Review: Army of the Dead is Zack Snyder at his most aptly tepid and plodding

The director on set.

Zack Snyder has long been a brain-dead directorial zombie lurching adjacent to Michael Bay. Both started in commercials and music videos, excelling with a punchy visual style that earned them feature gigs—which was a big-time mistake. Neither fully capable of comprehending story nor humanity, they’ve endlessly churned out some of the most numbskulled blockbusters of the 21st century.

The difference between them, though, is at least Snyder is interesting; he’s photography-bro as outsider artist. While Bay is a shallow, living embodiment of Hollywood culture, Snyder has remained painfully earnest in his disillusion. Bay knows he’s cranking out a Transformers movie where a robot has giant, clanging testicles, but somehow Snyder thinks he’s a lane over making proper Art. And through the occasionally memorable tableau and his sometimes intriguingly boneheaded choices, you know what? He sort of has.

Army of the Dead, Snyder’s latest, is not even close to art. It’s Snyder high on #SnyderCut cocaine, drifting into Bay’s lane to make a lazy, crass, explosive, arbitrarily-horny spectacle that sees the director squander his Netflix-granted freedom on a completely vapid, artless vehicle that never even turns into a robot.

Though the director boastingly restrained from showing a giant, zombie-mangled penis, his film nonetheless opens early on a blowjob and some strippers’ tits. In a case of road-head gone wrong, a vehicle veers even further into the wrong lane than Snyder, crashing into a military convoy that contains a very poorly sealed zombie. The zombie escapes, and after Snyder’s latest nail-on-the-head opening montage (this one set to Viva Las Vegas, one of a handful of obvious Elvis Presley songs featured or covered), we find that the entirety of Las Vegas has succumbed to a zombie apocalypse, with topless showgirls consuming and converting their bosses. The military has sealed the city off with shipping containers, and they’re ready to soon level it with a nuclear strike. Snyder also does this sort of Freaks & Geeks intro bit where a few of the leads inexplicably pose for class photo-style backdropped portraits amid the chaos. He clearly thinks it’s something, and it’s not, but it’s nice to see him at least briefly show some of his idiotic flair.

Soon after, mercenary leader and featured zombie-killer Dave Bautista is a cook at a diner. He’s sad because he had to kill his own zombie-turned wife in a would-be poignant moment that is the absolute funniest part of what could generously be considered an action-comedy. A wealthy Japanese businessman who’s as much an ‘80s cliché as our muscle-bound merc shows up with an offer for Bautista to assemble a team and loot a vault containing $200 million. The rest of the movie proceeds as expected.

Like, exactly as expected.

Snyder is credited for coming up with the story and co-writing the screenplay, but rarely has a script approached such an AI-driven form. It’s the most rote, contrived, derivative thing, stuffed with terribly familiar plot points, dogshit dialogue, and tediously one-note characters. A lot of it is just Aliens pastiche. Anyone who has seen, like, movies before will be two steps ahead of whatever hyper-violent but shockingly unaffecting turns are to come. That wouldn’t be such an issue if Army of the Dead offered anything else. But it doesn’t!

Beyond being predictable and woefully misguided, the film is also horribly made. The sound design is a cartoon of growls and bloody squelches; and the cinematography, also credited to Snyder, looks like it was shot by way of 2010’s Instagram. It’s all flat, overly-filtered digital video, with an ever-shallow focus giving everything a pointless vignette effect. Like Snyder’s repeated monochrome behind-the-scenes shots from prior projects, it’s just whatever this first-year business major turned photography student wrongfully thinks is awesome.

Yet, somehow, Army of the Dead is not much better or worse than Snyder’s typical offerings. Perhaps bolstered by the approval of his four-hour Justice League cut, Snyder stretches his hollow zombie flick to two-and-a-half hours. It’s entirely watchable, but without his usual hit-and-mostly-miss flourishes, it’s his flattest effort since his zombie debut, Dawn of the Dead—yet vastly less entertaining. His zombies sprint as his film plods, groaning along with its audience.

But credit where it’s due, Snyder did take his trite, on-the-nose soundtrack trademark to the next level. After all the Elvis songs, you know how he (very nearly) closes this thing?

Zack Snyder is nothing if not a cinema zombie admirably persistent in his hunger for brainlessness.

Grade: C-

Army of the Dead
Director: Zack Snyder
Studio: Netflix
Runtime: 148 minutes
Rating: R
Cast: Dave Bautista, Ella Purnell, Omari Hardwick, Ana de la Reguera, Theo Rossi, Matthias Schweighöfer, Nora Arnezeder, Hiroyuki Sanada, Tig Notaro, Raúl Castillo, Huma Qureshi, Garret Dillahunt

Bonus thoughts with very mild spoilers:

Another opening montage sketching the film’s backstory set to a popular song? Classic Z-Snyde. (In Watchmen, anyway. But how to explain the similar montage in the Whedon Justice League…?)

It wouldn’t be a Snyder zombie flick without a Richard Cheese cover over said montage. (See: “Down with the Sickness” in Dawn of the Dead.)

The guy parachuting while futilely firing a handgun at a waiting zombie horde was maybe the film’s only halfway-clever kill. Staged to its logical conclusion, it’s nonetheless hampered by Army of the Dead‘s trademark shitty presentation.

For a film in development for years and in production in 2019, weird how accidentally nail-on-the-head the inclusion of people bitter about having their temperature taken to make sure they weren’t infected was.

Would Tig Notaro’s every appearance be as distractingly shoehorned if the circumstances of her late addition weren’t so publicly reported?

Also, do you wonder if the woman in the Aliens Vasquez cosplay will die in an explosion that takes out some of the film’s titular primal adversaries? That answer is provided.

There are shitty Burke and Bishop equivalents here, too, if you want to really generously over-extend the Aliens parallels.

How did Coyote not come back as the new Zombie Queen somehow after the credits?

The zombie baby caesarean is unquestionably the second-funniest would-be poignant moment.

Snyder lifts the “sneak past standing, hibernating monsters” scene and attractive, fit, contortionist monsters from Silent Hill. Movies like that and Hellraiser at least contain sexy supernatural threats for some perverse thematic reason. Here the “alpha zombies” are portrayed by flesh-baring hotties simply because, in Snyder’s resolute mind, why WOULDN’T they be flesh-baring hotties? Again, so arbitrarily horny.

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