Directed by Zack Snyder
Written by Shay Hatten, Joby Harold, and Zack Snyder
It's just not fair: 2021 has given us the release of not-one-but-two-count-'em-two films by Zack Snyder, and this should have been a cause for extravagant joy for this poor reviewer, who counted himself a Snyder fan long before it was cool. Of course, this is how you get yourself disappointed: the first of those Snyder blockbusters was Justice League (Zack Snyder's Justice League, even), which earned praise, so far as I can determine, mostly by being slightly less pointless than Joss Whedon's Justice League. I did not blame Snyder for this, and still don't: I believe that Justice League was compromised early and could never have been truly fixed. Thus it was easy to assume that it represented a once-in-a-blue-moon mediocre effort in a body of work that had really never gone wrong otherwise, at least so long as the plagiarist auteur wasn't doing his own material, because even I'm not defending Sucker Punch.
Well, our second Snyder blockbuster of 2021 is Army of the Dead, and maybe you can figure out where this is going: here we find Snyder, for only the second time, working without the net of adapted material (he co-wrote the screenplay with nobody I've ever heard of, and has a "story by" credit all to himself), and in it we have a new contender for the title of Snyder's worst film. Or, if that's slightly too far (and I honestly do not know if it is, because at least Sucker Punch is, like, art), then still a truly awful movie, worthy of keeping Sucker Punch company in the bottom basement of its maker's career.
Army of the Dead—no relation to Snyder's well-regarded Dawn of the Dead remake—was born of one of the great hooks. It answers the question that anyone might ask themselves while seeing a movie disaster unfold. To wit: "what happened to the cash?" The disaster in Army of the Dead is heralded by the title, and the plot proper begins some long months after a zombie outbreak has rendered downtown Las Vegas a broken ruin. The outbreak was, at least, contained; the strip is now surrounded by a wall of shipping containers and watched nervously by paramilitary guards in the desert outside, who maintain a quarantine shantytown for those suspected of harboring the zombie plague. This brings us to Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), once a top-flight zombie-slayer, presently employed as a short-order cook, who this fateful day is approached by Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada), former proprietor of the Bly Casino. Tanaka's cash has just been sitting there the whole time, a fortune in untraceable money moldering in a vault and waiting for anyone bold enough to take it. Scott agrees to put together a team to retrieve Tanaka's millions, and Tanaka agrees, in his generosity, that whoever makes it out alive can keep half of it.
To Scott's team of mercs and thrillkillers is added Scott's daughter Kate (Ella Purnell), a volunteer who commutes into the quarantine zone—in case you somehow thought this movie might at least have a sensible first act—and who's barely spoken to Scott since he killed her (zombified) mother. She compels her old man to bring her along despite the gulf between them, and despite her lack of qualifications, in order to (she hopes) rescue friends who'd gone into Vegas on a lower-key version of the same kind of salvage mission Tanaka's put together. The wrinkle here is that time is not on their side, as the government has decided to put an end to the ongoing crisis by cleansing Vegas with nuclear fireworks for the Fourth of July. Meanwhile, when they do go in, they quickly learn that whatever the zombies were, they're more than just zombies now—hierarchical and organized, an army of the dead, you could say—and their king (Richard Cetrone) is not going to take any incursion into his kingdom lightly.
Well, somewhere between half and all of Scott's team don't matter, other than as zombie food who get chewed up in mostly boring or illegible let's-plays of a lousy first-person shooter. The film makes an argument that Scott and Kate matter; this is true in the sense that they have stilted, momentum-halting conversations about father-daughter feelings that are either clichéd, ineffective, or both (usually both), which in their time-wasting, wheel-spinning emptiness serve as an agonizing unintentional reminder for the audience that there's supposed to be a nuclear bomb heading their way. I shall not drag you through the rest of this gray ensemble, though a cast list would be a handy way to reflect the most fundamental aspect of Army of the Dead, which is that by any metric (including "Zack Snyder movie") it is far too long for what it is, and while things kick off with a sprightly pace that's downright startling—Scott's very first lines of dialogue are him agreeing to undertake Tanaka's mission—it bogs down obscenely into something like a solid hour of introducing a cast of one-note and no-note characters, amounting to a bunch of indistinct mission-movie dickheads, who manage to be "colorful" in any useful sense in literally just the single case of Dieter, the safecracker (Matthias Schweighöfer). That's because he's the sole character with an exploitable skill besides marksmanship, and the only one with something akin to a personality, in that he can be an amusing Eurotrash stereotype from the 1990s when the script is there to support it, which is still only very occasionally.
As that suggests, Army of the Dead often awkwardly flirts with being a character-based comedy. Perhaps it does more than merely "flirts"; it's just the vast majority of its jokes and characters aren't funny. These are excruciatingly dull figures, either way, from the hero down to the featured extras, and even the one-note ones' one notes largely stop getting played before the midsection. (Arguably the most interesting aspect of their endless introductions is the opacity of Scott's process for determining the wildly divergent shares he intends on awarding them. Obviously, not enough people will survive for this to ever come up later.) Meanwhile, in between their endless introductions, we get exposition about a world redefined by the existence of zombies that mainly serves to be confusing. Eventually, at about the hour mark—that is, by the time any "zombie heist thriller" should be about forty minutes away from ending—this zombie heist thriller begins.
But then, is that even what we want to call it? It's been sold as Ocean v Zombies, but I'm not sure Snyder meant it to be. It openly knocks off a lot of things—there's Aliens, obviously (including several near-verbatim visual and dialogue quotes, and Aliens' already-kinda-dumb "if we weaponize the wild animal that dies when bullets hit it, we'll make billions!" subplot makes even less sense here). It also feints heavily towards Mattheson's I Am Legend. But if you told me Ocean's 11 wasn't an influence, I could believe you: the phrase "zombie heist thriller" raises expectations Army of the Dead isn't remotely interested in meeting.
Alternatively, that's just a consequence of its most salient quality as a storytelling vehicle, which is that it's a high concept that became a motion picture with no obvious process in between. It would presumptively like to be considered as a compendium of genre ideas, but that's the thing: none of these sketchy doodles actually are ideas. The smart zombies—which, incidentally, means that instead of Romero ghouls you've basically just got vampires—is the closest it gets to "an idea," and it's just tantalizing enough in its vaguely-expressed details to be really annoying that it doesn't subvert things more than it does. (For example: a zombie smart enough to figure out that steel helmets stop bullets should probably be smart enough to figure out that guns shoot bullets.) The anemic heist at least gets a nice little Snydery music montage climax due to a number of implausibly-contrived screenplay elements coming together to justify some Wagner. But otherwise? There's a martial arts zombie for five seconds. There are apparently, like, robot zombies (?!) that I had to be told were in the movie (I just thought the CGI was wonky, which it is). There's a white Siberian tiger zombie, the subject of several irritatingly self-congratulatory lines of dialogue, like this was the greatest quasi-idea ever thunk up by the human brain. Sadly, there's neither zombie Siegmund nor zombie Roy.
Whatever interesting and unique thoughts Snyder and his co-writers had about this particular setting, their world-building, their characters, or anything, these are contained almost entirely within a customarily-great Snyder credits montage, playing a slowed-way-down cover of "Viva Las Vegas" across a collection of images that combine po-faced gravity, bleak humor, and the strange but keenly-felt emotional delicacy that this director practically always brings to his credits sequences. This one promises a kitschier sense of fun than his worshipful superhero joints; it has the distinct feeling of a tween kid smashing action figures across a playset. (Also, in one memorable shot, small children. Also an Elvis.) Those opening credits are everything you'd have wanted Army of the Dead to be, and, tragically, they're what Army of the Dead never is again. It's a coincidence that I would've watched them in the same 48 hours, but the immensity of the waste Army of the Dead makes of Las Vegas was clarified by, of all things, Honey, I Blew Up the Kid—yes, seriously. As another movie that deals in sci-fi chaos on the Vegas strip, it does not, as Army of the Dead very much does, decide that Vegas would be best presented in broad daylight with all its landmarks pre-wrecked. Snyder puts his zombie queen in a showgirl outfit; that's something. His zombie king, on the other hand, is basically just Danzig. (And it's a small thing, but they move like completely differently creature types.)
If the opening is the last time it feels like a movie animated by cool ideas, it's also the last time it feels like a movie, period. This is where we go from "stupid, but it's Zack Snyder" to "stupid, but this is largely unrecognizable as the work of one of the great stylists working in American cinema, or, frankly, of an actual professional filmmaker." For Army of the Dead, Zack Snyder, A.S.C. (I am being so fucking sarcastic), elected to serve as his own cinematographer. This is not unprecedented: he did this earlier for the added-on last thirty minutes of his Justice League. I assumed what he was pursuing there with shallow depth of field was the spiritual ugliness of a future so ruined by the Anti-Life Equation that only an out-of-focus Joker at his most wet and grotesque could still comprehend it. It was still very wearying, and one of the reasons I don't especially like Justice League.
He pursues it in nearly every shot in Army of the Dead, for two and a half unholy hours. It's terrible despite being on purpose—it's too bad to not be on purpose. And so virtually every shot features figures emerging into or receding out of an impossibly thin focal plane, which would seemingly dictate an over-reliance on close-ups—ugly, awful close-ups with heads floating around, sometimes with bodies melting away—and it does, but less than you'd think, because he's happy to do it in medium shots, too. I won't say it absolutely never works: there's a few interesting blips where it amplifies the horror by suggesting Snyder's creatures are simply too terrible to contemplate. There's even a kind-of-great shot with the zombie queen that uses this as a Dean Cundey Halloween gambit taken to an absurdist extreme. This is also one shot out of, like, two thousand, including, on the other end of the scale, an insane piece of filmmaking where Kate gets off a bus and is edited so that she never actually enters the focal plane at all, so it's a half-second of a blue-white-and-brown blob meandering around in some hideous lower dimension. (The kicker is the call-out to Snyder's customary actual cinematographer, Larry Fong, appearing as a stage magician on a billboard amidst the Vegas ruins.)
And that's what just kills me: a Snyder film is a Snyder film not just for an attitude (and this one still only feels like a simulacrum of that), but for his beautiful and iconic imagery of heroes and villains, violence and visions. Maybe Army of the Dead never had a chance to be anything besides boring and bad, but looking this distractingly awful all the time? Coming from this director? It's inexplicable.