All cinematic technique that makes Snyder a fanboy favorite feels sorely missing in the bloated, ugly Army of the Dead.
Recovering from what must have been the bizarre physical and emotional fallout from his entire Justice League ordeal, Zack Snyder apparently decided to flex a few potentially atrophied muscles, maybe get back to his roots a little bit. Hence, Army of the Dead, a spiritual but actually completely unrelated sequel to his debut feature, 2004’s sturdy, wryly funny Dawn of the Dead remake. Army features a ragtag group of badasses (led by Dave Bautista) who, after a zombie outbreak has cut off Las Vegas from the rest of the country, are hired to steal the hundreds of millions left behind in a casino vault before the city is permanently nuked off the map. On paper it’s as sound a premise as any, full of the potential for a lot of goofy Vegas gags, colorful scenery, wet gore effects, and, of course, the promise of a literal army of zombies. What Snyder — who in addition to directing is also the sole credited writer and his own director of photography — has inadvisably produced is, strangely, a shameless rehash of Jim Cameron’s Aliens but swapping out Xenomorphs for the undead, with a half-dozen exact copies of scenes and endless formal quotes, not to mention the actual lines of dialogue repeated by the characters. It’s so absurdly obvious that to call it a ripoff might be too charitable. Structurally, the choice makes sense, and it would be hard not to be influenced by such a classic of the genre, but it goes without saying that Zack Snyder is no Jim Cameron.
The first made mistake is a protracted setup to introduce backstories for many of the characters: Bautista’s character has some estranged family drama and yearns to open his own food truck; the goofy egghead safecracker needs to be taught how to kill a zombie (so that we can get the rules on how it works too, as if there have not been upwards of 60 years of cinematic education on the subject); we learn how one guy likes to use a cool buzzsaw (spoiler alert, it pretty much never gets used); and so forth. After this — as well as multiple explanations of just how the heist part is supposed to go down — we arrive in abandoned Vegas at roughly the 50-minute mark, and it’s another 15 or so before we’re treated to our first zombie fight, which also happens to be the only one before the big climax of this 148-minute behemoth. Of all of the things in his usual bag of tricks, the one that Snyder certainly hasn’t abandoned here is that he likes his movies bloated.
The successful formula for a movie like this is obvious: get a handful of foul-mouthed toughs, stick ‘em in a gnarly situation, and let ‘em get picked off one by one in a bunch of different fucked up ways. How hard would that have been? But Snyder spends more time and energy on worn-out ideas like the zombies having a hierarchy and intelligence — and maybe even feelings — that make them more unpredictable, something that gets more screen time than it needs without actually being explored. And beyond the general lack of action, the movie is surprisingly visually inert. This may be set in Las Vegas, but most of it takes place either in drab desert or cold concrete hallways, to the point that there’s almost no color. Snyder’s patented big splashy slow-motion tableaux are also mostly MIA, which is bizarre for a movie he shot himself. He does manage a few good gags — like an undead tiger, or the zombie leader atop the mini Las Vegas Statue of Liberty — but the majority of this alleged rouser is shot in shaky, handheld closeup, and entirely in a hideous ultra-shallow focus, which makes this usually hyper-cinematic filmmaker seem like he belongs on TV. Snyder generally makes such big, stupid swings, with his grandiosity frequently, gloriously getting in the way of basic story logic and structure. That’s to say, his messes usually seem so deliberate, and so to here see one so lacking in his idiosyncrasies is an especially galling disappointment.
You can currently catch Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead in theaters or streaming on Netflix beginning on May 21.