Army of the Dead (2021)

Zack Snyder has taken a lot of shit in his career, especially over the last decade, really from around the time that he (unwisely?) hitched his wagon to the DC Cinematic Universe, as overseen by Warner Bros.

Before I proceed further, I’ll just preface this by saying that, without shame, I’ve always been entertained by Snyder’s output, going back to 2004 when he did what I thought was the Impossible and delivered on a better-than-it-had-any-right-to-be remake of the classic Romero sequel Dawn of the Dead (1978); a remake that is now easily my preferred version (blasphemous, I know).

I even get something good out of his three DC flicks, which I openly consider to be a low point in his career, creatively speaking.

300 (2006), Watchmen (2009), Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’hoole (2010) and Sucker Punch (2011) are all flicks worthy of an occasional rewatch, in my simple, moronic opinion. There’s good stuff to all of them, even if you’re just in for the visuals!

But then he got caught up with the miscalculated misadventures of ‘Supes’, ‘Bats’ and the rest of their ilk. From there, the so called fanboys got sand in their vaginas and started bitching about how he was fucking up their beloved, apparently immutable DC universe and blah blah blah, just unfairly putting the guy through the ringer on social media.

Added to which, during the turbulent production of Justice League, he and producer wife Deborah Snyder suffered a personal tragedy when their daughter Autumn, in her early 20’s, killed herself, causing them to understandably bow out of completing the picture, which led to the ill-fated creation of Josstice League, the piss-poor theatrical version of that film that was mashed together by current Hollywood pariah Joss Whedon (Firefly), almost totally destroying the work that Snyder had invested (which was clearly WB’s intention). Of course we later got the Release the Snyder Cut campaign that, amazingly, actually worked, resulting in Zack being able to go back to his original 4 hour long work-print, now glossed up to Feature Film standards for the rapidly blossoming streaming market. Being that his true, newly released cut is a remarkable (though not perfect) improvement on the bullshit we originally got, even many of the Snyder-haters had to admit that his true vision was a lot better than Warner Bros initially realized. I still find it baffling how little faith they had in what Snyder presented the first time around, especially after having seen it and thoroughly enjoyed it.

So, after a rough patch, vindication was on the horizon for Snyder. While the whole Zack Snyder’s Justice League (re)release was being prepped and advertised, Zack and Deborah got into bed with Netflix, these days obviously a major force in the streaming market, to work on creating a new cinematic universe that would take Zack back into ‘…of the Dead‘ territory; territory where Husband and Wife would now call the shots…literally.

Which brings us to Army of the Dead!

When I first heard that this flick was going to be Snyder’s first post-DC feature, I has hesitantly optimistic. For me the man has clearly demonstrated a cool-looking vision where the zombie genre was concerned…but was it perhaps a step in reverse (creatively speaking) to fall back to a source material so similar to his first feature?

I was also curious about how this particular zombie-verse would resemble what he had already given us back in 2004, which, aside from the sprinting zombies, I love. Would this new entry share the same ‘feel’? Or would it be its own thing?

Time would tell.

Then, this last Friday, time did tell…and Army of the Dead, after a week of limited theatrical release which I missed (damn you, Covid-19, you fucking nightmare), it was gifted to us on the streamer and I was uncharacteristically excited to get home from work, hit the bong, crack a beer and dive into some crazy zombie chaos!

And that’s exactly what my wife and I did!

Army of the Dead tells the story of ‘Scott Ward’ (Dave Bautista), a former badass soldier-turned-truck stop cook who lost his wife and daughter when Las Vegas fell to a catastrophic zombie outbreak, following a military accident in the desert outside the city. As the government publicly prepares to nuke the entire place, to end the undead occupation of the now-walled in city, ‘Ward’ is approached by an influential billionaire named ‘Bly Tanaka’ (Hiroyuki Sanada) who’s keen to retrieve $200 million from a massive vault below The Strip before Las Vegas is reduced to a smouldering plain of warm glass and ashes, and wishes to enlist the aid of the PTSD-suffering ex-soldier and his former team, who’ve since dispersed into the public, to recover it to the tune of $50 million to divide up among them upon completion. After some soul-searching, ‘Ward’ agrees…and many crazy, blood-sprayed hi-jinks ensue!

So, eager to put yet another stress-filled week behind me, I cracked my beer and grabbed my pad and pen.

Scribbles ensued!

Awesome opening scene! Great set up. If there was ever to be a PSA for the dangers of getting head while driving, this would be a solid contender. As absurd and tongue-in-cheek as this intro is, it set up the catalyst event quite nicely, while not over explaining anything. Some of the dialogue could’ve used another pass in the script phase, but the scene did exactly what it needed to do to pull me into what was to unfold.

Love the credits. Fun, gory shit! Feeling a lot like the hilarious mall montage in Dawn of the Dead (also featuring the laugh-out-loud vocal stylings of ‘Richard Cheese’), it energetically set up the dual tone of the flick (amusingly self-aware / grim and dark) and establishing scenario that kept me both riveted and chuckling.

Haha! .50 cal! During the credits, we are treated to a shockingly funny scene where a random military dude lights up a zombie on the hood of a car with a massive .50 calibre machine gun, just splattering the shit out of it all over the place. I LOL’d!

Love the sunset shots. Snyder likes his dramatic and colorful sunset shots and here was no different. A big chunk of this movie seems to take place at ‘magic hour’…but I’m ok with this.

Cool characters. Most of the characters, though potentially mistaken for tough guys n gals escaped from a Michael Bay flick, were mostly interesting, not feeling merely like disposable zombie fodder.

More questionable music ala Zack Snyder. Ok, if there is one thing Snyder could maybe stand to back away from, it’s his constant use of questionable covers of popular tunes by sub-par acts, often used to add absurd juxtaposition to scenes of high drama or action. That, and his seemingly never ending use of over-dramatic slow-mo…though I will admit that in this department, he did seem somewhat restrained this time around, certainly in comparison to how much crawling slow motion he exhaustedly employed in his true cut of Justice League.

Hilarious ‘what if’ scenario. We’ve seen this before, where we get to see an over-the-top depiction of a daring plan being pulled off as they plan it, leading the audience to wonder whether it’s all just theory or are they actually pulling their heist as we see it being planned. The scene here is pretty funny and self-aware.

Garrett Dillahunt! I’ve always like Dillahunt, going back to when I first came across him as not one but two characters on the superb western series Deadwood (2004-2006) and it’s a treat to see him pop up, especially when he plays slimy shitheads like this.

Drax can act! Dave Bautista recently came out and said that he chose to take on the role of ‘Ward’ in this flick, as opposed to reuniting with his Guardians of the Galaxy writer / director James Gunn for the next Suicide Squad sequel, cuz he felt this role offered him more range and the chance to ‘act’…along with a fatter paycheque, of course. Much like his brief but important role in Blade Runner 2049 (2017), he manages to give some human-level gravity to the larger-than-life character he portrays. Now while I do feel that some of his ‘acting’ scenes could’ve easily hit the Cutting Room floor in favor of a shorter run-time and faster pace, I do appreciate that he seemed intent on making an honest effort to add depth to the character of ‘Ward’.

Valentine! Valentine is a big, undead kitty that roams the ruins of Las Vegas, formerly part of the Siegfreid and Roy show, and adds drama and carnage to the lives of our main characters.

Cool twist on zombie hierarchy. This is where Snyder’s Dawn and Army differ, in their depiction of the undead. In Dawn, they were mindless ‘runners’, always on the attack, acting purely on horrible instinct. Here, there’s more than one kind of zombie and some are intelligent enough still to establish a hierarchy of sorts, resulting in a King and Queen on the scene, both of whom present significant issues as the story progresses.

Great job blending Tig. Originally, some asshole actor named Chris D’elia was cast in the role of the team’s chopper pilot, tasked with whisking them to safety when the heist was complete but this dick was apparently out’d by some #MeToo shit after production was complete and Snyder and Netflix decided to ‘Kevin Spacey’ (*see Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World) him out and redo all his scenes in post using American actor and stand-up comic Tig Notaro…to mixed effect. The digital seams are almost non-existent and if you didn’t know the Behind The Scenes casting drama, you’d never know that Notaro never met her co-stars while filming. The digital blending and trickery is THAT good. On the flip side, the constantly sarcastic nature of her character and the endless stream of cynical quips started to wear on me after not too long. Unfortunately one-note.

Good self sacrifice. There are many nods to My Favorite Movie Ever – Aliens, and one of the most obvious is *SPOILER*…

…the fate of an obvious ‘Vasquez’ (Jennette Goldstein) facsimile, a tough chick Latina (complete with the red bandana) on the team who puts up a helluva fight before she succumbs to both a swarm of biting and tearing undead and the deliberate detonation of the can of aviation fuel strapped across her back. *Ka-Boom!* See ya!

If you know Aliens…you know what I mean.

Blond chick kinda sucks. One character, a ‘coyote’ named ‘Lilly (Nora Arnezeder), I found grating as hell every time she was on screen. The actress, whom I’ve never heard of, was flat-out awful. It may have been her slippery grasp on English but her line deliveries had all the nuance of a dial tone.

Some scenes drag a lot. Unnecessary dialogue. Zack Snyder makes long movies. He just does. Often the theatrical versions are cut down to digestible size but when his near inevitable Director’s Cuts get released, you can see what I mean. Unlike what happened with Justice League, where there was way too much studio interference, this time Netflix let Snyder off the leash, giving him a blank cheque on the Final Cut. A final cut that, at times, has long, extended dialogue scenes that don’t need to be long, extended dialogue scenes, especially when they pertain to a subplot that really didn’t need to exist in this narrative (a reconnection with an estranged child). A wee bit of trimming would’ve greatly aided the, at times, bloated run-time.

Some hammy acting. Some of the dialogue and resulting performances are too ‘on the nose’, giving rise to some less-than-Oscar calibre portrayals. It wasn’t all cheezy and amateurish, but some of that was there.

Woah! Ate his face! Yep, someone / something eats someone / something’s face off. It’s true.

-Definite nods to Aliens. Clearly Zack Snyder has an affinity for James Cameron’s awesome 1986 sequel to the classic Alien (1979), and I was able to pick out what I can confidently say were really deliberate rip off’s of / homages to that amazing movie. Which a guy like me can’t really blame him for, though a bit more subtlety may have gone a long way too.

Good tunes. This would be in response to Junkie XL’s very cool score, not the plethora of second-rate covers that pepper this flick’s hefty 2.5 hour run-time.

‘Zombie’?! Piss off! I hate that song! This was some more very heavy-handed auditory symbolism from Snyder and it came in the form of the song ‘Zombie’, by the Cranberries; a song I’ve learned to loathe over the years. It just doesn’t work and flat out irritates me every time I hear it. So boo to that one!

Sequel-bait ending. No spoilers, but Army of the Dead would really like to pretty please get a sequel and an expanded universe. Something tells me this. Just saying.

Not perfect, but gory fun. And right there…that scribble does get right to the point and it illustrates that I got both what I hoped for, and what I expected, from Zack Snyder’s latest genre offering.

All in all, I was looking forward to getting a flick that gave me a fun, blood-splattered good time, with tough guys n gals murderizing zombies in all directions as they fight through a desperate ticking clock scenario, in an outbreak depiction that gave me something a bit new… and I dare say that Zack Snyder mostly delivered.

Mostly.

Sure, the movie is easily 15 or so minutes too long, some of the dialogue and acting is mildly laughable, there’s too much use of shitty cover tunes and a couple casting choices were questionable. On the other hand, I liked the overall scenario / setting, the competing sense of absurd self-awareness and grim-dark, melo-drama that evenly peppered the atmosphere, the visuals (Snyder was his own DoP this time around and it shows), and several of the main characters, as they were thankfully a bit more than your average cardboard cut-out victims-to-be. There’s an energetic dose of extreme blood-letting (some kills are hilariously gruesome!) and some creative hard ‘R’ action sequences that had me smiling from ear to ear, all set to a sinister score by Junkie XL that sweetened the proceedings all the more.

Basically, if you’re a fan of zombie flicks and / or Zack Snyder’s bag of visual tools, then Army of the Dead is exactly the type of ‘popcorn’ horror / action flick you’ll want to seek out. It’s a pretty kick-ass time and I’m glad to see that Snyder appears to have regained his cinematic footing after a few years of taking shit for the DC cinematic universe, now that he’s been freed from the restrictive and short-sighted shackles of Warner Bros.

Viva Las Vengeance!

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