Army of the Dead (2021)

MAY 22, 2021

GENRE: ZOMBIE
SOURCE: STREAMING (NETFLIX)

Having seen all of Zack Snyder's live action movies on the big screen (I STILL haven't seen the owl one), I was excited to learn that Army of the Dead, despite being a Netflix release, would be hitting theaters and thus helping me keep my streak alive. But then I saw the two and a half hour runtime, and started having mixed feelings about it. While the length isn't a dealbreaker on its own (even for zombie movies! My preferred cut of the original Dawn of the Dead is almost as long), it's a lot to ask to take four hours out of my life (with travel and trailers) to pay for something I am already technically paying for at home, making this an unusual situation. So I figured that, for one of the very few times in my life, I'd listen to reviews and make up my mind that way.

Since I watched it at home after all, so you can guess that the reviews I listened to weren't exactly raves. There were some, of course, but more than one (I only scanned a few, fearing spoilers and the like) mentioned that it was curiously low on action for such a long film, so I figured the big-budget spectacle I was primarily interested in seeing BIG wouldn't be as excessive as I hoped. Long story short, I think I'd be even more disappointed if I took the time and money to hit up a theater for it, so I opted to watch at home to give it a fairer shot. And for the first hour or so, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying it; Snyder hasn't lost his ability to create a fantastic opening credits sequence, and I enjoyed the off-kilter group of characters that were assembled for the movie's big heist. "Maybe I should have gone to theaters after all!" I thought at one point. But, weirdly enough, when they actually get into the zombie-overrun Las Vegas the movie starts to falter, at a time when it should be really stepping up its game. For starters, the movie has a pretty sizable budget, but none of it went to really playing up its Sin City locale; the opening sequence (showing casinos being overrun, with Snyder's famous slo-mo depicting showgirl zombies attacking Liberace impersonators and the like) pretty much gives us all the Vegas-specific action we'll see, unless you count a "Here's how the heist will go" montage of quick shots (most of which are in the trailer) when they're making their plan, which shouldn't count since it's imaginary. Their target is a vault that's inside a casino/hotel, but once they get there it's pretty anonymous and could have just been a branch bank for all it matters. That great shot from the trailer of Dave Bautista mowing down zombies as he runs over card tables is part of what is a sadly pretty brief sequence, and before long they're in generic hallways and rooms again. Worse, Snyder (acting as his own DP) shoots most of the movie in closeup with tiny focus ranges, so there's not a lot of scope to the proceedings; it's so cramped that even when they ARE outside or in a casino or somewhere equally engaging, you can't really make too much of it out.

And this strange choice ended up kind of crippling the movie for me ultimately, because if a Zack Snyder movie isn't wowing you with its visuals, what is it offering? It certainly isn't its character development; Bautista is great but he's playing an incredibly generic "tough guy with regrets" that was actually done better with noted non tough guy Jake Weber in the Dawn remake, and the role is almost distractingly cobbled together from a few Bruce Willis characters (John McClane in the last two Die Hards, Harry Stamper in Armageddon...), so he never really shines as a memorable character of his own. Snyder and his two (credited) writers steal the rest from Aliens, in particular Vasquez and Burke, the latter of whom is played here by Garret Dillahunt, who (spoiler) is the victim of the movie's much ballyhooed zombie tiger. How is this not even the best movie where Garret Dillahunt is eaten by a tiger?

The human villain plot, so obligatory in these things, never makes a lot of sense, either. Bautista is hired by casino owner Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada, completely wasted) to enter the city and retrieve the money from his vault before the city is nuked (somehow the zombie infection is limited to just Vegas - they walled the city up, Escape from New York style, but uh... how did they do it so quickly before any zombies got out? We have to buy that no one was bitten and fleed when the outbreak first began?), and that would have been enough. But it turns out Tanaka doesn't care about the money, and just wants a team of hardasses to create a diversion so that Dillahunt can obtain an "Alpha" zombie head, because some of them are special and naturally, they can be used to make weapons. Why he couldn't just say this was his plan in the first place is beyond me (they're guns for hire and knew they'd have to encounter zombies anyway, and with the nuke coming, it seems they could make it easier for themselves without having to waste time planning a heist), but since it makes the central heist a complete Macguffin, it leaves the movie inert as well. It would have made more sense if Tanaka truly did want the money and Dillahunt's character was merely going rogue. Plus no one seems to care that they were being used, nor do they encounter Tanaka again, so it's a very weightless storyline.

Snyder also tosses in a bunch of nonsense that may or may not pan out in planned sequels, prequels, anime series, and who knows what else. There's some stuff with aliens (the original zombie that starts the outbreak is being transferred in Area 51 territory), and even a bizarre suggestion of a timeloop when the team encounter a previous heist team that is dressed identically to them. Cool ideas to be sure, but without any satisfactory explanation or resolution here, it's merely frustrating - this is a movie, not the pilot of a TV show. And given the film's length, I simply cannot comprehend how no one involved could be bothered to point out something like "Hey Zack, this bit here where they say the zombies come back to life in the rain - it never rains in the movie, so it's moot. How about we cut it and make the movie a little shorter instead of giving it yet another go-nowhere plot point?" Likewise, they spend a bit of time early on with Bautista essentially ripping off his crewmates by lying to them about how much money they're being paid, offering each one a different amount - you'd think this would come back to bite him on the ass later, right? Nope. Never comes up, rendering it a waste of time. There's probably a solid two hour movie here, but it comes perilously close to completely falling apart due to the man's inability to tell a straightforward story anymore and use the power of editing to remove any plot threads that end up going nowhere (having watched his longer Justice League, I was a bit prepared for this, as he opted to shoot a completely new scene that sets up storylines he already knew he wasn't going to get to explore).

To be fair, it's possible some of these weird bits are due to having to digitally replace an actor who was accused of grooming underage girls after the movie was basically finished. Snyder cast the great Tig Notaro to replace the (male) actor, but with Covid running rampant he wasn't able to secure the other actors to reshoot the scenes properly (a la Ridley Scott with Kevin Spacey/Christopher Plummer). So Notaro is always in shots by herself (in an interview, Bautista said he still hasn't even actually met her), or noticeably inserted into wide shots, but I assume there are some shots they simply couldn't fix properly. This comes to a head in the climax, where a major character sits next to Notaro (a pilot) in the front of their escape helicopter and is never really seen again. This person motivates another's entire character arc and (spoiler) is seemingly killed when the chopper crashes, but their near total absence once they get on board is bizarre; I even rewound the sequence thinking I must have missed a quick shot of their death, but nope - there's a quick, blurry, and non-commital shot of their person in the front of the chopper after it crashes, but no indication of what happened to them (someone else survives being thrown from the chopper entirely, and another passenger is clearly impaled), so the only way to know they're dead is because they don't show up alive again. But Notaro had nothing to do with some of the other go-nowhere plot points, so there's only so much leeway I can extend in this department.

Problems like this kept piling up until I simply stopped caring, and that's a shame, because it started off so well. Again, the first act or so is solid, Notaro is hilarious (her first scene is an all timer in the annals of "I got a job for you" type conversations), there's a wonderful quick bonding between the cowardly safe cracker and the team's main tough guy (who has a zombie killing saw straight out of Dead Rising* that he sadly barely uses) that I found charming af, and the zombies themselves look pretty great (so does the tiger, for what it's worth, though as someone else pointed out, a non threatening animal would have been more fun, since regular tigers are scary anyway). It's not a "bad movie" in the usual sense; it's just a very frustrating one, because anyone with some basic editing skill could probably turn it into something tighter and thus better. Some movies are underbaked; this is one where they keep adding ingredients to what probably would have tasted just fine on its own.

What say you?

P.S. If you want to see the VFX and makeup teams doing their thing, there's a 30 minute making of available on Netflix along with the movie that I recommend. For whatever issues the movie had, its zombies were stellar and the featurette dives deep into how they were created. Also, we learn why half the movie is out of focus, so that's nice.

P.S.S. Comments are moderated, and I'm well aware that this filmmaker has very vocal fans who quickly resort to trolling whenever someone dares speak against their master. So if you plan to reply in a less-than-civil manner don't waste your time, it won't get through.

*Dead Rising 1 was set in a mall, as Snyder's first zombie movie was. Now his second one is set in Las Vegas, just like the 2nd Dead Rising game was. If this is intentional, I love it, and I hope he makes a third one in a hyper-realized Los Angeles.

3 comments:

  1. I agree this movie felt like it _could have_ been good, which makes it far more frustrating than enjoyable to me. Snyder needs a producer that can reign him in and help him shape his films into a more coherent, tighter experience rather than all of the mumbo jumbo (like in this film, with the 'robot zombie' stuff).
    And all of that says nothing about Snyder seemingly thinking "how can I cram as many iconic ALIENS plot points, situations, and dialogue into this zombie movie?!"

    I really wanted to like this film, and the open 15 or so minutes really had me: really, once the team was assembled and they entered the casino the film went rapidly downhill

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  2. I hope I didn't take your name in vain but I typed a fb response to Army of the Dead and then read your review. As I totally concur and can't fit it in a fb post I deleted mine and recommended they go here. Yours has less swearing in it. We can all agree the opening were mint though.

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  3. No opinion on the film, as I haven't seen it and very likely won't.

    Just a nice tidbit. When Snyder's "Dawn Of The Dead" remake was brought out in my adopted home country of France, it was distributed under the title "L'Armée des Morts" - literally: The Army of the Dead.

    Huh.

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