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Non-Review Review: Army of the Dead

Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead arrives with relatively few expectations.

There’s something very refreshing and very appealing in this, particularly given the way that Snyder has become a cultural flashpoint due to his work on films like Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, not to mention everything involving the production and release (and subsequent restoration) of Justice League. With all of that in the rear view mirror, it is exciting to sit down and watch as Zack Snyder movie that is… just a Zack Snyder movie.

Warding off evil.

Indeed, Army of the Dead is arguably something of a throwback for the director, marking a return to his earliest work. As a hyper-violent zombie action movie with a satirical edge, Army of the Dead invites comparisons to his first feature-length film, his remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. However, Army of the Dead is not a belated sequel or continuation. It is that rare modern big-budget genre film that stands as much on its own as it is possible for a high-concept zombie movie.

Army of the Dead is not a masterpiece by any stretch. It’s a little indulgent and overlong, suffering from the familiar pacing and tonal issues that affect many movies produced by Netflix. However, Army of the Dead is a fun and interesting genre if approached on its own terms. More than anything, freed from the constraints of established properties and shared universes and the ensuing scrutiny, Army of the Dead feels like Snyder is actually having fun. It is hard to begrudge it that.

Army of the Dead is built around a number of high concepts. The most obvious is the collision of a zombie apocalypse movie with a heist thriller. The film unfolds in a world where a zombie outbreak unleashed from Area 51 has swept through Las Vegas, but the United States government has been able to contain it. Las Vegas is walled off from the world. The threat posed by the creatures is persistent, but not existential. This not Mad Max or Book of Eli. It is not even The Handmaid’s Tale.

There is something strangely compelling in this set-up, which haunts the movie even if it’s never completely explored. Army of the Dead imagines a world that has managed to live through the apocalypse. The kind of catastrophic event that signals the end of humanity in most narratives has hit the world, but humanity endured. Society did not come tumbling down. Business continued as usual. The veterans of the campaign to secure Las Vegas now work menial jobs on the periphery of the state as fry cooks. The dispossessed were herded into camps where they could quickly be forgotten.

A big deal.

This is perhaps the central dark joke of Army of the Dead, and the one that resonates most strongly with the current moment. After all, Army of the Dead arrives in a world that is arguably living through several concurrent apocalypses, only to insist that business must continue as normal: an unprecedented global pandemic, the possibility that climate change may already be past the point of no return, and the collapse of democratic structures to a resurrected fascism.

Army of the Dead unfolds in a zombie world, in which the structures of late capitalism are sturdy enough to withstand something seemingly unimaginable and life somehow perseveres in the face of the impossible. Army of the Dead illustrates the absurdity of satire in the modern world, as many of its absurd plot points feel worryingly credible in the context of the past half-decade, such as an unnamed President of the United States planning a nuclear strike in Las Vegas “coinciding with sunset on the July the fourth holiday” that would be “really cool, and the ultimate fireworks show” and “actually kinda patriotic if you think about it.”

The city goes up in smoke.

It’s fascinating, bizarre and ultimately horrifying that Army of the Dead is a zombie satire that doesn’t feel as outlandish as it might have a decade earlier. It’s hard to parse some of the movie, to determine how the film intends for certain elements to be read. Borrowing from Snyder’s fascination with the heightened surreality of American punditry, Sean Spicer even has a small cameo as a talking head debating the weird state of this alternate world. It’s partly horrifying to see Army of the Dead normalising and even rehabilitating somebody associated with that administration, but it’s also strangely appropriate to see that in this genre.

Army of the Dead runs into a horror version of the challenge that has faced comedians in the post-Trump era, the question of whether the real world exists in a state beyond parody or nightmare. As expected within the zombie genre, Snyder bakes in a healthy does of heightened social commentary. That commentary is somehow more unsettling for the fact that it doesn’t seem absurd. The idea of classifying people as subhuman for perceived “belligerence and actions outside of social norms” based on temperature checks in lawless detainment camps doesn’t seem particularly far from where the United States wasand still is.

Squad goals.

Still, all of this background detail is largely incidental. It is interesting texture, but it is not the focus. As with Dawn of the Dead, Snyder’s not especially invested in broad social satire about the state of the modern world. Instead, it largely exists as context. In keeping with this idea of a world that has survived the apocalypse, and the reality that late capitalism shuffles on, Army of the Dead finds a group of mercenaries hired by an eccentric Japanese billionaire to liberate a large amount of money from a vault within the city. It’s an absurdly risky mission, but money still means enough that it’s impossible to refuse.

Army of the Dead is built around recognisable Snyder tropes. The “recruiting a team for a dangerous mission” structure recalls Snyder’s stated fondness for classic movies like Seven Samurai, which shaped and informed his approach to Zack Snyder’s Justice League. The movie’s opening credits sequence is a stylised and stylish highlight, a confident exercise in narrative economy that recalls the similar sequence in Watchmen. There is, of course, gratuitous slowmo. Even the last-minute insertion of Tig Notaro into the movie recalls Snyder’s skill at stitching together Zack Snyder’s Justice League from the scraps left to him.

A gas time.

That said, Army of the Dead does mark a clear departure for Snyder in some ways. Most notably, it is a much more colourful film than a lot of his recent efforts, eschewing the desaturated and sepia-tinted colour palette that has largely defined his work since 300. Snyder is working as his own cinematographer on Army of the Dead, even though he takes care to pay a loving and fitting tribute to long-time collaborator and old college buddy Larry Fong.

Still, there are aspects of Army of the Dead that speak directly to Snyder as a filmmaker, with a strong sense that Snyder is engaging with his own reputation and the public perception of him. In particular, Army of the Dead plays with the recurring reading of Snyder as an Objectivist – a reading largely rooted in his stated desire to adapt The Fountainhead, but also not entirely supported by his tendency to make films about how gruff loaners need to realise that they do owe something to the world (and each other). For what it’s worth, Snyder has moved away from his plans to adapt The Fountainhead in recent years.

All fired up.

Crucially, Army of the Dead operates in a manner similar to many of Snyder’s films – notably Batman vs. Superman and Justice League. It is a story about characters who begin their journey believing that they owe nothing to the world and that they are owed something. Pitching the daring heist to his old buddy Maria Cruz, leader Scott Ward asks, “What if – just once – we did something for just us?” After all, this is the starting point of most heist movies: what if these characters deserved something because they were skilled enough to take it?

However, the inevitable arc of this film – just like the inevitable arcs of Batman vs. Superman and Justice League – pushes back against this. The characters inevitably learn that maybe self-interest is not enough of itself, and that perhaps building an entire team around self-interest will have disastrous results. Army of the Dead is very much structured with the understanding that this is a massive folly. Ward and Cruz are both sympathetic characters, and the audience understands why they feel owed, but the movie repeatedly underscores the idea that such naked self-interest will lead to terrible consequences.

Enlightening.

In this sense, Army of the Dead feels very much like one of those subversive Reagan era action blockbusters. The casting of Dave Bautista does a lot of the heavy lifting here, with Bautista’s physicality evoking the action heroes of the decade like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, Carl Weathers and so many more. Cast as Ward, Bautista is a marked contrast to the skinnier and more conventionally proportioned leading men who tend to anchor modern action movies. Even with their absurdly muscled bodies, they have considerably less mass.

Army of the Dead feels like a distant cousin of movies like RoboCop or Predator in this way, which is fitting for a zombie movie like this. Indeed, Army of the Dead arguably feels closer in spirit to Romero’s original work in the genre than Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead, owing to this big broad cynical and blackly comic aesthetic. However, Army of the Dead draws most heavily from James Cameron’s Aliens, often feeling like a direct homage to one of the great eighties blockbusters.

He came, he saw, he conquered.

Army of the Dead lifts several plot beats directly from Aliens. The threat of a nuclear strike on the city provides a ticking clock. The climax becomes a race against time to recover a lost child from a monstrous stronghold. The mercenary team is accompanied by a mysterious company man named Martin, who may have his own ulterior motive for embarking into zombie territory and talks about the zombies as the “ultimate WMD” and the commercial potential of the “power to make your own zombie army.” Even a climactic beat involving an aerial rescue is taken directly from Aliens.

To be fair, Army of the Dead owns this comparison. It even directly quotes from Aliens, with people smuggler Lilly even noting of the zombies, “You don’t see them f&!king each other over.” This is understandable. After all, Aliens is a classic. Its robust plotting is a large part of its appeal, with a narrative where pretty much every piece fits together. It makes sense to apply that template to an adjacent genre, particularly in the context of an obvious homage to eighties blockbusters.

“Bright light city…”

At the same time, the similarities are somewhat distracting. After all, Aliens is one of the best blockbusters ever made, so inviting these sorts of comparisons does not flatter Army of the Dead. That’s not necessarily a knock on Army of the Dead. Very few motives would be flattered by a comparison to Aliens. The heavy-handedness of these references ultimately undermines Army of the Dead, distracting from the stuff that the movie does well.

In keeping with the sense that Army of the Dead is closer in tone and spirit to the work of George A. Romero than Dawn of the Dead, it’s notable that Snyder goes back to one of the key inspirations for Romero’s creation of the zombie genre. Romero admitted that he took a lot of cues from Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend in making The Night of the Living Dead, just replacing Matheson’s vampires with a new sort of monster. It’s interesting that subsequent adaptations of Matheson’s book have also stayed away from vampires, opting for more conventional mutants in The Omega Man and zombies in I Am Legend.

The zombie all and end all.

However, while Matheson’s book is hugely influential on zombie fiction, it is also notable that the novel’s big twist has never really survived the translation from page to screen. Matheson’s book arguably paved the way for later stories like Westworld, Ex Machina and The Girl With All the Gifts in that it suggested that these monsters were not just enemies of mankind, but potential successors and replacements. One of the big twists in I Am Legend is the realisation that these perverse monstrosities have actually built a civilisation and are capable of love.

Army of the Dead touches on this idea quite heavily. Lilly is the member of the team with the most experience in dealing with the zombies, who has worked out a way of communicating with them as she smuggles human beings into and out of the quarantine zone. “This city is not their prison, it’s their kingdom,” Lilly warns her travelling companions. “They’re not what you think.” Lilly has worked out a system of bartering and trade with the creatures, and they seem to largely understand and respect the rules.

Gripping stuff.

There is an interesting ambivalence running through Army of the Dead, which recalls Snyder’s work with the Spartans in 300. Watching the characters scheme and plot in Army of the Dead, the film seems to ask whether humanity really has a moral high ground over this emerging species. The zombies in Army of the Dead seem capable of thought and trust, perhaps even loving. Indeed, one of the key plot beats in Army of the Dead is a direct and deliberate inversion of one of the most horrifying sequence in Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead.

To be fair, most of this is implied as much as it is explored, but it is still a fascinating way of approaching the archetypal zombie film. After all, Army of the Dead suggests a world that has survived the apocalypse and become a zombie version of itself, a lifeless consuming husk. While it is too much to suggest that Snyder humanises the zombies at the heart of the film, there’s an appealing cynicism at play. At times, Army of the Dead seems to invite the audience to wonder what mankind has done to merit survival or continuation, and whether mankind has ultimately chosen to inflict these nightmares on itself.

Flight of fancy.

Still, Army of the Dead is not entirely and unreservedly cynical. There’s something strangely personal and intimate in Snyder’s choice to build Army of the Dead around the emotional arc of Ward’s attempts to reunite with his estranged daughter Kate. It’s very difficult not to read the film’s emotional emphasis on this relationship in light of the way that so much of Snyder’s public persona has been shaped by the tragic loss of his own daughter, so watching a father and daughter wander through a city of the dead carries surprising emotional heft. It helps that Bautista is very emotionally compelling in the lead, anchoring the film.

Again, there are some interesting aspects to be found in the particulars of the dynamic between Scott and Kate Ward. The father and daughter are estranged, and Scott has always believed that this was due to his killing of Kate’s mother when she become infected. This would be a very cliché beat in a movie like this, an absent father who lost both his wife and his daughter to his job, which was carried out for the greater good. Cleverly, Army of the Dead subverts and deconstructs this. Kate makes it clear that she never blamed him for what he had to do, but instead for his inability and unwillingness to emotional engage with her.

Just deserts.

This is a surprisingly effective emotional arc, one that takes a very cliché core concept and shades it with enough nuance to add a bit of depth. Army of the Dead will never be mistaken for a prestige character drama, but there’s enough complexity in this emotional arc that it doesn’t feel entirely recycled or clichéd. The emotional honesty at play in the dynamic between Scott and Kate Ward also helps to prevent the movie’s cynicism from becoming emotionally suffocating.

That said, there are problems with Army of the Dead. The movie has a fascinating opening act, as it establishes the world and brings the team together. It also has a strong action-driven climax in the third act, with enough emotional weight to keep on the audience on board and enough style to satisfy even those tired of zombies. However, the film wanders and meanders in its second act, often losing momentum. There is an extended stretch of the characters inside the hotel in the middle of a zombie-infested city that feels surprisingly light on tension.

“Bring Your Daughter to Work” Day did not go as expected.

There is also a minor issue with tone. Army of the Dead is blackly comedic. It never takes itself too serious. However, the movie occasionally struggles to strike the right balance between darkly funny and simply mean-spirited. The problem is compounded somewhat by Snyder’s reliance on somewhat obvious needle drops. The film’s climactic montage is set to a remix of the Cranberries’ Zombie, which is just a little too on the nose for a film like this.

Still, Snyder is having fun. Army of the Dead is a zombie movie that is an eighties action movie throwback that finds time for elements like zombie horses and “a goddamn zombie tiger.” That sensibility is infectious.

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