25 May 2021

First Impressions: Army of the Dead

Here we are, continuing our impressions of movies we have NOT seen in theaters, but rather the large tentpole-type extravaganzas watchable in the comfort and privacy of our own basements and bathrooms. Today we look at Army of the Dead (2021), which is a dumb movie I was really looking forward to, which turned into a dumber movie that I hate more the more I think about it. Let's begin, SPOILERS forever from this point on in this freeflowing discussion.


Okay. Zack Snyder. I don't know where I am with this guy. He's so simultaneously hard and easy to hate. It's hard because you always know what you're getting with him, it's going to be loud, cool, exploitative, probably self-serious, and with a ton of CGI and green screen. The trick is that even though he's reliable, that product is still often pretty crappy. Dawn of the Dead (2004) probably remains his best feature, and he has had decades now of middling returns on comic book material.

But again, I feel bad hating on him. He's so visually distinctive, and even big misguided whiffs like Sucker Punch (2011) have fun action moments that are inventive in their own right, sort of through their intrinsic nature of being explicitly derivative. It's a tough line to walk to say I actually enjoy a lot of his crap. He's held back by that self-seriousness, though. His movies are ridiculous but rarely fun or self-aware, which makes them feel portentous and indulgent. Like many movies I talk about, you need to have this mentality going into the movie, at this point we know what we are getting.

I don't know why I thought Amy of the Dead would be different. Maybe because it is such a fun premise - Dawn of the Dead by way of Ocean's 11 (2001). A zombie heist film! But along the way it became both not a very good heist film nor a very good zombie film. It just didn't take advantage of anything it presented and somehow a film that involves zombie booby traps, zombie tigers, and nuking Las Vegas comes off insanely bland. How did this happen?

This could have been a great year for Snyder. He's admittedly had some pretty rough ones lately. Improbably, Justice League (2021) was an absolute triumph - but for all the same Snyder-y reasons why Amy of the Dead floundered so hard. It was excessive, portentous, overlong, and senselessly operatic. The question that truly keeps me up at night is why that worked, but Army of the Dead didn't. It comes down to a handful of truly baffling choices.

For one, Army of the Dead looks like shit. It's filled with blurry images, bland coloring (despite the hot pink titles), and dated CGI explosions and compositing. This is all despite quite the quite brilliant insertion of Tig Notaro in place of Chris D'Elia, which I did not realize until I stumbled upon the article. As you will find out, much of the non-Tig Notario pieces of this film are not well done. There isn't much slow motion or the iconic staging that Snyder typically achieves effortlessly.

Mind you, there are bits. Some of these bits where he really flexes are also where he shows the personality this movie could have had. There is a nice scene highlighting the group's possible initial insertion into Zombie Vegas that has spinning shots and cool gun firing poses that breaks the fourth wall a little as a fantasy. The opening credits are filled with personality, although it does certainly feel like something Zombieland (2009) did better. I even got the vibe he was trying to match his own great opening credits moment he achieved with Watchmen (2009).

Other than that, it's surprisingly straight-forward. There is little use of Vegas as a distinctive cultural location. The desert of course helps, it's not like any city could be walled off to contain zombies, and it's the site of a casino, but once they start rolling, they could be in any bank anywhere. There just isn't much flair to anything DESPITE being a Vegas Zombie movie! It'd be fun to see some partying, gambling, something to take the edge off. It makes me think again of Zombieland, which had so much fun with itself - setting its conclusion in an amusement park that actually uses rides to build tension, kill zombies, and even complete thematic arcs. There's just none of that here beyond the initial Zombie Invasion.

Also, in general, I never get how zombies can take out armies. Armies have guns, what is the deal with this? I like a little bit the evolution of some zombies with intelligence, namely the Zombie King who devises a bullet-proof helmet for himself. It's still bizarre that apparently he couldn't give one to anyone else. The "smart" zombie thing is a Land of the Dead (2005) innovation, though, and when you're aping THAT movie, you're in rough waters, man.

There seems to be a mix of slow moving traditional zombies and the fast ones that Snyder totally didn't invent - that was a 28 Days Later (2003) thing (although yeah, yeah, they weren't really dead people, they were rage virus, whatever). I felt like I was taking crazy pills - they enter Vegas and move past huge piles of dried up and incapacitated zombies with the warning that they will wake up if it rains. I leaned over and said outloud, "It's totally going to rain during the climax!" And...it never does. That plot point is dropped. I don't understand why they set up Chekov's Gun and then...never pay it off. It's very frustrating.

There are also just so many scenes that need to be edited. Just about any moment with Dave Bautista and his daughter, or his daughter in general, who seems to be in an entirely different movie with a heavy subtext about immigration and walls and coyotes, which is all good and fun, but has nothing to do with a Las Vegas heist. It doesn't do much besides offer a big distraction in the final moments as Bautista has to go save her and the immigrants. Nothing about it is light and fun, which is what a Vegas Zombie Heist movie sounds like.

Again, not hating on throwing in a political message. That's Romero's entire deal. But what is it doing here? I am not quite sure what was even the deal - Bautista's daughter is friends with some migrants, who are...just kind of there, I guess? Like they were too poor to relocate, so they are refugees? But they are nuking the city, the government didn't seem to want to get everyone out? Instead the migrants use a coyote to enter the city...for some reason? It's either not clear or I really wasn't paying attention. I mean, I definitely wasn't paying attention, but it felt like suddenly these people were zombie hostages for no reason other than to be saved by Dave Bautista. That just wasn't the premise of the film. The premise was to steal a lot of money.

Which is something Ocean's 11 understood (maybe not Ocean's 12 [2004] so much). In a heist movie we want to see people with money at the end! Fast Five (2011) even understood that! It is so thoroughly uncathartic to see all these people try so hard, make sacrifices for each other, and for literally no one to walk away with anything. The daughter is the only one who survives, she saved the zombie hostages I guess, and made up with her father? But it's never quite clear why she was pissed at her father, but he also dies, so great, they had one moment and that's it. Then Omari Hardwick lives and escapes with the money and it feels so great....then it's revealed that he's been bit. Jeez.

Also, the bites were shown to take minutes to change humans to zombies. He was definitely alive for a few more days. Whatever. It makes for such an unrelentingly depressing ending. And yeah, that was the deal with Dawn of the Dead (2004), and we all know that he's a bummer director. But they also did meet their goal in that film of making it to the boat and the island or whatever. It felt like no one met their goal or completed their arc here. It was as if he got the "Everyone Dies" Zombie movie MO but not the "Everyone should get rich" Heist movie MO. It's surprisingly how much in conflict that is.

Again, it feels like it should have leaned into the "everyone gets rich" idea. It just presented itself as such a wacky fun, thrill-ride type movie. Sure, as it got going that was clearly not the case. The deaths are never fun. Even the ones that deserve it go on for a LONG time and are tough to watch. Two and a half hours is way too long for this kind of film.

There was one scene of extreme tension, which is when they are wandering through the dark hallways of asleep zombies. I actually found myself on the edge of my seat and that was genuinely thrilling. But then the zombies come to life and they just...shoot them. Sure, the Mexican girl explodes, but nothing actually changes for anyone else. Her friend with the blonde hair and big moustache doesn't really grow or even mourn her much. Consequences are so important for films to remain engaging, and there just isn't growth here for anyone.

This was a big deal, being Bautista's first big leading role, and he notably dropped out of James Gunn's The Suicide Squad (2021) for this. I get it, he wanted to broaden his horizons with Netflix and Snyder and get his name first on a big movie. He's fine here. I would have liked either the charm he brings to Drax or the nuance he brought to Blade Runner 2049 (2017), both of which are absent here. He's not a totally silent protagonist, but he actually isn't that active, either. He just kind of hangs around until the movie ends. It's essentially a really bad script, uninteresting direction, and a huge missed opportunity to comment on greed, humanity, refugees, or COVID in an interesting way.

What did you think? Am I super off here? It was the #1 film on Netflix, which is based totally on its premise. I wonder how long this will last in our zeitgeist.

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