I never really have tried eating brains before, but I suppose I'm open to it...
Ups & Downs
Over the years, I’ve honestly had a bit of a complicated relationship with the filmography of Zack Snyder. On one hand, I believe Snyder is a genius at continuously crafting visually gorgeous films. He is easily one of the most ambitious filmmakers that’s worked in the Hollywood scene for the last 30 years. On the other hand, I think his movies are sometimes too self-indulgent with prioritizing style over substance. Admittedly, there are titles under this director’s roster that I wholeheartedly do not like, including his first zombie outing in the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. Granted, even at this man’s worst, I can still find aspects about all his films that I at least admire to some extent.
For instance, I didn’t like his Dawn of the Dead remake, but I respected its ambition to do its own thing while not simply replicating the original. 300 and Watchmen are actually really solid works of his that I quite enjoy. I feel those are good examples of when Snyder truly honed his craft as an artist and a storyteller. Sucker Punch, Man of Steel, and Batman v Superman were messes of a script with zero substance present, but they were delicious eye candy to behold. I consider Zack Snyder’s Justice League, NOT Joss Whedon’s, to be his best movie in a while as it reinvigorated my excitement to see more from him in the future. Turns out the future wasn’t too long of a wait as a mere two months have gone by since the release of the Snyder Cut and we now have his Army of the Dead!
Following a case of newly wed road-head gone wrong, a zombie outbreak erupts in Las Vegas. After the contagion is restricted within the city’s boarders, a group of mercenaries take the ultimate gamble by venturing into the city of the undead to pull off the greatest heist ever attempted. Although not all is as they predicted, realizing that the walking dead have established their own hierarchy in a crazed flesh hungry society. Now the team has to follow by this strange zombie kingdom’s rules in order to survive!
Heist Movie Meets Zombie Apocalypse
Sold! Instantly I am sold on this premise and was since the very moment I read about it online when the movie was originally announced. I love heist movies. I love a good zombie flick. We’re meshing the two together? “Hell yes” is all I have to say on the matter! Even if it did seem preposterous that anyone would even care about stealing money during a global apocalypse going on, I’m still on board. However it turns out this ‘zombie outbreak’ depicted in the film was far less global than I first realized; containing the “pandemic” into a far more confined location, hence making the city of Las Vegas into a giant quarantine zone. Starting our insane casino heist in the middle of Zombie-Town; pretty much Ocean’s Eleven meets George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead and I am all for it during the entire two and a half hour runtime.
The First Thing I Loved About This Movie
This is going to sound silly, but the opening credit sequence is the first thing I started digging about the movie. Why? Because it’s one of the few films nowadays that even features an opening credit sequence. And no, I don’t mean just showing credits on the screen as the movie is playing normal scenes. I mean an actual sequence crafted with the sole purpose to introduce the audience into the world they are venturing into. Getting to understand the tone, style, characters, and everything the viewer is going to be in for during the next couple hours of their lives; all of which is accomplished by cinematic art and thoughtful music. Opening credit sequences are so rare to find as many films have mainly transitioned into end credit sequences (if any at all), most notably from the Marvel Studios lineup. It’s just nice to see a stylish opening that injects fun gore and gripping drama in the span of only a few minutes.
Wait… I might take that back… the first thing I might have loved about the movie was the unsuspecting homage to An American Werewolf in London. I haven’t the slightest clue why it was there, but I couldn’t have been happier to see it. Okay, onto the actual review now.
Part of me wonders if Army of the Dead will revitalize the zombie movie genre, much like Snyder had done all those years ago in Dawn of the Dead. I ask this for a number of reasons; firstly because Zack Snyder’s name has honestly never been more popular with the culmination of the Twitter campaign started in his name #ReleaseTheSnyderCut, the legitimate release of his definitive version of Justice League, the newly started campaign in his honor to #RestoreTheSnyderVerse, and now thousands of loyal fans clamoring in praise for his latest zombie adventure as well as waiting in anticipation for the spin-off Netflix series on the way. Plus it helps with the fact with Army of the Dead is an extremely fun ride that actually innovates a few fresh ideas for the zombie genre.
At this point I think it’s safe to say we all know the basics of zombies from the hundreds of entries within the horror genre; mindless corpses that lumber around with the insatiable hunger of human flesh and the only way to kill them is a lethal blow to the head. Sure the formula might change slightly here or there, but for the most part this is the baseline from the majority of zombie flicks. Army of the Dead pretty much keeps true to those guidelines while also adding a little more depth to the zombies presented here as they begin forming their own strangely Olympian society. Building a bizarre way of life and hierarchy among the undead civilians of Las Vegas, which to me was pretty cool seeing some of these refreshing ideas play out; learning how there are more evolved zombies that are smarter and more agile than the average types, there’s even a “barter system” that the leaders have when dealing with outsiders.
Another clever concept developed was when our heroes discover hordes of zombies that enter a sort of hibernation state as they have to go on without food longer periods than the ones who live higher up in the social ranks. Trust me when I say I know that all of this on paper might sound like awful ideas to implement in any zombie movie, but for me they really worked and gave me a more unique zombie world to explore. For the most part, it is still more or less filled with typical tropes of the genre, yet there’s just enough new and fun concepts to keep me hooked.
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Sadly when it comes to a lot of Snyder’s filmography, I feel his weakness tends to be in the character writing. Whether it’s his characters being painfully wooden and bland or completely unlikable, these are the reasons why pictures such as his Dawn of the Dead and Man of Steel fail in my opinion. Although there are times when he finds the right balance of style, story, and character. Luckily Army is a success in the character department as I found the majority of the cast likable in their own ways.
For me, this felt like Snyder was channeling the spirit of the marine team from Aliens while putting them at the center of a zombie apocalypse and it’s pretty awesome! I had a good time watching all the characters work fairly well off one another with decent chemistry and comedic timing. Also like Aliens though, the movie might give us these colorful characters to enjoy, but many aren’t made to last as the film is clearly not afraid to kill many of them off. In an instant a character I grew to like would be snuffed out, leaving me in shock from the sudden and brutal manners they are killed off in. One by one the numbers rapidly dwindle and I was genuinely saddened by a few of our heroes’ fates. I promise not to spoil who dies or in what fashion, but the movie does a decent job at making me care about their demise any time it does happen.
There are decent arcs with a couple of the characters, although not many as the majority mainly remain on the same note as they started. I think my favorite aspect amongst the team was the goofy comradery between actors Omari Hardwick and Matthias Schweighofer… which, by the way, cool f*ckin’ names. Seriously. Anyways, they were a delight to watch work off one another; starting with the dweeby guy stepping on the toes of an angry mercenary and slowly bonding overtime. It’s nothing all that original of a concept, but it’s charming and I felt brought some life into the group, making for some funny moments throughout.
A minor problem I did have with everyone as a whole though, not necessarily in any of their character writing, but an annoying trope that is bestowed upon them was the “standstill” effect. I’m not sure if there is another term for it; what I mean by this “standstill effect” is the cliché when a character stands still for obviously far too long than they shouldn’t be staying still in high octane situations such as this and the only reason why they’re not moving for this long is to either die or needlessly cause others to die. It’s a trope I’ve hated for years and it does occur from time to time in Army. The trope never irritated me enough in this movie though to ruin my experience, just enough to notice the act was happening is all.
Dave Bautista is once again shining so bright by providing the heart and soul of the film. It was certainly easy to fall in love with Bautista when he appeared as Drax from the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie, I know I did. However, I knew he was going to be something truly special when I saw his heartbreaking performance in the underrated action flick, Bushwick; showing just how phenomenal of a talent he can really be as a performer. I mean, holy hell, he nearly brought me to tears in that movie. Now Bautista is back in front of the camera to mix a little bit of that particular acting gold along with his natural charm and hulking badassery. In all honesty, I’d love to see Bautista in more leading roles. Don’t get me wrong, I do adore him as Drax and his comedic timing fuels my soul. But I’m ready for him to be the next big action hero with the likes of Stallone and Schwarzenegger.
Reshoots/Tig Notaro/Chris D’Elia
As some readers may or may not be aware, there was a fair amount of reshoots that happened late last year revolving around the Marianne Peters character played by Tig Notaro, however this wisecracking helicopter pilot was originally being portrayed by comedian Chris D’Elia. During principal photography, D’Elia was accused of sexual misconduct in his private life, resulting in similar consequences as Kevin Spacey during the production of All the Money in the World; D’Elia was replaced by Notaro, entering her into an onslaught of reshoots transpiring in a mix of onset locations and green screens for her footage to be later spliced in during post-production. The end result is mostly seamless when she does share the screen with her costars. Mostly.
When Notaro actually does share the frame with the rest of the cast, it mostly looks great and seems like a natural scene flowing through the movie. There was literally only one or two shots where I could easily point out that Notaro was green screened into the scene, but for the most part it works fine. That is… when she does share the screen, which was sparing honestly as her footage largely consists of her being cut off from the rest of the cast. Be it footage of solely her obviously not being filmed at the same time as the rest of the characters in scenes or her character being cut off entirely on her own as a majority of her scenes take place separately from the rest of the group. Again, the end result is mostly fine, however it remains relatively noticeable in parts.
Then to speak on strictly Notaro’s performance alone, which I find myself slightly mixed on. At no point do I dislike her character of Peters; she has the occasional funny line and her performance wasn’t bad at all. I’m not sure if my problem resides in the actress, the script, or how much I felt the presence of the reshoots revolving around her character yet I can’t shake the feeling that Notaro was possibly miscast in this role. Maybe that’s unfair of me to say, but there were a number of times where I kept feeling as though the character’s line delivery didn’t quite match the vibe I was getting from her dialog. Coming across as somewhat awkward from time to time. Could be that another re-write was in order for her to feel more natural with her lines or I’m wrong and critiquing too harshly because of the impact the reshoots left in the movie. Regardless, I could tell Notaro did her best and should definitely be commended for taking on this daunting task of filling someone else’s shoes sporadically in the final stages of production. Rock on!
Truth be told, I don’t have much to say on Theo Rossi other than I enjoy the absolute f*ck out of his performances and I wish I could have had more screen time with him present in the picture. Rossi is so damn good at crafting smug and despicable characters in such a way that I am instantly engaged. When his sleezy grin stretches across his face, it’s infectious to watch as he relishes in cruelty. My only gripe is that for all the buildup placed around his character, they somewhat waste it as the script doesn’t really live up to the potential alluded to.
There is a single thorn in my side here with one of the characters when talking exclusively on a writing standpoint, Martin played by Garret Dillahunt. Don’t get me wrong though, Dillahunt is a lot of fun to watch giving his character as much life as possible. At the end of the day though, his character is a very stock “traitor” type. His whole purpose is to set up the team for a fall and create relatively superfluous tension in the plot. Granted, the script seems fairly self-aware of that fact as the other characters do point out multiple times his obviously sinister motives. However, that doesn’t change how lazy the archetype feels in the movie.
Zeus & His Queen
In every zombie movie ever made, there has always been the “hero” zombies; the ones pointed out as the most iconic and stands out from the crowd of the decaying masses. George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead had a few great ones, one of which made it on the poster, although my favorite was likely David Emge’s zombie portrayal. Day of the Dead had the forever lovable and army saluting Bub, Return of the Living Dead had Tarman and Trash the punk dancer, Return of the Living Dead III had hot goth/BDSM girl zombie, and so on.
Return of the Living Dead Clip
Army has the one they dub Zeus and his queen, a brutish warrior king and his agile bride. Both are frightening and cool in their own ways. I enjoyed watching their history seemingly unfold between them, utilizing visual storytelling at its finest as the actors have only their body language to convey what’s going on in any given scene between them. I found it fascinating to see them treated as royalty among their “people,” and extremely intimidating any time our leads had to face their wrath. I loved these two and would dig the hell out of a prequel story showcasing their strange relationship and rise to power.
Valentine the Zombie Tiger
All I have to say is that there’s a freaking zombie tiger in this film and his name is Valentine. Valentine the zombie tiger. Yes, it absolutely crosses the line into absurdity and I am all for it. I love Valentine with all my soul. Forever. Always. Okay, that’s the end of that tangent.
There is also a zombie horse and I could have used more of that too, please. Thank you.
Behind the Effects of Zombie Tiger
As with practically any Zack Snyder movie, Army is stunning to look at; this time around, surprisingly this is actually Snyder’s first time being credited as the director of photography for a full length picture. Regardless of this either being his first or his hundredth time in the cinematographer’s “chair” because this a beautifully “Snyder” looking film. We get all the visual tropes that he’s unmistakably known for; from stylized, grandiose portraits to harkening back to his early days of his handheld filmmaking. The man knows how to make a marvelous spectacle to say the least. One element that the director seemed to enjoy playing around with this time around was focus and depth of field, even more so than what is typical for this director. He tended to have the backgrounds excessively blanketed in a blurred effect, which drew even more emphasis on his subjects. It was a cool visual experiment that I think paid off pretty well.
The special effects throughout the picture are fantastic as carnage spreads across the screen for basically the entire runtime. Whether talking about the practical effects or the digital ones, most are excellently done and are a hell of a lot of fun to watch. I would specifically like to point out that the recreation of Vegas through the combination of practical sets and visual effects is handled perfectly as the city look terrific. Unfortunately there was a few blemishes in the CGI department admittedly, only a few, particularly one effect that happens in the third act involving a big explosion and a helicopter.
Other than that the film remains spotless in its hundreds of different cool effects in the zombie makeup, the bloodwork, demented animatronics, smart uses of motion capture and green screens, and so much more. Not to mention that all of the gore is fantastically executed and gloriously bloody. Frankly I give massive respect for any movie that has the balls to fully embrace an R-rating; which Army happily celebrates.
Commentary on Society & Fate
An element I wasn’t expecting going in yet wholeheartedly admired about the film was its parallels between the movie’s near apocalyptic zombie outbreak in its respective world and the COVID-19 pandemic transpiring in our own. It was a clever touch that doesn’t shove our noses too hastily into its themes, but still makes them very clear what they’re trying to say. Pretty much every zombie flick since George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead has had an inherent message to give its audiences, now Army of the Dead had a golden opportunity to say something about its respective time and political climate, taking a smart advantage of it. Granted, I would have liked more social commentary out of the picture. What I got though was satisfactory enough.
Another unexpected theme introduced was fate; however brief those ideas may have been implemented, it still brought another level to the writing that got my brain pondering for a minute on the subject. Thinking back to the creative yet surreal manner how the movie teased the themes of fate, I’d definitely love to give Army a second watch sometime with those ideas in mind just to see how certain scenes play out upon another visit. Perhaps these themes aren’t as brief as I remember, maybe there’s more I haven’t quite unraveled yet. Something that is actually quite common in many of Snyder’s films, the little hidden details scattered into every frame and it’s quite fun to delve into them.
Oh, which by the way, yes I did catch the Darkseid/Omega easter egg tattoo.
Army of the Dead is a joy to watch as the quick pace helps breeze through its lengthy runtime. There’s gnarly effects work to admire, colorful characters to root for, a weird zombie kingdom to explore, and some fairly intense sequences to knock the wind right out of you. Seriously, that scene with the mercenary team being stuck in this dark underground hibernation pit was so awesome, but I was biting my lip from sheer intensity through every second. It’s not a perfect movie, it has its flaws, yet the film is also pretty self-aware on many of the problems it has and has a little fun with them. It’s ridiculous, it’s cool, it’s stunning, it’s suspenseful, it’s weird, it’s funny, it’s fun. What can I say? It’s a Zack Snyder film. Check it out on Netflix!