As I write this, I’m waiting for the subway after visiting a movie theater for the first time in 15 months. I’ve missed theaters a lot, as I’m sure you have too, and I’ve gone back and forth for the past few weeks since getting vaccinated weighing my options as to what movie to see first after my immunity kicks in. I wanted to mark my return to theaters with the kind of oversized buttery popcorn spectacle that demands to be experienced on the big screen, but with the likes of F9 still over a month away, I was afraid I’d have to compromise that particular quarantine dream. Luckily, Netflix has sent Army of the Dead, Zack Snyder’s new zombie/heist flick, to theaters for a week-long run ahead of its streaming debut this coming Friday, and it’s just the kind of big dumb movie for the occasion.
Light spoilers ahead.
It’s been half a century since Night of the Living Dead and, for the most part, a straight-up zombie apocalypse movie just won’t do anymore. The past two decades have seen the birth of the zombie rom-com, the zombie travelogue, and the found footage zombie mockumentary. There are now eleven seasons of The Walking Dead. If you want to get a mass audience excited about a zombie picture, you’re going to have to get creative.
Enter director Zack Snyder, who broke into features in 2003 with his genuinely worthy remake of George A. Romero’s masterpiece Dawn of the Dead. The premise for Army of the Dead — in which a crack team attempts to steal a fortune in cash from a casino vault in a zombie-infested Las Vegas — dates all the way back to the making of Dawn, but it took nearly two decades to put together the right script, the right budget, and the right distance from other zombie blockbusters like World War Z. Snyder’s usual partners at Warner Bros. balked at spending big money on a zombie movie, but Netflix went all in, giving him and producing partner Deborah Snyder an estimated $90 million to make the film while also greenlighting a prequel film and an animated spin-off.
Mashing up with heist movie tropes isn’t Army of the Dead’s only twist on the zombie movie formula. The film blends together elements from multiple mythologies, splitting the undead foes between the mindless shamblers of early Romero and I Am Legend-style pack-minded sprinters, plus a few CGI zombified animals for good measure. There are a number of hints at a larger, weirder mythology behind the zombie outbreak, the details of which will apparently be saved for the larger franchise. For instance, Army of the Dead introduces the clever idea that shamblers become desiccated and useless when left out in the sun but spring back to life when rehydrated, and to my total befuddlement, it’s never paid off in the film. But the most interesting distinguishing feature of Army of the Dead is the idea of setting a movie months after a zombie outbreak that has been successfully contained and is now just another weird crisis that humanity has had to cope with and move on from. A plague of the undead hasn’t actually ended the world, at least not yet.
In the important ways, though, Army of the Dead is a conventional zombie movie. Like any film in the genre worth its celluloid, it uses its monsters both living and undead to wring as many different emotions as it can out of the viewer. Throughout the run of a zombie movie, you should be terrified of the zombies, you should laugh at them, you should pity them, maybe even root for them here and there, and of course, you should relish in their gory destruction. A zombie movie should invest us in seeing a group of characters make it out alive, and in seeing one or two punished for their lack of humanity. Snyder and co-writers Shay Hatten and Joby Harold even make a shallow attempt at including some social commentary into the story. No genre checkboxes are left unmarked.
I’m Creating a Letterboxd List Called “Dave Bautista Wears Glasses”
The center of Army of the Dead’s ensemble is Scott Ward (Dave Bautista, the MCU’s Drax the Destroyer), a mercenary who won some acclaim for rescuing the US Secretary of Defense during the Las Vegas outbreak but is now flipping burgers. Scott reluctantly accepts a job offer from businessman Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada, Mortal Kombat), who hires him and a team of his choosing to sneak back into the quarantined Las Vegas and recover the $200 million in cash sitting in his casino vault before the federal government nukes the entire city. Scott has another motive for taking on such a risky mission — the chance to reconcile with his estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell, Sweetbitter), whose volunteer work at a quarantine camp outside of Vegas may offer the team a way inside.
Of the three former WWE World Champions currently starring in major motion pictures, Bautista is the one with the most obvious acting chops, and in Army of the Dead, he strikes a fine balance between badassery and vulnerability. Bautista seems comfortable presenting himself as a human being rather than merely a symbol of American machismo. Imagine Dwayne Johnson wearing a pair of thick-framed prescription glasses either on his face or around his neck for an entire action film — not likely.
In fact, there’s a certain softness inside almost every member of Scott’s team, and most characters are paired off so that we can experience their attachments and loss. Vanderhoe (Omari Hardwick, Power) is a sensitive intellectual who puts up his defenses around strangers like eccentric safe-cracker Dieter (German star Matthias Schweighöfer), but the two gradually form a sweet friendship over the course of the mission. Mikey Guzman (Raúl Castillo, Looking), a cocky YouTuber who’s become famous for callously blowing away zombies online, is contrasted against Chambers (stunt actor Samantha Win), a stoic heavy from his entourage who’s there to watch his back. Haunted coyote Lily (Nora Arnezeder, Mozart in the Jungle) carries a lot of guilt over making her living sneaking desperate, often doomed foragers into Las Vegas, and ends up paired up with the totally heartless Martin (Garret Dillahunt, Fear the Walking Dead), their employer’s appointed chaperone.
Scott himself has two foils, his daughter Kate who invites herself along to search for a missing friend, and Maria Cruz (Ana de la Reguera, Narcos) his closest friend and partner from their old mercenary unit. Only wisecracking helicopter pilot Peters is left alone for most of the story — convenient seeing as all the character’s scenes were reshot against a green screen so that Tig Notaro could replace alleged sex pest Chris D’Elia in the role.
Quick semi-spoilery sidebar: It’s cool that Army of the Dead’s party starts out with a 6/5 gender split with both vulnerable and battle-hardened characters on either side. The movie does lean into some tired “man-pain” tropes with a clumsy frequency and one female character’s death provoked an actual “aw c’mon” from me in the theater. It doesn’t ruin the experience so much as stick out like a sore thumb in a film without a lot of glaring unforced errors.
Partnering up the characters is, of course, a shortcut to getting the audience to care about them ourselves, a necessary move in a genre where it’s a given that at least a few of the characters will die. Each character has their moments, and with one exception (alluded to above, and I suspect you’ll recognize this cheap shot when you see it) each of the deaths feels like it has some well-earned gravity. Zombie kills are played in a variety of tones from tense to exciting to darkly funny, but every human death in the meat of the film is treated as a grim, brutal tragedy, even when it befalls a character we’ve been conditioned to root against. (The most villainous human naturally gets the most graphic death.) Given Zack Snyder’s reputation of late for placing mass human suffering in the background while emotionally detached superheroes grit their teeth, Army of the Dead is surprisingly compassionate.
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Easing Off the Slow Motion Pedal
Zack Snyder has become a divisive figure in film circles, both due to his work and to the slavish devotion of the loud, often acerbic fanbase he developed during his stewardship of the DC Extended Universe. Snyder is one of the only filmmakers in Hollywood today who is permitted to have both a distinctive voice and a lot of money to play with, and he’s become famous/infamous for his use of slow-motion, speed ramping, and very deliberate color grading. Snyder’s films are often visually heightened, but he’s also been working almost exclusively in comic book adaptations since he directed 300 back in 2007. The only exceptions have been Sucker Punch, his heavily stylized original fantasy action film, and Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, an animated children’s book adaptation. After this long string of features in a very particular style, Army of the Dead is his first film since his 2003 debut that feels at all like someone else could have made it.
That’s ironic, given that this is the first feature for which Snyder has served as his own cinematographer. (His usual collaborator, Larry Fong, gets a cute cameo in Army.) What Snyder gives us is a scaled back version of each of his visual signatures. The color palette is never as washed out as in Man of Steel, nor as blown up as in Sucker Punch, and the amount of slow motion is nowhere near as gratuitous as in Justice League. After a string of films in which his aesthetic has become distracting or even laughable, this restraint is welcome.
Snyder’s personal stamp is most obvious during the opening credits montage, a series of slow-motion vignettes telling the story of Ward, Cruz, and Vanderhoe’s war with the zombies during the evacuation of Las Vegas. Compare to the alternate history montage that plays under the titles of his Watchmen, but with a broader emotional arc, aided by a custom-ordered cover of “Viva Las Vegas” by Richard Cheese and Allison Crowe that turns from comical to melancholy along with the action. It’s a very effective use of music, which makes the rest of the soundtrack disappointing by comparison. Tom Holkenborg’s score doesn’t stand out much, but like Snyder’s Justice League, Army of the Dead is peppered with dreary sad dad needledrops, in this case coffeehouse covers of classic rock tunes whose associations to their scenes are painfully literal. A lifeless acoustic guitar cover of CCR’s “Bad Moon Rising” plays under a preparation montage, and I kid you not, late in the film he hits us with a version of The Cranberries’ ”Zombie.” It is not a comedic beat.
Even when Snyder’s schtick results in an occasional groan, there’s something satisfying about watching a big-budget motion picture in which I never think “Someone is making him do this.” Netflix is, after all, famously hands-off with the productions they finance, finally freeing Snyder from the strict corporate oversight that he clearly and understandably resents. So, at least this time, I feel like shrugging off minor whiffs like the Cranberries cue and just saying “Happy for you, dude.”
I still left the theater feeling the satisfaction I’d hoped would accompany my return visit. Particularly given that Army of the Dead will be on Netflix by the end of the week, I wanted my experience to be a reminder of how much more fun it is to watch a movie on one big screen than at home looking at three at the same time. Army of the Dead showed me that kind of good time, and if your circumstances allow, I’d recommend it for welcoming the theatrical experience back into your life.
Army of the Dead is in theaters until Friday, May 21st, when it will become available on streaming on Netflix.