October Horrorshow: Army of the Dead

I liked Zack Snyder’s 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake. I thought it was a fine modern entry in the zombie subgenre of horror, helping make the creatures scary again. The heavy lifting may have been done by 28 Days Later a few years earlier, but it can’t be denied that Snyder’s film is one of the reasons zombie films and television shows remain popular today. Dawn of the Dead was also the last Zack Snyder film I’ve enjoyed. Every subsequent film he’s made since then, from 300 to this year’s Army of the Dead, has been a joyless slog — the knock from critics, and even fans, being that Snyder makes visually interesting, even gorgeous, films, but they suffer from too much length. The consensus is that Snyder’s lack of storytelling discipline is an issue, but not one that is fatal to his vision.

To that, I say, “foo.” Snyder’s visual style is no more interesting than Paul W. S. Anderson’s, with the same overreliance on slo-mo and flashy CGI in both filmmakers’ arsenals, but of the eleven films Anderson has directed since Event Horizon, the average running time has been just over 102 minutes, with the longest clocking in at 111 minutes. Meanwhile, Snyder’s nine live-action films that began with Dawn of the Dead have an average running time of 143 minutes, with Zack Snyder’s Justice League logging an obscene 242-minute running time. Good gravy.

Besides contributing to the screenplay and directing, Snyder also handled the photography, and he fell in love with depth-of-field. Poor depth-of-field. Out-of-focus objects and characters dominate many shots. Worst of all, in many shots the blurring is an obvious digital effect, and is more distracting than J.J. Abrams’s torrid affair with lens flare. So much for Snyder’s films being visually engaging.

In addition, Snyder’s storytelling is abysmal. He seems so enamored with his films that he can’t bear to edit them into something sensible, and he has always had a problem developing characters that an audience will like. Cut Snyder’s films ruthlessly, and I guarantee one Army of the Dead movie posterwould find a hair’s breadth difference between him and Anderson, right down to being handed the keys to multiple science fiction and horror franchises.

However, it never occurred to me that someone could fuck up a zombie flick so badly. The formula is simple. Zombies try to eat people, with minor variations on that theme. What one will notice is not part of that description are the words “character study.” That’s much of what viewers get in Army of the Dead, which is a problem for a filmmaker who specializes in crafting unlikable characters.

It begins with the leads, who are introduced in an opening montage that should have earned Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer a special thank you in the credits.

Snyder assembles a ragtag group of badass killers. The trope is familiar to any movie fan who hasn’t been in a coma for the last sixty years, and using it is no original sin for a film. The problem is that none of them have the easygoing comradery and familiarity found in a film like Predator or Aliens.

The leader of the badasses is Scott Ward, played by Dave Bautista. He’s joined by Maria (Ana de la Reguera), Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), Dieter (Matthias Schweghöfer), Guzman (Raúl Castillo), Chambers (Samantha Win), Lilly (Nora Arnezeder), Martin (Garret Dillahunt), Peters (Tig Notaro, née D’Elia), Burt (Theo Rossi, briefly), and Scott’s daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell). Their job? Infiltrate the walled-off city of Las Vegas, overrun by zombies, and empty the vault of a casino before a nuclear bomb is dropped on the city. Man, this should have been an awesome movie.

Snyder just couldn’t stop throwing more ingredients into the pot. Vault, badasses, zombies. That’s all that is needed. But he also gives us corporate intrigue carried out by a sleazy corporate asshole, an ersatz zombie kingdom with smarter-than-average zombies who hold a trio of minor characters hostage, a love story between Scott and Maria that lasts all of thirty seconds before tragedy strikes, familial tension, comic relief that is not comic, CGI that is overcomplicated and under-rendered, and, most confusingly, zombie cyborgs that appear briefly in numerous spots of the film.

Zombie cyborgs? What in hell is this? No explanation or acknowledgment of this weirdness is given. At all. Nothing in the movie either prepares the viewer for these robots or offers even a hint that viewers weren’t just seeing things. Supposedly, these zombie cyborgs tie-in with Snyder and Netflix’s vision for an Army of the Dead franchise, with the details to be determined at a later date. The fact that no care was given to this idea — that it was just tossed in with no regard to whether or not a viewer even notices it — is the perfect example of Snyder’s take on storytelling. Everything is about working out the details later, but he never does. He just leaves it all in, making it all a jumbled mess, and ruining any tight focus on the main plot.

Then again, maybe that’s a plus, because the main plot of this movie takes place for far too long inside of a drab, grey, basement hallway. For a film that cost north of 70 million bucks to make, Snyder didn’t seem to spend a penny on sets, instead relying on CGI to provide anything worth looking at.

Is there anything else I didn’t like? There is, but this review is at 900+ words, plenty has been written about this flick already, and it’s time to get back to work that pays.

To end, this film is Hollywood crap through and through. Snyder managed to convince another studio to cut him a big check for world-building, and this is the result. Snyder’s flicks make enough money for him to keep getting projects, and that is all that matters. Meanwhile, this is probably the last of his films that I will watch. It’s a hateful experience, and I like bad movies that are enjoyable. Army of the Dead is an overwrought hunk of garbage. It’s too long, it’s too busy, and Snyder left one principal character alive at the end, which was one too many. Bad sequels have been made from less. This flick tumbles down the Watchability Index, landing amongst such despised films as Battleship and Pompeii, displacing Road Wars at #296. Stay away.

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