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Review: Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead Goes Far and Long in Mostly Wrong Ways

The film’s masterful prologue writes a check that the remainder of this very long, very indulgent film labors mightily to cash.

Army of the Dead
Photo: Netflix

Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead displays, and sustains, the filmmaker’s signature brand of punch-drunk verve—at least, in certain stretches. The film’s opening sequence is a lunatic mini-masterpiece, cannily mixing tropes of zombie cinema with Las Vegas kitsch. It turns out that a zombie invasion was kicked off by a dude, distracted while getting a hummer while driving, who collided into a military vehicle carrying something top secret and very, very nasty. Then, not long afterward, come the zombie strippers and Elvis impersonators, who make a meal out of everyone in the city—carnage that’s lent an aura of debauched glee by Richard Cheese and Alison Crowe’s cover of Elvis’s “Viva Las Vegas.”

Snyder stages this prologue with thunderous crassness, even enriching it with a derivative but still effective subtext, by linking zombies to the way a place like Vegas is designed, underneath its patina of carefully cultivated good cheer and adventure, to suck people dry. This opening writes a check that the remainder of this very long, very indulgent film labors mightily to cash.

There are no true rules in art-making, but maybe there should be a few. For one, unless you’re George A. Romero, specifically the Romero behind 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, you probably have no business making a two-and-a-half-hour zombie movie. In Army of the Dead, Snyder fuses two genre templates that generally benefit from tight pacing—the heist film and the zombie invasion thriller—and slows the hybrid plot down to a crawl. Perhaps after all the warring gods and mythological symbols of Snyder’s unexpectedly poetic new cut of Justice League, the Snyderiest of all Snyder films, zombies felt too small for the director, and so he inflates, inflates, inflates. Long gone is the shrewd propulsion of his breakout 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. Army of the Dead is nothing but self-conscious touches and curlicues, some of which are amusing. Cumulatively though, the result feels interminable.

The film’s plot, such as it is, concerns a group of bad-asses who must break into a safe in zombie-invested Vegas and lift millions before a nuke is to be dropped on the city to relieve the country of its monster problem. Think John Carpenter’s Escape from New York merged with James Cameron’s Aliens and Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven, with an unexpected soupcon of vintage Romero allegorizing, as the trapped zombies initially evoke, tastelessly yet nervily, migrants penned in detention camps. The crew is a disappointment though, as only a few of the characters stand out amid a muddle of generic (and prolonged) exposition.

As Scott Ward, the leader of the group, Dave Bautista exudes his usual soulfulness, which contrasts starkly against his intimidating frame. As the buzzsaw-carrying Vanderohe, Omari Hardwicke feels authentically volatile, as does Garrett Dillahunt as the guy who’s clearly preordained to betray the group. And as a helicopter pilot who might as well have been named Comic Relief, Tig Notaro is refreshingly dry and absurdist. But the other characters have less presence and personality, and are subsequently lost in the chaos of Army of the Dead. As stereotypical as the marines of Aliens were, Cameron and his actors made that film’s clichés pop. By contrast, Army of the Dead is marred by a sense of dutifulness.

Given the safecracking plot, and the potential of nuclear annihilation, you’d expect Army of the Dead to have a certain ticking-clock element to it. Astonishingly, it doesn’t—or, more precisely, Snyder doesn’t allow us to feel a sense of dread or propulsion as he limps from one bizarre zombie set piece to the next. (He doesn’t even show any interest in the chess-like strategizing that’s often among the chief pleasures of the heist film.) Instead, he spends time on things like distinguishing between two types of zombies: the mindless, insatiable ghouls we’ve seen in hundreds of other movies, and “alphas” who have intelligence, speed, and are, perversely, kind of sexy in the tradition of the Na’vi of Cameron’s Avatar. One of the zombies appears to have a queen, so that when she’s killed by the band of humans, things get “personal” for King Zombie. This is all as stupid as it sounds, and Snyder offers such details up with deadly solemnity. Superheroes lend themselves to mythologizing, and, occasionally, even to Snyder’s Wagnerian pretensions. But zombies are less accommodating.

Such baroque flourishes weigh Army of the Dead down and compete with the reason that most people will see the movie: for the flashy gore and action, which Snyder delivers with a flair that grows increasingly monotonal. Still, certain images stick in the mind, such as a tableau of the undead by an empty swimming pool that suggests a zombie Last Supper and is itself worthy of Romero. The maddening thing about Snyder is that, for all his obvious talent, he often tries too hard to transcend the essentially adolescent material that continues to fascinate him. In his better films, he gets by on swagger, as in Sucker Punch and the “Snyder cut” of Justice League. Here, though, laboring to make a “different” zombie movie, one that’s worthy of his fans’ cult-like devotion, he fails to make even an adequate one. Or, to paraphrase Pauline Kael, Army of the Dead is trying so hard to be great it isn’t even good.

Cast: Dave Bautista, Ella Purnell, Omari Hardwick, Ana de la Reguera, Theo Rossi, Matthias Schweighöfer, Nora Arnezeder, Hiroyuki Sanada, Garret Dillahunt, Tig Notaro, Raúl Castillo, Huma Qureshi, Samantha Win, Richard Cetrone Director: Zack Snyder Screenwriter: Zack Snyder, Shay Hatten, Joby Harold Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 148 min Rating: R Year: 2021 Buy: Soundtrack

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