Review: The fun factor is undeniable in ‘Army of the Dead’
Zack Snyder’s directorial debut was Dawn of the Dead, the 2004 remake of George A. Romero’s 1978 classic. Romero’s original is one of the best horror films ever made—a perfect zombie movie and a biting satire of consumerism. That the undead are shambling around a shopping mall wasn’t just shrewd staging. James Gunn’s script for the remake tosses that subtext out the window, but Snyder’s direction brought a slick sheen to the story, a sort of scuzzy elegance marked by his capacity to organize large-scale mayhem in the frame. Directorially, it’s still the height of Snyder’s filmography. So, after the following years of superhero misfires and bloated self-importance, it’s with a sigh of relief that Snyder returns to the zombie genre with Army of the Dead.
READ ALSO: Review: ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’
Snyder doesn’t just direct here: it’s his concept, his script, and he even shot the damn thing. It takes place in Las Vegas after a horde of zombies devastates the city, forcing the government to wall it off and leave the remaining citizens to gamble with their lives. The opening montage of these events is lighter in tone than anything Snyder’s done since The Owls of Ga’Hoole (yeah, that was him). It’s silly zombie violence by way of Zombieland—maybe a little too similar to the opening of Zombieland, actually—that proudly flaunts some ridiculous deaths and undead nudity. Not to be confused for someone who’s just having fun, though, Snyder stirs in characters holding photos of their dead families before cutting back to naked dead people and the like. That tonal dissonance is a good primer for the rest of the movie.
Once the introduction’s out of the way, a really wealthy guy (Hiroyuki Sanada) approaches a really buff guy (Dave Bautista) with a proposition: break into the zombie-infested city, retrieve a large fortune, and walk away with a portion of the loot. So Bautista straps on his zombie-killing gear and recruits a team of archetypes, including but not limited to the soldier getting back in the game, the funny, scrawny guy with an outsized accent, and a couple supermodels with extensive combat experience. At no point does Army of the Dead show interest in developing these characters past blurting out their relationships to one another, which is fine—as long as their archetypes add character to the action scenes.
Alas, they don’t do much but bog the action down with their non-characters. Snyder has cobbled together another overlong movie (two and a half hours this time) stuffed full of every idea that seemed cool, which means there are several climactic character moments for archetypes that received very little buildup. Yes, brave sacrifices and last-minute heel turns could be cool, but we don’t know or care enough about these people to be moved when they get their big about-to-die solos. From family bonds to diehard bros, the connections between the characters aren’t stressed in the heat of the action, which is the meat of this movie. We don’t need the humans to soliloquize their backstories, but at least work their relationships into the dynamics of the zombie slaughter. The satirical Shaun of the Dead understood that—remember the dysfunctional group all working together to aim and shoot one rifle?
The bodies on the receiving end of the bullets are generally taken less seriously, and that’s where Army of the Dead is at its most enjoyable. The zombie design is fantastic; the gore effects are even better. The action scenes may lack the violent beauty of Snyder’s collaborations with Larry Fong—who shot 300, Watchmen, Sucker Punch, and Batman v Superman, and who gets a sneaky shoutout in Army of the Dead—but the fun factor is undeniable. When Snyder is letting the “what looks cool” philosophy guide the zombie army, we’re showered with inventive kills and balls-to-the-walls set pieces galore. Snyder is a reliable composer of chaos, and his work in that regard ranges from thrilling to (purposefully) hilarious.
If you look past the fumbled political posturing and undercooked screenplay, there’s a campy time to be had with Army of the Dead. It’s a good fit for Netflix in that way—throw it on in the background and pay attention when the limbs hit the fan. Oh, and turn it off when it becomes obvious that the entire ending is a sequel tease.