Thursday, July 18, 2024

‘Army of the Dead’ is Explosive and Messy

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Army of the Dead is unfettered Zack Snyder. It is just as scrambled and shallow as any of his other offerings as a piece of artistic expression. But from a purely technical standpoint, it seems like the perfect movie for an audience eager to return to theaters.

However, if you’re not a Snyder fan, Army of the Dead will do little to sway you to the other side. I won’t deny grinning like a fool upon hearing that Snyder was making a zombie heist movie starring Dave Bautista. Love him or hate him; it’s the type of movie that sounds precisely in Snyder’s wheelhouse.

The problem is Snyder remains one of the foremost cinematic virtuosos with little to no understanding of the things he purports to think about. He is the living embodiment of the line from Inherit the Wind, “Do you ever think about the things you do think about?”

To his credit, despite the film’s exasperating runtime, the first half flies by so fast you almost don’t notice it. It’s during this period where we are reminded precisely how gifted a visual storyteller Snyder is. The opening title sequence, while long, gives us more story and world-building information in such a short amount of time that other modern blockbusters should be blushing in shame.

Suffice to say, no matter my qualms with him, Snyder remains the king of opening credits, which may sound like a backhanded compliment, but I assure you it’s not. He treats the opening credits as part of the movie proper and not just time to kill to let the audience find their seats.

He also shot Army of the Dead himself, making Army of the Dead all the more pure and unadulterated Snyder. The man knows how to set up a frame composition, and I admire his commitment to experimenting with the depth of field and how he plays with camera focus to help drive the narrative home. Often his camerawork is so good that the soundtrack feels almost redundant and adds to the bombastic aesthetic that has become synonymous with the director’s name.

Dave Bautista as Scott is a perfect leading man for something like this. His wrestling days have taught him how to get an audience on his side quicker than almost any actor alive. We can’t help but root for the big lug who we suspect to have a gentler side.

Scott is hired by the flamboyant billionaire Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) to break into his casino and steal the money from his vault. You see, all the zombies are trapped in Las Vegas, walled off, to keep the zombies from infecting the rest of the country. The government plans on nuking Vegas on the 4th of July, a few days away. Since Scott, a one-time military man, is flipping burgers at a rundown burger joint, he jumps at the chance to steal 200 million dollars.

He gathers a team together. Some like Vanderhoe (Omari Hardwick) and Maria (Ana de la Reguera) are from his days in the military. Others like Mikey Guzman (Raul Castillo), a YouTuber who shows off his marksmanship by killing zombies, are recruited because of their eagerness and willingness to jump into the fray.

Of course, the most talked-about aspect of Army of the Dead has to be Tig Notaro as Marianne, the off-kilter, sarcastic helicopter pilot. For those who love Notaro, rest assured, she steals every scene. If anything, people unfamiliar with Notaro will leave wanting to see more of her, which if anything, is a net positive.

The last person recruited is my least favorite, an eccentric, socially awkward safe cracker Ludwig (Matthias Schwigofer). It seems unfair to single out a character in a Snyder film for being one-note, but of all the characters in Army of the Dead, Ludwig is the one-note-iest. This is saying something considering Scott’s daughter, Kate (Ella Ward), seems to exist solely to make bad decisions and create more problems.

Bly, of course, sends one of his own along with the crew, Martin (Garret Dillahunt), as a chaperone of sorts. This leads to, of course, the immediate realization that the money isn’t what Bly is after but something else. Dillahunt, a reliable character actor, has a way of standing in just the right way to make an audience distrust him on sight.

I haven’t mentioned the zombies, if only because they were the least exciting part to me. However, the script by Snyder himself, Shay Hatten, and Joby Harold try to reshape the zombie paradigm. Much like the Zombieland movies, they try to create a variety of zombies.

Shamblers, are what they call the more traditional zombies—the slow walking braindead kind from the old George Romero and Lucio Fulci movies. But the original zombie, the one who started it all, is an Alpha and has created a separate class of zombies, more intelligent and more strategic.

For all their talk about the differences between the zombies, the only real difference is that the Alphas seem more aware. They have leaders and seem to have found a way to breed and also communicate. 

The crew comes up with an airtight plan that, of course, begins to unravel almost immediately. Characters double cross and triple cross, sometimes offscreen and without our knowledge, throughout the film. The weakest parts being sincere attempts at melodrama which fall flat. 

One scene, a flashback, shows Bautista’s Scott stabbing his wife through the top of her skull after she’s turned. Only to have their daughter, Kate, come out of the bathroom just at the moment of impact. The moment is meant to show the tragedy that hunts both Scott and Kate and the harsh reality of the new world. Instead, it had me roaring with laughter in how it was staged like something out of a CW show minus the skull stabbing.

These characters aren’t designed to have feelings and depth. They’re designed to kill zombies or be eaten by them. Oh, and if they can crack a safe to make their getaway with oodles and oodles of cash.

The script does a great job combining the zombie and heist genres so effortless it makes us wonder why this doesn’t happen more often. But the script, as is so often the case with Snyder, is the weakest part. The result is that the imagery Snyder tries so hard to craft is undercut by the story being told from scene to scene.

For example, Chambers (Samantha Win), a woman who joins the crew with Mikey, is a clear homage to the character Vasquez from Aliens. She is the first to die. By itself, there’s nothing wrong with this; this is a zombie movie, after all. 

But that she dies because she rebuffs the flirtatious skeevy advances of Martin is the real problem. He tricks her into walking into a hibernating swarm of shamblers. To make such a blatant homage to a strong woman character only to kill her for essentially telling a guy to f-off is, at the very least, cruel.

Snyder contains multitudes. Army of the Dead includes more Latinos in its cast than any American-based film from a not Latino director that I’ve seen in a long while. He even makes commentary on border camps with immigrants being forced into quarantine zones outside of the Vegas walls. There’s a corrupt ICE agent, Burt, played to slimy perfection by Theo Rossi. 

Lily (Nora Arnezeder), known as the Coyote, ferries people in and out of Vegas to hack into the slot machines to pay their way out of the camps. I mention this because it is apparent that Snyder is troubled by the immigration crisis at the border and our treatment of the refugees.

But then there’s the cameo by former Trump Press Secretary Sean Spicer as part of a news panel arguing about nuking Las Vegas. Now to give some perspective, Spicer is playing himself, a conservative, arguing against Donna Brazile, former head of the Democratic National Committee about the treatment of the undocumented and the nuking of Vegas.

Later we learn that the president has moved up the bombing of Vegas, complicating our heroes’ plans even more. The President is quoted in his defense of the July 4th bombing as saying it would have been “…really cool and the ultimate fireworks show.”

I get it. Snyder got Spicer to play himself advocating things he actually advocated for in a corrupt administration while implying the president in the movie was his actual former boss all while giving us a super-stylized, genre-bending movie. Except at what point do we stop doing this? At what point do we stop perpetuating that this is all okay?

Spicer was a mouthpiece not only for a fascist administration but also for inhumane and unconscionable treatment of undocumented peoples. To have him be in the movie that claims to show the horrors of this and how we as Americans treat our own, even if it’s to show him arguing for something he probably would in real life, is ignorant at best and shameless both-sides-ism at worst.

It’s a minor point. But it soured most of the movie for me. It stuck in my craw because abandoning all your beliefs, and supporting those who have helped those in power commit crimes against humanity simply to enjoy a two-and-a-half-hour self-indulgent zombie fest, is not worth the price of a ticket or streaming subscription. 

Army of the Dead is fun for the most part and exposes Snyder’s shallow and sloppy intellectualism. I admire the man and respect him for being one of the few actual filmmakers to understand that style is meant to be fun and subtlety is for the birds. 

I just wish I liked his work more. 

As it is, this is arguably one of his better efforts. But I left the film with a bitter taste in my mouth. Call me unfair, tell me I suffer from Trump-derangement syndrome, I don’t care. Yes, it was only a few seconds, but a few seconds rehabilitating a fascist mouthpiece all in the sense of “he’s in on the joke too” or whatever reason short of hauling him to court is more than I can stomach.

Image courtesy of Netflix

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