The writing in director Zack Snyder's films, especially when he insists on doing it himself, is more lifeless than any zombie that he has ever put on screen. But even with two additional scribes on board this time, his long-awaited return to roots, Army of the Dead, is a stilted slog of a movie that finds the filmmaker floundering even on the visual front, which is rare.
Shot by Snyder himself, the film utilises a similar visual aesthetic to that Batman-Joker epilogue in his recently released director's cut of Justice League. Aside from the sweeping CGI shots of a post-apocalyptic Las Vegas, Army of the Dead has an almost entirely handheld vibe; filmed with custom-made lenses that reduce the depth of field to basically a few inches.
It gives the movie a unique look that takes a while getting used to, and arguably also robs it of scale in some scenes. You can sense that Snyder got a little carried away after initial camera tests. After a rather perfunctory pre-credits sequence, Army of the Dead leaps so joyously into old-school Snyder territory that I can imagine long-starved fans of his original films deciding to spend an extra hour at the gym in celebration.
Watch the trailer of Army of the Dead here
The opening credits sequence, scored to a comedic cover of Viva Las Vegas, establishes the backstory and contextualises the rules of the post-apocalyptic world in which the film is set — a lot like the opening credits sequence of Zombieland. Snyder, who designed perhaps one the finest credits sequences in recent memory with Watchmen, is at his most visually flamboyant in those five minutes. It's almost as if he's actively rebelling against the creative jail he's spent the last decade of his career inside.
He's been unshackled, at long last, by Netflix. But if you thought the four-hour Snyder Cut was an exercise in self-indulgent excess, wait till you get a load of the bloated mess that Army of the Dead is.
Scott Ward, a mercenary played by Dave Bautista, is approached by Hiroyuki Sanada's shady Japanese businessman with a tantalising plan. Inside the quarantined city of Las Vegas, which is where the zombie outbreak has apparently been contained, lies $200 million in unattended cash. If Scott is able to retrieve it, he gets to keep a healthy chunk and secure for himself and his daughter a bright future.
A couple of musical montages later, Scott rounds up his crew, which includes a safe-cracker, an axe-wielding maniac, a slinky coyote, and for some strange reason, also his teenage child. I suspect that giving the film's protagonist purely capitalist motivations wasn't ideal, which is why Snyder shoehorns in a human element to the mission as well.
Our very own Huma Qureshi is reduced to a MacGuffin in Army of the Dead. She plays Geeta, a woman who ventures into the quarantine zone and must be retrieved by the crew, almost as if she is a bag of money herself. Not only does this make her a damsel in distress, it also makes Scott's daughter Kate a white saviour.
The movie could have greatly benefitted from a tighter edit — themes that Snyder is trying to touch upon, such as the refugee crisis, American capitalism, and the Trump years, would've most certainly popped. But instead, he structures the movie like a video game, splitting the gang up like Scooby Doo characters and sending them on individual missions. Unlike the best heist movies, neither their skills nor their cultural backgrounds factor into the story all that much.
For instance, it is briefly established that Matthias Schweighöfer's sissy safe-cracker Deiter is perhaps the most valuable member of the crew, and must be protected at all costs. But he is able to get by just fine all by himself. What is more dramatic: Deiter suddenly turning into a bada** because the plot requires him to, or the crew compromising on its own safety by trying to keep him safe?
Army of the Dead is also undone by an unrelentingly dour tone — Snyder doesn't have fun with the idea that the zombies in this film, unlike the undead established decades ago by George A Romero, are capable of mobilisation and strategy. They have a king and queen, and appear to have formed some sort of a society. Instead, this is the kind of film in which, when a character finds another alive, he says, "I found you, you're alive."
There's room for some typical Snyder subversion, though — the German, of all people, is the comic relief and the Black guy, spoiler alert, isn't the first to die. These are all signs, along with his insistence on diverse casting, that Snyder's heart remains, as always, is in the right place. But his storytelling gets in the way.