Much like “Amityville” in which filmmakers will stick the name of the infamous New York village into the title of their movie in the hopes of profiting off the back of Stuart Rosenberg’s 1979 horror classic, the three word suffix “…of the Dead” has become the quickest, easiest and most gimmicky way to market your zombie film and the questionably unique take you think you have on the genre. From the UK’s Shaun… in 2004 to Japan’s One Cut… thirteen years later, cinema has an addiction to this tradition, a tradition to which Netflix is the latest conformist as they unleash unto the world Zack Snyder’s long gestating Army of the Dead.
Set in a world in which zombies haven’t managed to turn society into the post-apocalyptic hell-scape we’re so used to seeing, Army of the Dead attempts to merge the horror subgenre with the usually entertaining Hollywood heist. Las Vegas has been walled in from all angles and inside the undead rule the roost while the rest of the world continues uninterrupted. US capitalism continues as normal, ie, money talks, and where would there be a tonne of unguarded bank notes just waiting to be found? Vegas, of course! So it’s up to our heroes, led by Dave Bautista’s drably named Scott Ward (an ex-mercenary, obviously) to get in, get the money, and get out before the Government nukes Sin City to kingdom come.
Snyder’s career resurrection in 2021 is quite something. From his controversial exit of 2017’s Justice League, after years of almost sole responsibility for and critical disdain at the direction of the DCEU (at times known as “the Snyderverse”), through the aggressive fanboy twitter movement (#ReleaseTheSnyderCut), we somehow eventually reached a point in which the release of a four hour director’s cut earlier this year was met with critical approval; mild approval, but approval nonetheless. It would be almost inarguable at this point to suggest that Snyder has somehow ended up in a list of cinema’s most important 21st century auteurs. Love him or hate him his films generate discussion, intrigue and vitriol in a way which few others can manage on a blockbuster scale. When it comes to audience reaction, Snyder’s closest ally might actually be Danish provocateur Lars von Trier, but while von Trier is regularly working off a budget that barely crosses the $10 million mark, his American, superhero-loving contemporary plays much closer to $100 million – even just for reshoots – and he has the fans to justify it.
Going back to his roots – Snyder’s directorial debut was the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead – one would hope that the director and co-screenwriter would simplify his output and focus on getting the basics right; build an exciting and entertaining adventure from the ground up. Alas, that is not how things work in Netflix-land and once again their commitment to giving filmmakers as much freedom as possible leads to just as many problems as it does triumphs. For a start, at two and a half hours long, you could easily lose twenty five minutes or so with absolutely zero impact on the story. Similarly, Snyder has no idea how to get things cracking when it comes to the planning phase of his heist. Remember how much fun you had watching Clooney and Pitt banter their way through group meetings in Ocean’s Eleven? Or the infamous colours debate in Reservoir Dogs? None of that exists here. Sure, things pick up once the plan is put into action, but it’s a tiresome slog to reach that point (hint: it’s about fifty minutes into the movie, you won’t be missing much by jumping straight to it).
Thankfully there is a “but” and a pretty large one at that. It might be cliché to suggest that every teenage boy’s favourite director knows how to shoot action in a way in which everything is Cool with a capital C, but the fact is he so clearly does. Bautista gunning down hordes of flesh-eaters as he runs across blackjack tables? Cool. A tiger zombie on the prowl for dinner? Cool. A brainless member of the living dead aimlessly walking through several booby traps to clear a passage for our rag-tag group of bank robbers? Funny, but cool, cool, cool! Such is Zachary’s infatuation with everything looking as idealised as possible, that even the blood soaked zombies are hot; the man simply cannot get his head around the idea that somebody who doesn’t work out twelve hours a day could be interesting or entertaining. Good guys have muscles, they smoke and wear sunglasses – simple, but effective.
As much as we like to think that using these movies to explore political or cultural ideas is commonplace, that is not the case here. George A. Romero may have set the bar far too high, but Army of the Dead is simply not willing to step up to the plate and even try to play ball. There are discussions about internment camps being used to hold political prisoners and an odd cameo from former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, but none of it goes anywhere once we land inside the city and set off on the mission. After that, it’s “shoot zombies, get cash” and you’re forced to essentially turn your brain off if you want to enjoy it. An attempt to paraphrase Aliens classic line, “you don’t see them f*cking each other over for a goddamn percentage” falls flat and will draw out more drones than cheers, but it’s not important; all that is important is “shoot zombies, get cash”.
Army of the Dead is not anything new, but it is evidence that style can effectively paper over a lack of substance if you know where the cracks are. Snyder isn’t offering a solution to the violence of man or an opinion on the political state right now, he’s giving you the chance to watch people shoot zombies in order to get some cash. It’s the perfect Saturday night movie; stick it on with some friends, grab some popcorn and talk your way through it – if a gun isn’t going off, you don’t need to pay attention.
Available on Netflix now