Army of the Dead (2021)

Thanks to the post-production remodeling of the mythical “director’s cut” of Justice League for HBO Max, there has been a ton of online critical reclamation of Zack Snyder’s artistry this year.  The “It’s pretty good, actually!” consensus on The Snyder Cut has earned him the same “vulgar auteur” status previously bestowed upon filmmakers like Tony Scott, Paul WS Anderson, and Michael Bay – real meathead types.  Personally, I’m not seeing the vulgar genius of Snyder’s work, at least not in relation to his absurdly expensive Justice League revision.  That 4hr superhero epic registered with me as the pinnacle of plot obsession in contemporary cinema, getting so mired in the connective tissue between action sequences that it transcends the medium altogether by becoming Television.  The Snyder Cut couldn’t be faulted for being erratic or messy like the previous edit of Justice League, but in smoothing out all rough edges on that compromised vision, Snyder created a pure-plot experience completely devoid of recognizable humanity or imagination. I almost admire The Snyder Cut for pushing the modern superhero picture to its obvious endgame (a $400mil TV miniseries), but I might just be telling myself that so that I feel like I got something out of the time investment.  Either way, it’s interesting as a cultural curio but aggressively mediocre as entertainment media, so that the director is only worth engaging with for the hype he inexplicably generates.  It’s less that the emperor wears no clothes; it’s that I don’t understand why everyone’s so ecstatically complimenting the emperor’s Ed Hardy t-shirt.

Even with my Snyder Cut skepticism still festering as an open wound, I can at least admit that 2021 has been a career-restorative year for the director in other ways.  His new straight-to-Netflix zombie epic (everything he makes is a dialed-to-11 epic) isn’t exactly a whiplash-inducing return to form after the exhaustion of Snyder Cut discourse, but it’s still a charmingly goofy, mildly entertaining follow-up.  I’ll take it.  Army of the Dead is easily Zack Snyder’s most enjoyable movie since his Romero-homage debut Dawn of the Dead (penned by James Gunn, who turned out to be the more talented voice in the room), by which I mean it’s Passably Okay.  It appears that the zombie flick is the only appropriate fit for Snyder’s obnoxious blatancy, from his boneheadedly literal soundtrack cues to his exhausting emphasis on every single scene as the most Epic, all-important moment ever.  Army of the Dead surely would’ve landed with more impact and novelty in the nu-metal aughts, when Snyder’s previous action-horror felt like a breath of fresh air.  It’s starting to become adorable that he’s somehow still stuck in that long-putrid era, though.  He’s been hacking away at the same dirtbag Godsmack aesthetic for so long that it’s pushed past tacky to become full-on kitsch.  I understand the temptation to reclaim him as a misunderstood genius in that context, if not only because it’s a funny gag.  In practice, though, his movies are way too draining to be worth the small flashes of enjoyment you can glean from them, even when they’re Passably Okay overall.

Dave Bautista stars as a superhuman burgerflipper who has survived the zombie apocalypse by laying low working the grill at a greasy diner.  He’s approached by a shady casino owner who hires him to break into the quarantined city of Las Vegas and recover an abandoned vault full of untraceable cash, guarded only by hordes of cannibal corpses roaming the otherwise empty streets & gambling halls.  From there the movie is a blend of militant zombie-shooting action horror and a self-amused heist film.  As those two genres run in tandem, there’s all the assembling-the-team montages, first-person video game gore, disastrous getaways, and witty interpersonal banter (mostly notably delivered by Tig Notaro as the resident wiseass) fans of either side of the divide could hope for.  And then there’s more.  And then more.  And more.  Army of the Dead‘s 148min runtime is an outright war crime, dulling all its genre-blending, Vegas setting fun with at least an hour’s worth of superfluous material that should have been lopped off in the editing room.  Like 2004’s Dawn of the Dead, the film peaks during its opening credits, which squeezes in an entire zombie movie’s worth of exposition into a concise, bite-sized morsel of a montage (set to a Richard Cheese song, another Dawn of the Dead callback).  It’s the only part of the movie that could be considered concise, considering how unnecessarily weighed down and laborious everything that follows feels.  There’s a fun 90min movie buried somewhere in this macho, self-important excess, but Zack Snyder does not make those kinds of movies.  Pity.

If we can have a years-later Snyder Cut revision of Justice League, I think we also deserve an Un-Snydered cut of Army of the Dead.  I’m not saying we need to toss out all his unashamed meathead tendencies, where the initial zombie breakout is caused by roadhead and the years-later evolved zombies are referred to as “Alphas.”  Keep all the Gym Bro action horror you want, just make the damned thing zippier.  There’s a stripped down, streamlined, self-contained movie in here that absolutely rules, but you have to squint real hard through the Hoobastank fog to see it.  Snyder needs someone to push back on his All-Out Epic tendencies, especially when it comes to explaining each and every baby step in the plot.  Instead, like with The Snyder Cut, he’s allowed to turn the modern zombie movie into modern zombie television, something we’re all sick of after 29 seasons of The Walking DeadArmy of the Dead is already greenlit to spin off multiple prequels and animated side plot series on Netflix, the same way The Snyder Cut reconfigured Justice League into a 4-hour made-for-TV miniseries.  That mode of literal-minded, plot-obsessed Epic filmmaking is not some vulgar stroke of auteurist genius in the modern media landscape.  It’s just how big-budget “movies” are made now in a post-MCU world.  At least this one has its moments.

-Brandon Ledet