Movie Curiosities: Army of the Dead

Back in 2007, Zack and Deborah Snyder signed a first-look deal with Warner Bros through their Cruel and Unusual Films production shingle (now called “The Stone Quarry”). The deal was reportedly for two years at the time, but apparently went on for quite a bit longer. Ten years later, following the heartbreaking news of Autumn Snyder’s passing, WB promptly extended their first-look deal, allowing Zack Snyder more time to work on developing projects when he finally decided to return to filmmaking. I don’t know what happened to that first-look deal, but I can only assume the extension didn’t last long.

Ever since the infamous Snyder Cut of Justice League finally dropped, HBO Max and Netflix have been in a highly contentious bidding war, both of them vying for an exclusivity deal with Snyder. As of May 13th, it appears that no deal has been made yet. But given Snyder’s vocal displeasure with WB in recent months, spilling all sorts of tea with regards to their previous dealings — to say nothing of WarnerMedia’s humiliating merge with Discovery, only three years after the catastrophic AT&T buyout — I’d personally be very surprised if Snyder signed back on with HBO Max.

So here’s Army of the Dead, a Netflix release in which Zack Snyder presents a zombie heist thriller. It’s worth noting that while Snyder once again presents zombies that are mobile and animated — more like primal beasts than shambling ghouls — there’s otherwise no connection to his breakout 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake.

I might add that Netflix is apparently so desperate to appease Snyder that they already have an anime spin-off series in the works, and a prequel movie that wrapped production in December 2020. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Our premise begins with a military convoy, carrying highly volatile cargo out of Area 51. I won’t go into details about what goes wrong with the convoy, except to say that a fleet of heavily armored trucks was somehow blown to smithereens by an errant Oldsmobile. (Your tax dollars at work.) Anyway, the payload turns out to be an alpha zombie (named “Zeus” in the credits, played by Richard Cetrone) who kills or infects the remaining soldiers and turns his attentions to the nearest city: Las Vegas.

An opening credits montage later, and all of Vegas has been overrun by zombies. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the entire city of Vegas has been walled off, and the zombies have apparently been contained within the city limits. (One supposes that quarantine is that much easier in a city surrounded by so many hundreds of miles of desert.)

Though of course the walls haven’t been enough to keep certain idiots out of the city. For one thing, there are too many adrenaline junkies who want to go out and shoot some zombies for fun and social media glory. More importantly, it’s still freaking Las Vegas. There are still slot machines and cash registers and God knows how much money left for foolhardy looters.

Enter Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada), the multibillionaire owner of the fictional Bly’s hotel on the Vegas Strip. Tanaka left $200 million in his deserted hotel, and insurance has already paid that money back, but the cash is still waiting there and ready for the taking. All he needs is a team that’s ready and willing to go in there, get through the security countermeasures, and get out with the money.

(Side note: We’re explicitly told that Tanaka’s hotel has a pair of towers inexplicably named “Sodom” and “Gomorrah”. WTF?)

He goes to Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), a man who had the good fortune of rescuing the Secretary of Defense at some point in the zombie outbreak. Alas, Scott also had to personally kill his wife after she turned, and he’s on the outs with his daughter (Kate, played by Ella Purnell), who’s now a volunteer offering humanitarian aid to the refugees. Thus we meet Scott while he’s flipping burgers for a living, and of course he’s all too happy to put a team together for a few million dollars.

  • Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick) is another soldier like Scott, but he’s an artist with a buzzsaw and explosives.
  • Maria Cruz (Ana de la Reguera) is a mechanic who fancies herself a love interest for Scott.
  • Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer) is the wimpy safecracker.
  • Lilly (Nora Arnezeder) is the guide who shows our team how to breach and safely navigate the quarantine zone.
  • Martin (Garrett Dillahunt) is Tanaka’s dickish head of security, tagging along to help our team through the security measures of the hotel.
  • Peters (Tig Notaro, stepping in for the disgraced Chris D’Elia) is the getaway helicopter pilot.
  • Guzman (Raul Castillo) is a social media star known for killing zombies.
  • Theo Rossi and Samantha Win play disposable zombie fodder.

We have our team in place, but there’s a time limit. Congress just authorized the president to take the extraordinary measure of dropping a nuclear bomb onto Las Vegas, wiping the city off the map while eradicating the zombie plague. The nukes are set to fly within three days.

Matters are further complicated by Geeta (Huma Qureshi), a friend of Kate’s and a Vegas refugee. Geeta was last seen entering the Vegas city limits in a desperate attempt at getting money to support her two young children. Thus Kate insists on joining the team to look for Geeta, which means that now Scott has to look after the safety of his untrained, unequipped, estranged daughter.

The heist gimmick and the nuclear ticking clock both make for a solidly creative zombie movie premise. And it goes sour pretty much immediately.

First of all, Zack Snyder served as his own DoP here, and the resulting movie serves to prove why this is a bad idea. Between the aggressive shaky-cam, the impenetrable shadows, and the numerous shots that are obscured by shooting out of focus, huge stretches of this movie are borderline unwatchable. Within the very first minutes of the film, I was literally straining my eyes to get any idea of what I was looking at. Even worse, the visuals are so wretched that it’s often hard to keep the geography straight, something very important to action scenes in particular and any heist movie in general.

(Side note: I was amused to see a background joke in tribute to Larry Fong, a marvelous cinematographer who’s also an accomplished stage magician and a frequent collaborator with Zack Snyder. Where the hell was he when this film was in production, I wonder?!)

That said, the far bigger problem is that as soon as our team successfully breaks into the Vegas city limits, the film loses whatever novelty it had. There may still be a heist going on, but when the characters become more concerned with getting out of the city alive, the heist itself is almost an afterthought. It also doesn’t help that the characters are reduced to boilerplate zombie movie tropes in no time flat, and we’re barely given any indication of why these characters want or need to make it out alive with the money.

And no, I don’t care that these zombies are athletic. That doesn’t win Snyder any points for creativity when he and his legion of imitators drove that idea into the ground nearly twenty freaking years ago. And when one character raises the point that zombies might actually be better than humans because at least zombies aren’t covetous or treacherous… seriously, do I even need to explain why that’s bullshit logic?

With all of that said, it’s not like the entire movie is a wash. Though Anna and the Apocalypse (yes, I’m still reeling from how much I loved that movie, shut up) had a couple of novel gags involving disembodied zombie heads, this one takes the concept to a whole new level. I would also submit that any movie featuring a man getting mauled to death by a zombie tiger can’t be a complete waste of time. Ditto for a film with a climactic battle between a man and a zombie in a helicopter. Best of all, we’ve got a primary antagonist zombie (that would be the aforementioned Zeus) who wears a bulletproof helmet into battle. That’s the kind of stupidly awesome that I’m here for.

Even so, it’s hard to give the movie too much credit for those bright spots when it’s been so painfully bloated to two and a half hours. Any movie that leans this heavily on established zombie tropes and cliches (ie: cinematic shorthand) should’ve capped off at two hours, tops.

Furthermore, the pacing is laughably bad in spots. A colleague of mine introduced me to the concept of “coffee breaks”, in which the characters take a breather and talk candidly, letting each other (and the audience) know about what they’re going through and who they are. These moments are important, but there’s a time and place for them. With all due respect, maybe it’s not the best time for these characters to talk about their feelings while they’re scrambling to move $200 million in cash and they’re minutes away from dying in a goddamn nuclear blast.

Dave Bautista is the standout of the cast, here crushing every last opportunity to prove himself a far better actor than he’s ever been given credit for. And I had never even heard of Nora Arnezeder before this picture, but she can play a badass like nobody’s business. Sadly, nobody else in the cast registers as much more than featureless zombie bait.

Don’t get me wrong, as much as I like Ella Purnell and Garrett Dillahunt, the both of them were actively fighting against the script, struggling to make something new and memorable out of such tired archetypes and boilerplate dialogue. Moreover, while I genuinely like Tig Notaro and Hiroyuki Sanada (Though seriously, who doesn’t like Hiroyuki Sanada?), the both of them were kept so far removed from the heist that they barely got any screen time.

(Side note: Given the time, money, and effort that got put into erasing an alleged sexual predator from the movie, perhaps it’s a mercy that Peters’ screentime was so brief and the part went to a much better actor.)

As a rule, any movie that feels like a chore to sit through isn’t looking forward to a good write-up. And when I say that Army of the Dead was painful to sit through, I mean that it literally hurt my eyes. The shaky, darkly-lit, out-of-focus shots were such an eyesore that the simple act of trying to figure out what’s on the screen was often more trouble than it was worth. And honest to God, I wouldn’t have minded the predictable plot or the threadbare characters if the filmmakers had capitalized on that established audience shorthand to keep the film under two hours. As it is, the movie’s better points have been so thoroughly diluted that it’s nowhere near enough to justify sitting through this 150-minute flick.

Sorry, but there’s no way I can recommend this one. And if this is the big original IP that Zack Snyder wants to hang his hat on, then he’s in bigger trouble than we thought.

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