Spoilers (but you should not care)
Is there some tacit assumption among makers and watchers of action schlock that they can be a little rough around the edges? After decades of proving that rule incorrect, with such incredible features like Aliens, Terminator 2, and John Wick, I think we can lay to rest this insipid idea. When Joker in Nolan’s Dark Knight proclaims that Gotham deserves “a better kind of criminal,” yes, he’s talking to organized crime’s lustful desires for cheap booze and stacks of cash. But it’s also a shot across the bow for blockbuster movies. Do they have to represent Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, or rest on the laurels of what they take to be their lazy audience? When the John Wick series blends Wick’s backstory with a stage of ballet dancers, it suggests that action is choreography, which means it is a sort of dance: like dance, action can be a high art if we allow it. And there are enough cases in cinema that we should have a sharper eye for action done right.
Which is why Army of the Dead is beyond terrible.
It should come as no surprise to anyone paying attention that allowing Zack Snyder carte blanche to a film, writing, directing, and a director of photography, would be an insane idea. After several years of gaining a cult following, we seem to be pulling our punches on Snyder, despite his legacy producing unspeakably awful dialogue and action scenes which have little weight, ones that reuse the same slow-motion shot of a bullet leaving the chamber explosively from a gun. Somehow we have this idea that Snyder represents an outside rogue in the film industry, with his hands tied, preventing him from being the auteur we can all see he’s aching to be. That could not be further from the truth: Snyder produces the hollow action set-pieces that a movie theater crowds in to see. Unlike Michael Bay, I suppose he’s less leering. Barely any time is given to designing a Snyder film. These are filmed quickly, thought of on-the-spot, and have little of the forethought or detailed attention of the movies he riffs on.
Conceptually, Army of the Dead could work. A heist movie during a zombie outbreak may not be the first mashup a writer’s room would think of, but when you get right down to it, many heist movies operate in such a way as to be embedded in a public situation. Whether it is a casino or a bank, the public patrons exist as zombies of a kind, reproducing their own role as society that the heist members have to finagle between just as much as the locked doors and armed guards. Anybody who has played a Hitman game knows that public areas provide their own conflict, and it is no different here. It makes for a doubly fun premise. And can’t we can all conclude that zombie movies are never really just about zombies? They’re about capitalism, or a lack of abstract thought. They’re about war, or even about climate change. Should there be a movie that puts a heist and zombies together? The more you think about it, the more you nod along.
Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) is just another down on his luck blue collar worker, having fallen from grace after he is forced to mercy kill his wife-turned-zombie right in front of their young adult daughter Kate (Ella Purnell). Their falling out leaves Scott ambling away flipping burgers, until he’s contacted by Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada), an organized crime leader who has an obvious need to get something out of the dead zone. After a military convoy crashes, it leads to a zombie outbreak, leaving Las Vegas cordoned off by the military, and the President of the United States has a desire to nuke the place, essentially wiping it clean so the casinos can rise again. But Tanaka has some cash hidden away, and I suspect the United States Treasury and the Federal Reserve would not take kindly to reimbursing a crime leader with funds strictly off the books. He needs the money back, and Scott is hired for the job with the promise of a little slice of the pie. Each member of the heist team he hires is offered a strangely smaller sum of money for the job, but they find themselves agreeing because, hey, it’s a hard knock world. Maria Cruz (Ana de la Reguera) seems a little too excited to see Scott, and agrees to tag along. The money is tucked away in a stereotypically German safe, so Scott calls on the closest German he knows, Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer) promising to escort Ludwig in so that he may crack it. Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), Chambers (Samantha Win), and Mikey (Raúl Castillo) agree to be the muscle, while Tig Notaro (Marianne Peters) will fly them out as pilot. As if that were not enough characters for this ensemble, as the movie progresses, more and more people are added on: to make it through native land, you need a native, so enter Lilly “The Coyote” (Nora Arnezeder) who has unparalleled knowledge of zombie behavior. And, oh yea, Scott’s daughter Kate reunites with her father, only to demand that she go with them. I thought the movie was going to spend the entire runtime hiring people out, leaving us with the strange idea of shoving all the crazies from Las Vegas back in…
You can see the movie in your head, right? It seems cut and dry. While Snyder must have his montage in his opening credits to establish how the characters ended up before the movie begins, the rest of this film could have been open and shut. We’re given a layout of the city, where the characters must devise a way to maneuver between day and night, between the buildings and outdoors. Lilly, who understands the zombies better than anyone, could provide some context for what kind of zombies we’re up against, as we know the lore is full of variations. The muscle would get their own training, perhaps even getting young Kate up to speed, while also providing German weakling Dieter and cocksure pilot Tig some crash courses on self-defense. Scott and Maria, meanwhile, would be forced to liaison with Martin (Garret Dillahunt), Tanaka’s eyes on the ground, who he insists on having go with the crew. Martin says he’s the hardware guy. So, okay, let’s see some of that hardware, a kind of gadgets foreshadowing for what’s to come. All this is planned so that, once they enter the dead zone, we feel grounded in a heist that can be made adaptable once the zombies come in to muck everything up.
I spend a full paragraph here mentioning these concepts because, of course, none of this happens. I’m no director, but I’m creative enough to know what two genres are mixed here. This movie writes itself. And what is so shocking about Army of the Dead, is that it is not only the heist part of the film that is sacrificed, the zombie movie is as well. No logic is presented about what kind of zombies we are facing. So when, immediately after entering the zone, Lilly takes out a gun and shoots a lackey who jumped aboard the heist at the last minute (yea, I know, still another character), and makes a sacrifice to the sentient zombies, we are more than a little stunned. “We have to get inside,” she says. “I don’t want to parade our newfound safety around for too long.” We’re flummoxed, but it’s still the beginning of the second act. So once we’re inside, Lilly as Game Director says, oh yea, zombies are asleep, and they stay still unless they are roused, so we should stealthily walk past them. Our square-faced Martin, who is so obviously out for something other than Tanaka’s money, not only manages to throw a nightstick lighting their path into a separate branch of the building, but Chambers, who does not trust Martin, goes for it. The viewer has little explanation for why the characters end up so spread out to begin with, which is the catalyst for such an inane set piece, but what is more shocking is what happens later. Chambers, obviously, is unable to make it through her own path of zombies without spooking them awake. Somehow, impossibly, even after a second attempt by Martin to let her die by barring a set of double doors, she comes flying through an interior window with her pistol and knife, to rejoin the group. “She made it,” my friend and I were screaming. But then, barely ten meters from the rest of the group, having fought tooth and nail to reunite, for some reason the group has no desire to go to her aid. After almost a minute watching her fight, she is bitten, and her partner Mikey shoots the can of gasoline strapped onto Chambers’s back, causing her an explosive death (the first of several). The rest of the group, summarily pleased, turn and walk off indifferently to the next scene. Like predestination I expect, or inevitability, the group simply assumes they know how zombie movies work, thinking that some people just have to die. Why here? Why now? Forget it Mikey, it’s Chinatown. In what follows, so little care is spent preparing for a heist that is likely dangerous, full of terrors, and would require precision and proper thinking to get out of alive.
This pathetic representation of the genres permeates the movie. After Lilly painstakingly ensured their safe path through the zombie-littered Vegas, Martin finds what he’s looking for: the wife of the Zombie king. This “queen” just so happens to be pregnant, and Martin and Tanaka wager that the United States Government might pay a pretty penny for her DNA. They capture her, allowing Martin to behead her. “What have you done?” Lilly says, with obvious consternation. We know that the armistice between the two groups was tenuous; soon it will be all out war. We think it’s going to be one of those movies, where each member of the heist has their own agenda, but it comes off less as conniving and more as plain foolishness.
Once they arrive at the casino, where Tanaka’s money is tucked away, they fill a generator with gas and turn it on for reasons I still do not understand. On an LCD television, the gang hear that the president decided to bump up the nuclear strike to July 4th, fully 24 hours ahead of schedule. “It would be really cool,” the newscaster repeats of the president’s statement, in a twist of the plot so outrageous that it’s better imagined in a video game as a late twist of the screw than any sort of actual executive order audible. Time to move super fast.
Tanaka warned that, upon approaching the safe, there may be some countermeasures that are “nonlethal” and are activated by pressure plates. Using zombies as dummies, the characters discover tranquilizer darts shot from the wall, followed by machine gun rounds, and an Indiana Jones-like crushing set of pillars. The countermeasures certainly seem extremely lethal. Do modern safes contain Pyramid-style deterrents? And why would Tanaka fail to give them the information they need to properly get his money back? Even assuming he makes his cash with Martin’s discovery, wouldn’t he also happen to want…more money?
Before you’re given time to process, all hell breaks loose, and characters begin their dramatic sacrifices. Maria dies with a ninja twist of the neck, instantly killing her. Dieter tosses Vanerhoe in the safe and locks him in while keeping himself out, for no other reason than to die by the zombie king’s hand. Why not…just stay in the safe with Vanderhoe? Mikey, having shot hundreds of zombies with his AKS-74U reckons it’s his turn in the movie to die, and does so ingloriously in a grenade explosion surrounded by cash. Having made it to the roof to take off in the helicopter, Lilly manages to hold the zombie king off by threatening to destroy the queen’s severed head, having stolen it from Martin without his knowledge. “The Coyote” does not escape from dying terribly as well, having…turned her head I suppose, away for a few seconds, so that the zombie king throws rebar like a lance, pinning her to the wall. And Scott must descend Ridley-style from a helicopter to recover his daughter Kate, who has gone on her own personal mission to save some young ladies. They fight the zombie king in the helicopter, shooting their pilot in the process. The nuke behind them explodes, Scott has been bitten, and Kate shoots her father in the head surrounded by the wreckage of the downed helicopter, with a wad of $100s in her pocket.
I wish that I could say that it was laughably terrible, but it’s not even that. The movie seems anemic when it comes to action, which seems to me to be the thing a viewer would come to this movie expecting. But even supposing you end playing the movie hoping to find the action, none of it is coherent or engaging. This is because, as Redlettermedia has pointed out better than me, the way the film is shot is horrendous. The depth of field from the low f-stop of the lenses leaves so little in focus that much of the camera work is claustrophobically up close to the characters’ faces. This has the double problem of leaving out the background, providing little context for the acting, but also so little space for the action that it loses all sense of direction and detail. There are moments in this film when the focus is not wide enough to have both characters on screen clear at the same time. You can see the cinematographer struggling to shift the camera in order to maintain the focus, because there is so little leeway. There is no depth for where the characters are shooting, and there is no sense of place for where the characters run. It is all nonsense. The film can only exist as a lesson for what not to do. And, bizarrely, the depth of field makes the experience seem cheaper, like some indie film, than it does a big production.
When Snyder is not busy ruining his own film, he’s pitching ideas to the viewer for other possible atrocities in the future. In one such odd moment, the characters encounter evidence of other adventurers who have gone on a similar quest to recover the money. First, a blueprint of the exact, same, safe. Then, it’s skeletons with similar clothing. Vanerhoe uses his philosophy degree (actually present in the movie) to suggest that perhaps they are in some time loop, doomed to repeat the same task over and over again. Later in the film, you may have noticed that some zombie heads pop and light up like they have, not blood inside, but machinery. Perhaps there are zombie cyborgs as well, the reddit forums postulate. And the whole time, I just wanted the movie I was seeing in front of me to function, not hints to some other, possibly better mash up that would likely be destroyed as well.
So, if it’s any consolation, none of the characters get what they want, and most of them die. That’s the reward for poor planning I suppose, but that same idea holds true for the movie itself, which is two hours and twenty-eight minutes of terrible execution. It’s all syncopation, that stressing of the weak beat, that desire I suppose among moviemakers to assume that the working class wants a simple, meat and potatoes, romp of an action film. The stereotype of a construction worker clocking out from the hot sun, desperate for a Natural Light and a loud movie in air-conditioning with his boys. There is no getting around the fact that this movie would not satisfy anyone. It cannot elevate the action to its high-brow counterparts, and it forgets the lessons that previous zombie movies have learned-to the point of cliché-along the way. It takes two genres and mashes them up poorly, and shoots the whole thing in a manner that is opaque and indecipherable. In other lines of work, this would be grounds for reassignment, but there’s also the kind of person who fails upward, and seems untouchable to the kind of criticism that, though true, does nothing to stop the onslaught of low quality work. And Zack Snyder has been failing upward for decades.