© The Stone Quarry / Netflix
I’ve finally caught up with one of the most hyped films to land on Netflix last month, Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead (2021). I’m not a massive fan of Snyder’s work, though I can’t say either that his films rouse in me the antipathy that they seem to rouse in thousands of other movie-fans, who regularly spray adjectives like ‘bloated’, ‘dour’, ‘humorless’, ‘prolonged’, ‘hollow’, ‘overbearing’ and ‘overstuffed’ at them, while dissing Snyder himself as some sort of dumb-assed filmmaking dude-bro.
Mind you, I’d only seen two of his earlier films. The first was his 2004 remake of George A. Romero’s masterful 1978 zombie epic Dawn of the Dead. I have mixed feelings about Snyder’s version of Dawn. Its first 25 minutes are terrific, but thereafter it becomes a routine, if slick, affair, with no attempt to replicate or develop the satire on mindless consumerism that made Romero’s original so enjoyable. (Incidentally, I recently discovered that Romero shared my opinion of the remake.)
The second was his 2013 Superman movie Man of Steel, which I thought was underrated. I didn’t mind it being darker in tone than the Superman movies of the late 1970s and 1980s and liked how it showed Superman getting a hard time, initially at least, from a suspicious humanity. Admittedly, Henry Cavill as Superman and Amy Adams as Lois Lane didn’t engage in the way that Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder did in those roles three decades earlier, but the splendid supporting cast – Michael Shannon, Laurence Fishburne, Russell Crowe, Diane Lane and Kevin Costner – more than compensated. That said, not being a fan of DC Comics overall, I felt no inclination to watch Snyder’s later ventures into the DC Extended Universe, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and Justice League (2017).
As its title suggests, Army of the Dead sees Snyder return to zombie territory, although this new movie takes place in a different universe from Dawn of the Dead. Whereas in Dawn, the zombie outbreak happens everywhere and brings civilization to its knees within days, in Army it’s localized and quickly controlled. It begins with holidaymakers, gamblers, croupiers, showgirls and Elvis impersonators succumbing to a nasty, bite-y zombie virus in the casinos and hotels of Las Vegas, after a top-secret convoy transporting the bug crashes in the nearby Nevada Desert. The US military responds and manages to contain the virus, plus all the zombies carrying it, by sealing off Las Vegas behind a towering perimeter wall of metal containers.
Although it was obvious from the start that I was going to be watching a big, dumb, action-fantasy-horror movie, even at this early point I found myself shaking my head in disbelief. From where did the military suddenly rustle up all those giant containers? And how come the Las Vegas they seal off seems to consist only of the downtown area with the casinos and hotels, but with nothing else attached? Doesn’t the real city sprawl a bit? Doesn’t it have suburbs? I’ve never visited it, but I had the impression that Las Vegas was more expansive, thanks to reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (2013) and watching David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return (2017).
Oh well. Now under zombie-lockdown, Las Vegas is completely inaccessible. This is frustrating news for casino tycoon Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada), who has 200 million dollars in cash sitting in a vault under a casino in the city and would like to retrieve it. The fact that the US government has just announced that it’s going to erase the zombie plague by nuking Las Vegas in a few days’ time gives extra impetus to his desire to retrieve it. Thus, Tanaka approaches a tough ex-mercenary called Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) and offers him a generous portion of the 200 million in return for putting together a ‘team’, breaking into Vegas, blasting their way through the zombies and liberating the money before everything goes up in a cloud of mushroom-shaped radioactive smoke. Ward was involved in the original military operation to evacuate non-infected people from the city and seal it off and so is the best man for the job, but he carries psychological baggage. His wife perished during the operation, which has so traumatized him that he’s been reduced to flipping burgers in the kitchen of an out-of-the-way diner.
Indeed, food seems to have become the Bautista character’s way of dealing with post-zombie stress disorder. He’s still blathering about lobster rolls near the movie’s close, two-and-a-half hours later. (Yes, two-and-a-half hours – this is a long film.)
© AVCO Embassy Pictures
The set up reminded me less of past zombie movies than of John Carpenter’s rugged sci-fi actioner Escape from New York (1981), in which tough guy Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is sent into a future version of Manhattan, sealed off and transformed into a giant, hellhole prison run by its own inmates, to rescue the US president whose plane has just crashed there. The president was played by Donald Pleasence, so the film was eerily prophetic in its vision of a dystopian future America run by a president called Donald.
The difference is that Carpenter would have established the premise, introduced the protagonists and got them into the zombie-fied Las Vegas within the first quarter-hour. Snyder, it’s fair to say, is a less economical filmmaker. While Bautista was in the middle of assembling his team, and no one had got anywhere near Vegas yet, I checked my watch and realized 45 minutes had already passed. Herein lies Army’s greatest problem. It takes its time getting going. And even after it gets going, there are still periods when everything stops going again so that Snyder can shoehorn in ponderous, talky, supposedly character-building stuff. I can’t help wondering how much better the film would have been if some studio bigwig had told Snyder that Army wasn’t allowed a 150-minute running time. No, it’d only have 90 minutes maximum in which to tell its story. I’m sure the result would have had much less flab and far more momentum.
Another issue I have with Army is its derivativeness. I don’t mind films containing little nods and homages to other films, but Snyder not only pinches a major subplot and supporting character from James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) but also rehashes at least two of that film’s legendary action sequences. As the film progresses, it also increasingly calls to mind the Will Smith sci-fi / horror movie I Am Legend (2007), with Bautista and his crew discovering that there aren’t just ordinary, common-or-garden zombies shambling mindlessly around downtown Las Vegas. There’s also a more evolved variety that can sprint, climb, communicate, experience emotions, reproduce, organize themselves and even wear metal headgear, making them impervious to that normal zombie-stopping technique, “shoot ’em in the head.”
Frustratingly, like the film I Am Legend (and unlike the marvelous 1954 novel by Richard Matheson on which it’s based), nothing is done with these creatures once they’ve been introduced. They merely become another threat to be blasted away, like a new foe that’s appeared on a new level of a computer game. Considering how it’s clear at this point that both Bautista’s team and the evolved zombies are being shafted by unseen corporate villains, it would have been interesting if the script had had Bautista try to communicate with the creatures and enlist their aid against the common enemy.
One other irritant is Snyder’s use of music, which is meant to be ironic but just seems clunkingly obvious: Elvis Presley’s Viva Las Vegas (1964) and Suspicious Minds (1968) to evoke the setting and the Doors’ This is the End (1967) and Credence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Riding (1969) to evoke the apocalyptic mood. Most of these appear as cover versions by the likes of Richard Cheese and Allison Crowe, Theo Gilmore and the Raveonettes, which suggests Snyder didn’t trust the young audience the film was targeting to be able to handle hearing the songs in their original forms. Worst of all, though, is his deployment of the Cranberries’ Zombie (1994). I’m not a fan of that song but it was written to protest the killing of children by the IRA. Using it on the soundtrack of a Hollywood blockbuster about zombies doesn’t strike me as funny, but as crass. (Also, when Zombie plays in the background of a scene, it gives away an important, upcoming plot twist.) Still, I laughed when Culture Club’s Do You Really Want to Hurt Me (1982) made an unexpected appearance. Musically, Snyder got one thing right, at least.
© Island Records
Despite everything – the film’s bloated-ness, overlong-ness, derivativeness and unimaginative use of music – I did quite enjoy Army of the Dead. Largely this is due to the cast. Even though he’s the size and shape of a muscular Michelin Man, Bautista comes across as a likeable human being, while the other performers do a good job of creating characters you can relate to and root for. Well, apart from the character who might as well have ‘I’M A SCUMBAG WHO’S GOING TO BETRAY EVERYONE’ written on a signpost above his head. Particularly good are Ana de la Reguera as Bautista’s capable deputy, who quietly carries a torch for the big fellow; Tig Notaro as the helicopter pilot tasked with flying them out the disaster zone before the bomb drops on it, who displays Dr. ‘Bones’ McCoy levels of loveable crankiness; and Omari Hardwick and Matthias Schweighöfer as, respectively, a macho, chainsaw-wielding mercenary and a nerdy, mild-mannered safecracker, who get involved in an unexpected bromance.
And the action and suspense scenes, when they come, are exciting. It’s just a bit disappointing that, as I’ve said, so many of these scenes evoke similar scenes in earlier movies – Aliens or I Am Legend or, say, 1981’s An American Werewolf in London (two blokes crossing some desolate terrain at the film’s start, trying to escape a slavering monster) or the 2013 Brad Pitt vehicle World War Z (Bautista’s team having to make their way through a building that’s crowded with zombies, who are all in a statue-like state of hibernation but will wake up if there’s any sudden sound). Definitely worth waiting for is a gory sequence featuring the movie’s best original touch, possibly its only original touch, a zombie tiger that’d originally belonged to Vegas magicians / entertainers Siegfried and Roy.
To sum up – plot-wise, Army of the Dead is as ragged and hole-ridden as the undead creatures that inhabit its dystopian setting, but it remains entertaining. Its main problem is its inordinate running time. If an hour had been chopped off that, you’d have had a thrilling, engaging action-horror movie as fast-moving as its evolved tier of zombies. Unfortunately, the two-and-a-half-hour-long Army too often resembles its other tier of zombies, the ones that just shamble.
© The Stone Quarry / Netflix