Army of the Dead
Screenplay: Zack Snyder & Shay Hatten & Joby Harrod
There was a moment where Zack Snyder seemed all zeitgeisty. His rendering of cliché with pop-conviction and some cine-smartass pzazz was simultaneously exciting and camp. Even ‘300’ was a pretty confection and laughably preposterous, not necessarily good but bizarrely winningly camp. ‘Watchmen’ brought all the Snyder’s tics in a positive light: with a proper meaty script, he delivered a bold interpretation with his aesthetic, which – at that moment – was perfect for comic book narrative. There was the darkness there mitigated by camp and colour, this was before Snyder became tediously po-faced with his later superhero offerings. But ‘Suckerpunch’ was just bad.
‘Army of the Dead’ doesn’t have enough pzazz or camp to lift it above its clichés. All its explosions signify very little. It starts off with a lady wobbling her cleavage at a man that causes a crash on a desert road (?) with a military procession that causes the release of a zombie that causes the apocalypse in Las Vegas. Vegas is quarantined, etc, but there’s a lot of money still in there that a band of variously desperate and bored survivors think they can get before the city is nuked. A premise that promises fun, but the writing is weak and rather than something poppy and amusing: three screenwriters, but it’s rudimentary stuff. ‘Oceans Eleven’ meets ‘Planet Terror’ surely sounded a winner on paper, but we get tired characterisation, tired odd buddy banter and father-daughter stuff that is too rudimentary to be engaging and yet keeps interrupting all the time. A female cigar-chomping helicopter pilot; some cast-off ‘Aliens’ types; tedious stubborn daughter (eh, you know she’s going to run off); a stoic guide with a conscience; a German safe-cracker that screams high-pitched, and therefore like a woman and that’s apparently indicative of his cowardice and therefore funny* - but he actually proves to be the most engaging character (Matthias Schweighöfer). Oh, and Dave Bautista whose presence and charm are wasted.
Here, being a zombie gives you cool monster vocal effects and athletic abilities. Perhaps having our heisters face a pack of intelligent zombies was a mistake: trying to be clever and smart surrounded by a hoard of mindless cannibals might have been a better conflict? These here could just be any post-‘Mad Max II’ post-apocalyptic gang. The best zombie epics are about the thin threads of civilisation and humanity revealed by the outbreak; when zombies are just cannon fodder, it’s dull and is not so dissimilar to watching someone play a video game, but with less at stake. In ‘Army of the Dead’, they even recruit someone because of his social media presence where he treats the living dead as a shooting gallery, but this is apparently just proof of his skill and never once is his empathy questioned. Yes, it’s not that film but there’s not enough elsewhere to mitigate the anti-zombie genre criticisms that it’s just an excuse for conscienceless shoot-em-ups. For comparison, Robert Rodriguez’s ‘Planet Terror’ had exploitation on its side. But there’s apparently an ‘Army of the Dead’ franchise intended … and it’s not truly an army either, because they’re not fighting any opponents or … It’s the kind of film that, with a Google search, there’s clickbait like “How Did Th Zombie Queen Get Pregnant?”
I mean, even going into “a forbidden zone” has echoes of ‘Stalker’ and ‘Escape From New York’ and ‘Annihilation’, but the mystery and/or threat here don’t really ramp up, however much the zombies screech; ‘World War Z’ had far more vivid zombie visuals. ‘Army of the Dead’ does have a zombie tiger, who provides the film’s best head-chomping gore moment, but that’s one engaging gross-out in a sea of mediocre zombie fighting (and the tiger is just distractingly fakery CGI).
We also have the use of incongruous pop-tunes which Snyder helped set the modern trend for (I’ll never forget the rush of suddenly hearing Johnny Cash’s ‘When the Man Comes Around’ in Snyder's ‘Dawn of the Dead’) but now it’s just old hat (the best use in ‘Army of the Dead’ is of Culture Club’s ‘Do You Really Want To Hurt Me’ as elevator muzak). But the pop soundtrack does fit the heist movie genre. The most striking sequence is that trick that Snyder is great at, in using the opening credits to squash in an entire movie or two (my favourite is the guy parachuting into a mob of zombies). But that’s the dramatic high point and, despite the budget, it’s thin blood and loose change and not enough fun.
· * I read a Twitter thread recently that discussed how in the ‘King Kong’ spider pit sequence, there’s a lot of high-pitched male screaming and that, over following years, men screaming was presented as a lot lower in tone. High-pitched male screaming is still a trope of amusement, something about immasculinisation, I'd presume.