Army of the Dead (Review)

Somewhere, deep in the bowels of Zack Snyder’s latest cinematic mess, is a passable and fun zombie movie. You can see it from time to time, you can even sense that it exists on the page as some of the moments have a ludicrous energy and just commit to stupidity in a way his Dawn of the Dead remake really should have done. Things like a zombie tiger, the Vegas milieu in general and the full blown maximalism of it: there’s promise here. The film does not take itself seriously, assembles characters that have potential to spark off of each other nicely and goes big all the way through. Unfortunately, Zack Snyder just cannot let this film be fine, every choice he makes as a director – and especially as a cinematographer – is bewildering and neuters a film that could have had the dubious accolade of Snyder’s best work yet.

Taking its name, overtly, from Romero’s legendary Dead series – and serving as a spiritual successor to Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake (which some people like, for reasons beyond me), this film comes with some expectation. Ultimately, the Romero association feels false – and downright deceitful – where Romero’s zombie films (the trilogy especially) hew perceptive satire and commentary out of hordes of the undead, Snyder just makes an action film with zombies in it. It is more akin to a Fast and the Furious film than it is a Romero film, leaving the naming as a sore point. However, when viewed on its own terms, there is potential here. There is a Wild Bunch, or Seven Samurai perhaps (Magnificent Seven being a better touchstone), conceit of a group of toughs coming together to do a job. You know, a rag tag bunch with interesting – and often dark – pasts. It is a heist movie staple – getting the gang together – but the makeup of our crew is more akin to Wild Bunch gang (perhaps) than any number of Ocean’s pals. The film takes place during the zombie apocalypse, in which zombies are normalised. This is refreshing and sets the stage for a more interesting film. The narrative then becomes something where zombies are a tertiary threat – just a fodder enemy – allowing it to go different directions than traditional fare.

Alas, the direction it goes is traditional by another metric. It is a Vegas heist: get in, open big safe, get out. There is time pressure and sinister motivations – it’s all very standard. Of course, it is an excuse for over the top action and the film almost delivers. The script has these moments but the execution is bewilderingly bad. The effects work is proficient but feels weightless and unimpactful, just lots of CG gore that fails to entertain. Also, the on the nose needle drops (including Zombie by the Cranberries, a song definitively not about zombies) start to irritate very early on – or just have you laughing at the film. We then have traditional Snyderisms: superfluous slow motion, hammy dialogue (he is one of the hands behind the script) and unearned attempts at pathos. Oh, and the film being far too long. This two and half hour movie needs to be an hour and forty-five minutes at most, and could be good at that length. What we are left with is a drawn out mess that frequently bores. In this bloated running time, Snyder shoves in more backstory, more character moments and a whole load of slow-motion. All of this is bad. It is a film that would benefit from being tight and focused: staying over the top and and fun, with no attempts at sincerity and emotion. Alas, it cannot be this.

The main issue, though, is that the film is often basically unwatchable. Snyder, buoyed up by the frequent claims of visionary status – and perhaps by him having actually being allowed to do the Snyder Cut – has made the ridiculous decision to serve as director of photography on this film. This is a role he is not suited for and he, perhaps singlehandedly, ruins his film. Framing is an issue throughout: this is a big film full of big moments and the appeal is how big it is, so he decides to shoot close and keep things claustrophobic. This is an example of how the film uses more of the logic of a video game than a movie, where fixed or constrained cameras work really well – mostly due to the player controlling the space. By making it more gamey, Snyder loses a lot of filmic potential and his up close and personal zombie film is not a success. The camera feels removed from anything of interest and, in a film where spectacle is the only appeal, you just do not see enough of it. And here we get to the film’s biggest issue: the shallow focus. Snyder, as DP, has decided to use specific old lenses (on his fancy new cameras) known for their aggressively shallow focus. What this means is that throughout the entire film there is always only very little – or specific things – in focus. There is a lot of focus shifting but, quite simply, a lot of the film is nigh unwatchable.

You spend so much of the film watching out of focus characters wave in focus things, or trying to work out what that blur that is taking up most of the screen is doing. Shallow focus is a powerful tool when used precisely; when used for everything – and with reckless abandon – it is a mess. It also does not fit the film at all. Snyder claims it gives his film a dreamlike feel. First of all: it does not. I don’t know about you, Mr Snyder, but my dreams are in focus. And wider dreamlike cinema is in focus. Second of all: why? This is not a dream-logic film and, even if the aesthetic approach made it feel dreamlike, that wouldn’t fit. This is a film where you want to see all the madness. You want big explosions, bright lights and large set pieces. You instead have out of focus, constrained nonsense.

Really, this is all a shame. This is a film that could have been good and is almost totally fine. There is an okay film here that is turn-your-brain-off fun. And then it is destroyed by bizarre decisions. There are still good moments: satisfying kills; nice subversions and Tig Notaro being a really fun presence (she’s edited into the film for reasons that are worth looking into and ends up being the best part of it – she’s also edited in pretty well, though this is made easy by the fact the film looks so ugly). As it stands, the film is a mess and does not merit a recommendation. If it was shorter and shot differently, maybe. In reality, Netflix needs to start constraining its directors.

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