Whether or not Zack Snyder is capable of producing a thrilling, intense, frightening zombie movie isn’t really a matter of debate. We’ve already seem him do exactly that, after all, as the career that would eventually spiral around a director’s cut of Justice League began with a lean, vicious 2004 remake of George A. Romero’s seminal Dawn of the Dead. That was early Snyder, however, back when the director was just an unknown talent with a flair for visuals, hunger for success and no burden of “auteurship” to live up to. His Dawn of the Dead helped instill new life into the zombie genre, modernizing it alongside 28 Days Later with both nihilistic, satirical bite and gruesome potency. And so, it’s understandable for fans to be excited to see the director return to similar material some 17 years later, especially after being trapped in the gravitational pull of superhero cinema for so long. But what Snyder’s/Netflix’s Army of the Dead sadly reveals is a director with a personal brand and opulent filmmaking style that has undermined whatever vitality existed in this premise. Snyder is trying to do so much here that the whole thing practically collapses under its own weight, a victim of its own attempt at bombast and visual iconoclasm.
With a plot that’s initial structure is oddly reminiscent of last year’s similarly disappointing Train to Busan sequel Peninsula, Army of the Dead is nominally the story of Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), a father and mercenary/burger flipper who is wallowing in his own private shame following a disaster in which Las Vegas was overwhelmed by a zombie uprising. Now months or years later, Scott is contacted by a billionaire captain of industry (Mortal Kombat’s Hiroyuki Sanada) who tasks him with infiltrating the walled-off city in order to score the heist of a lifetime from a casino vault before Las Vegas is scheduled to be bombed off the face of the Earth by the U.S. government. Scott must therefore assemble the requisite heist team, accomplished via the typical, Rick and Morty-style “You son of a bitch, I’m in” sequences. Throw in an estranged daughter (Ella Purnell) with her own reasons for wanting to snoop around the zombie-infested Vegas, and you have the bones of a zombie action/heist/father-daughter reconciliation storyline.
Of course, if you presented most directors with that outline, they’d work it into a tight, 100-minute thriller, but Zack Snyder isn’t most directors. If there’s one thing that defines this guy’s modern work, it’s the pursuit of overwrought decadence and a seeming determination not to leave anything on the cutting room floor—perhaps that’s what you get after enough fans beg for so long that it results in a 4-hour cut of Justice League. Regardless, this somehow results in a 2.5 hour sprawl for Army of the Dead, which is perfectly indicative of the excesses that are on display. Does it give us ample time to get acquainted with our cast of mercs? It certainly does, although it also means we spend about an hour chatting with these people before they ever set foot in Vegas. Only Snyder would argue that all of this bloat was essential.
Granted, there are some standouts among the cast who do manage to make Army of the Dead engaging in spurts. Bautista is as likable an action star as exists in Hollywood today, bringing his unexpectedly soulful delivery to material that isn’t really worthy of it, in addition to having a few nice action scenes where he gets to play the powerhouse, ragdolling zombie stuntmen with glee and practicing John Wick-style gun kata on the fly. Another magnetic screen presence is French actress Nora Arnezeder, here playing a tough-as-nails “coyote” who specializes in smuggling humans in and out of the ruins of Vegas, channeling the suave capability of Mélanie Laurent in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. The film’s European ensemble is something of a mixed bag, as Matthias Schweighöfer’s German safecracker character is blessed with some of the script’s best lines of comedy, but is simultaneously referred to repeatedly as a “kid” throughout, despite the man being 40 years old.
Likewise, in the moments that Army of the Dead truly commits to zombie carnage (never moreso than in the musical opening sequence that heavily evokes the intro to Zombieland), it’s hard to fault Snyder and co.’s commitment to total grossout overkill. There are sequences here shocking in their sheer goriness—we’re talking Peter Jackson-level comic overkill, like a zombie being blasted into sticky red chunks in slow motion by a heavy-cal machine gun—that will have genre geeks guffawing at the chutzpah of everyone involved. Are those sequences dampened a bit by their overreliance on CGI, rather than buckets and buckets of fake blood? Perhaps, but the film’s commitment to splatter is still admirably intense and appreciably gross.
Perhaps unexpectedly, it’s other elements of the visuals that actually let Army of the Dead down, as an area you would expect to be a strength for Snyder instead becomes another arena in which he can’t seem to rein in his own impulses to constantly assert his influence. All his hands-on techniques result in a film that is more ugly, underlit and disjointed visually than it really should be.
Whereas in years past, Snyder’s films were so often lazily caricatured via an overreliance on slow-motion action sequences, here the director seems to have become obsessed by depth of field and focusing techniques, in a film where most of the techniques on display don’t even seem to serve any apparent purpose. A shallow focus is frequently used, blurring the edges of many shots, making casual introductory conversations between characters feel like something we’re observing through a hotel room peephole. Ostentatious rack focuses come totally out of nowhere, bringing entire shots from crisp, to blurry, and back again like someone accidentally leaned on a button. Frankly, it has the feel of a film student messing around with his camera, envisioning himself as the next Kubrick or Orson Welles, and it seems extra out-of-place in what is otherwise meant to be a silly, would-be blockbuster action movie. Far too many scenes leave the audience needlessly wondering if this is what having cataracts feels like, and the obsession with focusing techniques (and the drab color palette, which drains away the vibrant colors you expect from Las Vegas) combine to create a dour atmosphere that clashes with action that we’re presumably supposed to perceive as kinetic and fun. Few of these visual decisions are doing Army of the Dead any favors, and they leech the film’s most enjoyable moments of their strength.
Or in other words: Scroll back up to the top of this review and take another look at that image, one of the film’s official press screenshots. This is exactly how distorted and blurry most of the images are in Army of the Dead. To be clear: These choices are all 100% intentional on the part of Snyder, but they’re bolted onto a film that doesn’t justify any of them—they feel like tinkering sheerly for the sake of tinkering.
This is without even getting into a few of the more confusing, spoiler-esque plot elements that will have both Snyder’s fans and zombie devotees furiously debating in the weeks to come, following Army of the Dead’s release. There’s one seemingly major plot piece in particular that is handled in such an oddly subtle way that many viewers may literally miss it entirely, as it is perplexingly never acknowledged or noted by any of the characters on screen. Suffice to say, Snyder has already commented on/confirmed the existence of this particularly strange wrinkle in the film’s zombie lore, but anyone reading about it in advance would expect this particular revelation to be more, you know … important … to the story than it actually ends up being, which is “not at all.” Ultimately, it feels like a tidbit inserted into the film exclusively to give the director’s own fanboys something to endlessly theorize over in the few years it will likely take to film a sequel—breadcrumbs leading vaguely toward another script that hasn’t been written yet.
Army of the Dead was meant to be a rare, big-budget zombie action spectacle, a film that would presumably revel in its own silliness, embrace gory comedy and rely on the strengths of its charismatic leads. But the purity of its aim is muddled by its own director’s compulsive stretching of its limited story and embrace of filmmaking techniques that call so much attention to themselves that they constantly break the audience’s immersion in joyful, mindless entertainment. Buried somewhere within Army of the Dead, there’s probably a propulsive, funny, gross cut of this film to be found, but it would have to be coming from the Zack Snyder who made Dawn of the Dead, rather than the one who foisted Justice League upon us.
Director: Zack Snyder
Writer: Zack Snyder, Shay Hatten, Joby Harold
Starring: Dave Bautista, Ella Purnell, Omari Hardwick, Ana de la Reguera, Theo Rossi, Matthias Schweighöfer, Nora Arnezeder, Hiroyuki Sanada, Tig Notaro, Raúl Castillo, Huma Qureshi, Garret Dillahunt
Release date: May 21, 2021
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.