Love him or hate him, Zack Snyder is a fantastic artist simply due to the fact that every time he releases something with his name on it, it incites a discussion that is worth having and is fun to have. Whether its his cut of Justice League and its length, his versions of comic book adaptations and what he finds interesting about them versus fans, what his idea of a stylish, female-driven action flick looks like with Sucker Punch; regardless of the movie, he brings something new and interesting to it and it never leaves you without much to say.
This time it’s a zombie movie (his second one after his film debut Dawn of the Dead) and it is such an interesting movie to discuss; even something as simple as focus is a topic for discussion for Army of the dead, since Snyder decided to use Canon Dreams Lens from the 60s and 70s, which makes the movie look blurry af on things it is not focused on, but makes the objects it is focused on pop out. There are also so many other little tidbits of details and interesting topics, but the question for all entertainment is always the same: Is it worth it?
The short answer is no. Army of the dead is a stylish movie with a few great action sequences, a thrilling last act, but there are so many similar movies that do action, story, characters, worldbuilding, and overall quality much better. However, the short answer – when it comes to Zack Snyder movies – is always the most deceptive and boring one; my short answers on whether I like Snyder’s movies are more no than yes, but I’m still excited to see them and I still stop and pay attention every time he releases something, because he brings something unique every time; just like with anything worthwhile, the long answer is where things get interesting.
Army of the dead is about a group of mercenaries breaking into a quarantined Las Vegas to steal 200 million from a casino, 36 hours before a small nuke annihilates the city and its zombie inhabitants. Right off the start, you’ll notice the focus and you’ll notice the playful tone of the movie, but you are more likely to notice how gory and brutal this movie is. Yes, this is a Snyder movie where slow, moody covers of pop-culture songs and there is a zombie Elvis, but Snyder is known for his nihilistic tendencies and that is something that is still here. As we get introduced to our main cast of characters, like Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), they have “tropey” backstories like loosing someone close to them, but the way it is shown and the Snyder touch of style and nihilism makes them feel unique. This is what I mean when I say that the short answer to whether the movie is worth it is not as interesting as the long answer; in theory, the movie is an action-focused zombie movie that offers a fun premise but nothing else of substance, but in practice, the touches of Snyder and the actors make it interesting.
Dave Bautista, in particular, is really good in the movie. He’s always seen as this actor for action movies and the 80s brawns over brains hero, but he’s got some range he will happily show off whenever he gets the chance. Just like with Blade Runner 2049, his role is very physical, but his acting is emotionally driven; he does great work with a character that is as interesting as a home appliance. In fact, all the actors do a good job – especially for the action scenes – but they are all bereft of any interesting traits or chemistry between them. Tig Notaro, for example, is a great presence in the movie and brings a lot of comic relief and a sense of craziness, which is doubly impressive given that she is replacing a cast member who turned out to be a scam bag. She filmed all her scenes separately and was digitally placed/edited in the movie over the previous character. That gives a lot of praise for the actor, but it is still a boring character that is not as interesting or relatable to make you care about them.
The same goes for the actual story in Army of the dead. The details are interesting and the unique spins on the genre are cool, but the story itself is kind of blunt; it is a weird mix between goofy, self-aware humor and trying to be deep and philosophical about humanity. It doesn’t work as intended, but the attempt and decisions to try and make it work are really interesting; without getting into spoilers, there are genuinely surprising moments and thrilling sequences, but there are also moments where you feel the writers glossing over motivations and consistency just to get to the cool parts, which makes them feel disjointed.
All these points are true to all (or at least most of) Snyder’s movies, yet what keeps me engaged is the style and the experience it creates. In terms of what I wanted from Army of the dead (stylish action), I was left very satisfied; there are a couple of great set-pieces and a lot of great moments of action and thrills. This is where the focus actually started making sense; there are moments where the blurriness of the background makes for good set up in terms of horror and it allows the actors to be more emotive and over-the-top, guiding the audience towards the fun and excitement of the scenes. Watching a blurry outline of a zombie in the background is an okay idea, but watching that alongside the popping face of the actor reacting to it is genuinely thrilling. Watching fake CGI gore can be particularly effective, but usually it looks out of place in the middle of practical sets, but Army of the dead focuses in on that gore and everything else is blurry, so it makes those moments pop out and feel more unnerving than usual. It also creates a tonal mishmash that doesn’t work as well as I had hoped; when the movie focuses in on jokes and the “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” wackiness and then, seconds later, it is a philosophical pondering of the human condition, then it’s a joke about dumb zombies, then it’s a humanizing twist on them, it gets exhausting to follow. The focus, in particular, is a perfect analogy for this; when objects pop, when the action is flying, it creates a unique experience. Other times it is nauseating to follow and infuriatingly shallow to what you’re allowed to see.
The long answer is then, yes you should experience this. Not because this is the best zombie movie or because this is a particularly good one; not because of its interesting twists to the genre or its compelling story-telling. As is the case for all Snyder movies (and “auteur” movies in general), you should see it for the experience and its uniqueness. My one wholly negative criticism is the one I always carry forward with Snyder movies; it seems like he always manages to add 30 minutes on top of what is necessary or wanted. Other than that, no I don’t think it is worthwhile and yes, I do think you should experience it.