latest in a long line of sexual abusers in Hollywood. Notaro filmed all her scenes sans one in front of a green screen and if you never were told otherwise you wouldn’t have known. Bravo to Snyder and company for going the All the Money in the World route and replacing a creep with a beloved actor that should have been hired in the first place. Notaro, it must be said, is also sarcastically great in the film. Her scene where she openly discusses arranging for their corporate babysitter to get axed is a highlight.
Netflix has big plans for Army of the Dead. A prequel starring the Dieter character, and directed by the actor playing him, has already been filmed, and an animated series is also in the works. The studio sees this franchise as a creative well they want to tap dry, and I’m sure the movie will prove popular on the streaming giant and only lead to further network expansion. I think Snyder feels somewhat liberated by making his first movie without superheroes in a decade. He’s always been a first-class visual stylist but his command of narrative and character can be sketchy, hence 2011’s woefully miscalculated “feminist” passion project, Sucker Punch. I think Snyder is best when he keeps things lighter, sillier, schlockier, and absent larger themes and messages meant to make people think deeper about the human condition. Being a filmmaker who understands they work best in the land of shallow blockbusters isn’t some acceptance of limitation or failure. It’s an acknowledgement of where one’s skill set best matches up. I don’t begrudge Snyder as a filmmaker, though I question whether his interpretation of superheroes can escape the shadow of his love for Objectivist philosophy. I think it’s no coincidence that his two best movies, and least problematic, are both his zombie action movies. So bring me more of the Army of the Dead universe. Bring me more Zack Snyder at the helm. It keeps him busy, it keeps me entertained, and it keeps him away from making more four-hour long superhero movies.
Nate’s Grade: B