Army of the Dead
Zack Snyder's latest falls into familiar mistakes
The zombie genre has had rollercoaster patterns over time, where it oversaturates the market, then is left to dust for a while, before revisited again. The early 2000s saw the rise of the genre again, with godfather George A. Romero revisiting his Night of the Living Dead franchise, and other directors making a splash such as Danny Boyle with 28 Days Later (2002) and Zack Snyder with a remake of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (2004). With the great and elongated success of The Walking Dead (2010-) on TV (and its various spinoff shows), zombies are once again overstuffing the entertainment market. Even so, that hasn’t stopped Snyder, after his recent exit from the equally oversaturated superhero genre, to revisit the undead in his latest, Army of the Dead (2021).
Army of the Dead finds the zombie outbreak only contained to a walled-in Las Vegas. We follow Scott (Dave Bautista) as he’s tasked with assembling a heist team to rob a vault in Vegas before the US government drops a nuclear bomb to wipeout the city.
For all the criticism Zack Snyder suffers, not having style in his films isn’t often heard. I was surprised at the lighter tone than he took compared to his work in the DCEU. Army of the Dead has a much more colorful and ridiculous feel that feels more akin to a work from James Gunn (with whom Snyder collaborated in his version of Dawn of the Dead) rather than the brooding Snyder. Army of the Dead looks appealing and garners a certain blockbuster airiness that makes for light viewing. However, as has happened with nearly every other Snyder work, he simply has too much content, threads, and ideas to stuff into one film.
Despite Army of the Dead being over two and a half hours long (the second longest zombie film ever), Snyder still cuts his characters short as he diverts his plot into infinite side-missions and the larger world he is crafting. As such we don’t have time to fully understand a seeming hierarchy within the zombie leadership, the multiple agendas that Scott’s crew has, or even their relationships and history. As a result everything feels rushed, leaving many deaths and decisions to appear shallow to viewers. Zombie films or projects that have triumphed have done so because of the constraints and claustrophobia that they place on their plot and characters. Many take place within a single building or location, where we have downtime and characters can develop. Snyder seems to have instead been looking to scale up these cliches with an entire city as the location and an army of characters instead, diluting everything as a result.
As far as the action, Snyder is able to produce some fun sequences (with his inevitable use of slow motion), and is able to insert impressive imagery: a pregnant zombie, a zombie riding a horse, a tiger zombie, etc. Even if all of those images had been previously brought to life in other films, their repetition in Army of the Dead is appreciated rather than scorned.
In the end, Army of the Dead falls into the same traps that Snyder has been tripping into over the past decade: overstuffing his films and not letting the plot and characters breathe. This overcomplication was largely solved when he was given free rein in Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021), which makes me wonder how long he will take to realize that his true medium is television.