Army of the Dead is currently streaming on Netflix.
By Palmer Rubin
Army of the Dead is almost 2021’s most profound film, and I wish it leaned further into those instincts. Of course, the amount it does is miraculous given it’s Zack Snyder at the helm. As director, cinematographer, co-writer and co-producer, this is the Snyder-est Snyder to have ever Snyder-ed, and every trademark he has become infamous for is here in spades. Yet I get the instinct that his normal fanbase is absolutely going to hate this movie, while someone like me is going to be far more inclined to like it. I don’t think Snyder the director makes these decisions to make anyone mad, but the story of the man has become more famous than the works he creates. If you needed any more indication of how absolutely furious he is to have lost ten years of his life to a corporate IP, the film’s main antagonist sports a metal mask and a black cape, with powers beyond any other zombie.
By default, this is the best film Snyder has ever made, because it leans into every one of his strengths and very few of his weaknesses. The setup feels like a logline from the Shane Black era of spec scripts: combine the features of a heist movie and a zombie movie, voila! That’s essentially what you get on the tin, and I walked in fully expecting that to feel like a cheap gimmick. To my immense surprise, the two work together pretty soundly, to the point where you have to wonder why no one tried it before. This is the kind of reflexively self-aware movie that knows what you expect from both types of films but isn’t afraid to play into the tropes of both, layering them on top of each other. If this is an Ocean’s 11-style casino robbery, then there’s no need for stealth since everyone inside is a zombie. Right? Don’t be so sure.
Dave Bautista is the Snake Plissken character here, once a formidable action hero man who begins the film having lost everything and everyone, his immense strength nothing compared to zombie might. His wife is dead and fridged, Bautista having to kill her off to protect his daughter, who is now estranged from him. He works now as a short order cook at what is essentially the Krusty Krab in the desert. Someone knows how funny it would be to have Dave Bautista play Spongebob Squarepants on steroids, and Bautista leans fully into it. He’s often not given credit for how great of a dramatic actor he is (see: Blade Runner 2049), and he is by far the reason why this film is as surprisingly funny as it is. Snyder is not known for his humor, and yet there’s well-executed visual gags galore, most of which using Bautista and his command over his caustic wit to great effect. A particularly gut-busting gag plays out like Edgar Wright directing that one climatic shot from The Avengers, a badass fantasy sequence continually interrupted by people questioning whether or not that premise is realistic.
Bautista is contacted by a Mr. Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada, forced to bring back the 1980s trope of the evil Japanese billionaire, it’s reductive), who asks him to pull off the 200 million dollar heist inside a vault before the zombie infected city is nuked to kingdom come. He must assemble his team, as George Clooney once did exactly 20 years earlier, and get it out within the time limit. So now it’s a mix of Soderbergh, Romero and John Carpenter, a very strange mix of influences. Instead of a bomb in the neck, it’s the looming nuclear wasteland warned by very deadpan Starship Troopers-style news reports throughout the film. Of course, his daughter, played by Ella Purnell, will insist on going along to rescue a few “Las Vegas refugees” trapped in migrant camps and displaced from their homes. An assortment of characters will join her. Hence the tension and drama of the plot.
If you came for the action and the gore, you will get plenty of both. Freed of his corporate IP prison, Snyder can engage in as much of the old ultra-violence as he wants, and he does. What’s interesting is his choice on how to present his zombies: rather than being mindless beings, they have an entire alien society of their own within the casinos. That’s not a spoiler to say, and the ways it plays out makes the eventual blowout between zombies and humans have actual emotional stakes. These aren’t especially poignant stakes, and more serving as just enough motivation so that the eventual bloodbaths don’t feel unjustified. But giving the zombies themselves a collective character arc, albeit a pretty simplistic one, is a swerve most of them don’t take. Most stunningly of all, cinema’s most gleeful purveyor of restorative violence actually posits that the conflicts could’ve been avoided altogether if not for the greed of the most powerful among us.
Don’t confuse that as Snyder going full anti-capitalist, it is the barest of swings in that direction. But this is the last person you’d ever expect to take the kinds of swings he’s taking, even if the results end up feeling really uneven for the most part. I did enjoy myself, even if most of the cast is here to be dispatched in various gory fashions. This is a dumb movie that knows it’s dumb, but has a few surprisingly interesting nuances as it moves forward and the action ramps up. Does it have a zombie tiger just because? Of course it has a zombie tiger! And because it presents its silliest elements without the slightest bit of self-conscious shame, it ends up working. If only he’d brought this energy to the rest of his work before this point.
But I feel like his fanbase will hate it because there are no moral absolutes here and because their favorite characters aren’t there. I hope he does more like this, because it’s his strongest work yet. I’ve never been his fan before, but maybe I could become one, with time. It’s an uneven movie, but it’s a fun uneven movie, and it never compromises that. Sometimes you need cheese, this has it. And if you normally can’t stand his movies, you might actually get something out of this.
I give Army of the Dead a B.