Army of the Dead Zack Snyder

Zombie heist movie Army of the Dead is pure Zack Snyder

The Netflix thriller starring Dave Bautista encompasses the best and worst instincts of its director.

There’s a sequence early in Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead that’s pure Zack Snyder. It’s the credit sequence, a slow-motion series of fights between humans and zombies that’s done in his usual over-the-top baroque style. There’s something a little different about this one, however; there’s actual plot development and storytelling involved. Instead of just unfurling an endless series of iconic images and blood-spattered tableaus, Snyder is telling us things. He’s explaining who these characters are with an economy uncommon to the most overblown of blockbuster directors. For a couple of minutes, it’s difficult to see anything but a mastery of the form of visual storytelling… but then the sequence goes on and on and on, introducing more and more characters with more and more things happening to them until the whole thing is a saturated aria of destruction and backstory.

Those few minutes are a pretty decent encapsulation of Army of the Dead, Snyder’s return to the zombie genre and first original screenplay since 2011’s Sucker Punch. Stripped of all the pomp and circumstance of his epically overblown superhero movies, Snyder has a real vision and knack for visual storytelling. He also has a hell of a hard time pruning ideas and putting forward any tangible form of restraint. He makes what’s essentially a pretty nifty cross between a heist movie and a zombie movie into a full-blast epic of quasi-Biblical proportions — which is, admittedly, kind of what Zack Snyder does in general. 

In a somewhat clever inversion on zombie tropes, Army of the Dead takes place in a world where a zombie outbreak has managed to stay contained within the city of Las Vegas. Though heavy casualties were incurred, the military managed to seal off the city with the eventual plan to nuke it into oblivion. Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) is a former mercenary who now works as a short-order cook, as you do. He’s estranged from his daughter (Ella Purnell), a WHO employee who broke ties with him after he was forced to kill her zombie-afflicted mother. Ward is approached by a former casino owner (Hiroyuki Sanada) to make his way into the condemned city to locate $200-million sitting in a vault, having already been reimbursed to the owner by insurance. It’s a difficult heist to pull off, but the promise of a big enough payday encourages Ward to put together a team (Omari Hardwick, Ana de la Reguera, Matthias Schweighöfer, Tig Notaro, Raul Castillo, Samantha Win, Nora Arnezeder and a couple of non-team additions played by Garret Dillahunt and Theo Rossi) and enter the doomed city.

Snyder has chosen to set the film in a world that is neither pre-apocalyptic nor post-apocalyptic. Army of the Dead is set in a world where most have simply had to accept zombies as yet another shitty aspect of a rapidly shittier world, which all but does away with the whole, “What ARE they, the dead come back to LIFE?!” aspect of many zombie movies. Though it’s chiefly a movie about muscular people stabbing zombies in the head, Army of the Dead includes a significant meditation on grief and trauma in the face of global tragedy that rings strangely prophetic these days. I wouldn’t say that “being a film that grapples with ideas of moving on” necessarily tops the list of what Army of the Dead could be described as, but it’s in there.

Like all Zack Snyder films, Army of the Dead pairs these notions of overblown Greek tragedy (Dave Bautista certainly ugly-cries in this movie more than in all of his other work combined) with Snyder’s knack for thunderous action and slick, “extreme” instincts. Snyder’s two halves — forever warring between a slowcore acoustic cover of “Bad Moon Rising” and  industrial rap-rock choogling — are indissociable at this point, but they find surer footing in this gonzo mix of heist and horror movie than they have before. Zack Snyder is just about the only filmmaker who can pair a zombified tiger with direction that can be described as operatic — perhaps even the only one to ever try it, regardless of its success — which is something that I cannot really hold against him.

Granted, the overblown operatics of Army of the Dead can be grating, especially as the film piles on the Aliens references and stretches out its premise as thin as humanly possible. Army of the Dead has the kind of pacing problems that only a two-and-a-half hour movie that opens with a zombified Elvis can have; a mix of overstimulation and long-windedness that can only come from the mind of Zack Snyder. Army of the Dead is equal parts entertaining and frustrating. It’s the kind of movie that wants to feel a deep everlasting sorrow emanating off a character in one shot and cheer gleefully as someone’s head gets smashed to a pulp in the next one, which is usually a recipe for disaster but is handled with utmost intensity by Snyder.

Army of the Dead is insanely overlong for its premise, features way too many characters considering the relative simplicity of the proceedings and has something like three endings, which all feels par for the course when it comes to the work of Snyder. But it’s also a movie with a healthier sense of what it is and what it should provide than many other genre movies of its breadth and scope. It’s weird to be both exhilarated and exasperated at the same movie, but I can’t say I hate it. ■

Army of the Dead is on Netflix Canada as of Friday, May 21. Watch the trailer here:

Army of the Dead by Zack Snyder, starring Dave Bautista,

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