In Your Heads They’re Still Fighting: Army of the Dead

If you’ve read any of my reviews for this site, you’ll know that I love overstuffed movies. I am a maximalist in my art and my life, and there’s nothing I enjoy more than watching an artist reach further than they should, put too many things in a film, run screaming down tangents. What is art’s purpose if not to express all of life?

But having said that… in the case of Army of the Dead, I think Zack Snyder should have pulled back, streamlined, and taken at least one plot thread out of the movie. I’m not a huge fan of his work, but I am always interested in the latest takes on the zombie genre (zombre?), so I went into the movie with high hopes. And I did like parts of it! But overall, I don’t think it works.

I’m going to break the review into well-demarcated non-spoiler section and  light-spoiler section. Think of the bolded text as a wall keeping the zombies in and you out.

 

No Spoilers here!

Army of the Dead

Screenshot: Netflix

Let’s start with the good! The heist aspect of this movie is fun as hell. Dave Bautista plays Scott Ward, a fry cook who acted heroically during the initial wave of zombie invasion, and is tapped to lead an infiltration/heist inside the zombie-ruled Las Vegas. The opening scenes of Ward gathering his team are great, and the members themselves are unique and hilarious. As usual in Snyder’s films, the movie is diverse without making a big deal about it, the women get to do as much cool action shit as the guys, and there’s plenty of implied queerness.

The acting is uniformly great. Everyone is equally committed to wrangling zombies and dealing with the heightened emotions of surviving in a zombocalypse. Bautista is an excellent emotional center for the film. There’s also a surprising amount of humor? Not just riffs on previous horror films, but excellent performances from Omari Hardwick as the philosophical Vanderohe, Matthias Schweighöfer as safecracker Ludwig Dieter, and Tig Notaro as helicopter pilot Marianne Peters, with Schweighöfer especially taking a slightly clichéd role as an eccentric genius and giving it more facets than it needs. Maybe best of all is Samantha Win, who gets a blistering action sequence that rivals the Daredevil Season One Hallway Fight in my personal action pantheon.

Speaking of, overall the action is fantastic. This is a zombie movie, and what you want are lots of interesting/horrifying fights with zombies, right? AotD delivers this for the most part. Snyder lets things get really icky a few times for comic effect (best use of a microwave ever?), but he’s just as willing to give us some visceral horrifying zombie attacks. The zombies are pretty good, not really anything groundbreaking but effective.

Tig Notaro rocks the exact look I’m planning to adopt all summer.

Now on the less good stuff… as I said above, there are simply too many plots. Some of the action is too blurry and chaotic to land as well as it should. Snyder also uses a distracting focusing effect that blurs the edges of the screen sometimes. Like a lot of Snyder’s films, this sucker runs over two hours, and it really didn’t need it. The strongest part of the movie is the heist, and if he’d leaned into that rather than adding threads about Ward’s emotional arc and zombie-based PTSD the film would have been a lot stronger. And as this is a zombie movie, there are politics—but I don’t think Snyder weaves them in terribly well. Like you can tell that Romero’s put a lot of thought into what his zombies mean, and I did not get that sense here. And yes, maybe that’s an unfair comparison, but Snyder’s choosing to play on Romero’s playground, and given that you have to either commit or leave the politics out entirely. I’ll deal with this a little more in the Light Spoiler section.

I think overall the film’s length made it a little sloppy toward the end, with the now-common problem of the movie having four or five different points when it could have ended, but just keeps going, which ends up blunting the horror.

 

Light Spoilers!

Army of the Dead

Screenshot: Netflix

About that implied queerness: I mean obviously there isn’t much time for people to declare their love while they’re fighting zombies—except that there are multiple points where Ward attempts to reconcile longstanding emotional arcs in-between fighting zombies. So maybe the film could have made more of the moments when it seemed queer love was about to bloom in the time of zombocalypse. But having said that, AotD has a little of the same bi energy that the Fast & Furious movies do, where there’s lots of equal opportunity eye candy and everyone seems pretty accepting. I just wish it had gone a little further.

About Tig Notaro: Tig is perfect. The only problem being that I’ve looked her character’s name up like twelve times and I still can’t remember it ’cause every time she was onscreen my brain just yelled “TIG!” Apparently Snyder spent millions of dollars to add her into the movie digitally to replace another comic, but I had actually missed the part that it was digital? I thought it was just a reshoot? And at no point did I realize it was post-production or notice anything visually weird. BUT, I have seen a few other people complain about noticing it, so I guess ymmv. The important thing to me is that her character is a hardened, deadpan, steel-eyed mercenary and neither she nor the movie try to make any apologies for that, and it’s fun AF.

Army of the Dead

Screenshot: Netflix

About Valentine: The best part of the movie! Valentine is a ZOMBIE TIGER. She was one of Siegfried and Roy’s, though she’s actually based on one of Carole Baskin’s tigers in the weirdest Netflix crossover ever. She is perfect, and gets one particularly satisfying sequence toward the end of the film.

Music Cues: A quick ranking of some of AotD’s music cues (and I leave you to discover whether “Hallelujah” shows up again):

8. “Zombie” (Acoustic Cranberries version)
This song is about the 1916 Easter Rebellion and the Troubles in Ireland. Come on.

7. Götterdämmerung WWV Act III Scene 2: Siegfried’s Trauermarsch
I expected it to play exactly when it played, and then it played exactly when I expected it.

6.“Bad Moon Rising” (Thea Gilmore cover of John Fogerty)
If there had been just this, and not this PLUS a slowed-down creepy take on “The End”, I’d be into it.

5. “The End” (Raveonettes cover of The Doors)
If there had been just this, and not this PLUS a slowed-down creepy take on “Bad Moon Rising”, I’d be into it.

4.“Viva Las Vegas” (Richard Cheese cover of Elvis)
Obligatory, but that doesn’t mean Snyder has to actually do it. And I’m not still sure if I like using Mr. Cheese more or less than an original. If it was 2003 I’d be all over this, let me assure you.

3. “Night Life” (Elvis version)
This one is fun and used effectively as zombies are machine-gunned. I’m a person of simple pleasures.

2.“Suspicious Minds” (Elvis version)
Part of me is like, This is way too on-the-nose, what with the heist and inevitable double-crosses? But I like this song.

1. Do You Really Want to Hurt Me (Elevator music version)
Excellent, no notes.

Politics: This is a zombie movie, and politics are gonna come up. And this is where my actual frustration with the film comes in.

As I said above, Snyder is telling a story in a playground that George Romero built. And George Romero’s film were pretty openly political. He said, later in his life, that he hadn’t intended Night of the Living Dead to be a metaphor for the Civil Rights movement of the ‘60s, but even leaving aside the ending, casting a Black man as a hero and pitting him directly against a conservative white dad who turns survivalist and ends up being et by his own daughter is, let’s be real, a statement. And that’s before we get to Dawn of the Dead, which in my opinion is one of the greatest depictions of the U.S./capitalism/Vietnam/class issues/you name it of the 20th Century.

I don’t think his later films were quite as strong, but Day of the Dead built on zombie mythology in cool ways, and Land of the Dead had interesting commentary on George W. Bush-era political issues.

But now, AotD somewhat tries to build on that foundation, and gets horrifically muddled. When you’re trying to create a film that maybe comments on current events—you have a deadly virus, a military coverup, a camp full of quarantined refugees that are being used as political hacky sacks, and you set the whole dang thing in Las Vegas, the City of Sin itself—but then you hire (and presumably PAY), Sean Spicer, a man who held a platform of immense power, who lied to the public repeatedly, who attempted to spin the actions of a corrupt administration so that a credulous public wouldn’t know how bad things were, and you hire this man for a cameo in your film that’s supposed to be some sort of funny wink? A wink that instead, if you don’t mind me dipping into Fulci for a moment, feels like being stabbed in the eye?

At least Snyder doesn’t have him call the quarantine camp a Holocaust Center.

Snyder doesn’t commit to the political angle he’s trying to develop and it ends up feeling like one more shredding plot thread on top of all the emotional reconciliations and double-crosses. There’s no weight to this part, and I have to say that if he’d just stuck with his heist plot and made this a slapstick/horror/heist, I’d be recommending this movie wholeheartedly. All the stuff with the team coming together, the shady businessman, the model building, the planning, it’s all hilarious and fun. But for once, the political angle of the zombie movie just doesn’t land.

Snyder also references zombie love and pregnancy (a topic done better/grosser by Peter Jackson in Dead Alive) and I admire the attempt, but again, if he wanted to deal with it, he needed to do a lot more worldbuilding.

Finally, and maybe this is just me, but can we please retire Vegas as the Sin City/Site of the Apocalypse? The Stand just did this, too, because it’s an adaptation of the King novel. And sure in the ’70s/’80s this worked great. But there is so much more evil shit going down in any gentrifying tech company than Vegas at this point. You want to create horror that’s commentary? Set it in a Tesla factory.

 

Spoilers Over!

Army of the Dead

Screenshot: Netflix

In the end, I think where I have to land is that if you’re a fan of Zack Snyder’s work, you’ll dig this. If you’re a zombie completist, you’ll definitely want to see this and look at how it fits into the whole canon. And if you’re a fan of Tig Notaro, she gets the best lines in the movie, a very tiny but fun characters arc, and steals every scene she’s in. But this movie was at least half an hour too long, and didn’t really do enough new stuff with the zombre for me to recommend it. If you’re a more casual horror or a heist fan, you’re better off rewatching Dawn or an Oceans movie.

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