Army of the Dead: Mythologizing the Zombie
First things first: if you’re walking into Army of the Dead hoping for a zombified version of Ocean’s Eleven — understandable perhaps, given the marketing — you’re going to want to disabuse yourself of that notion. To be fair, this shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise — director Zack Snyder may be known for a lot of things, but freewheeling fun isn’t one of them and his latest (made for Netflix, a studio gaining notoriety for filmmaker indulgence) sits comfortably amidst the rest of his oeuvre.
Snyder occupies a unique spot in modern cinema. In an environment where the director’s (and star’s) primacy has been usurped by the franchise, Snyder has become the fanboy’s auteur, garnering unadulterated devotion and reverence for his gloomy, slow-motion visions. Personally, I’ve found that he’s at his best when he hones in on archetypal characters and themes, whereas he’s far less adept at ground-level emotion and plotting, a dichotomy that plays out in Army of the Dead to somewhat mixed but ultimately successful results.
Like I said at the top, this isn’t your easygoing ensemble movie. Sure, you’ve got a “putting the team together” sequence, rounding out the crew with plenty of colorful characters, including the requisite comic relief, but the commonalities shared by our heroes are mostly rooted in trauma, as we see in an expansive opening montage. Led by Dave Bautista as an emotionally scarred survivor just trying to make things right, their mission is simple enough: enter a quarantined Las Vegas, make their way through the thousands of zombie residents, steal the casino holdings left behind in the evacuation, and get out before the United States government nukes the entire area to smithereens.
It’s a strong enough premise that it doesn’t particularly matter that the execution ends up being fairly rote — the narrative mostly exists as a vehicle for zombie mayhem and emotional catharsis, to varying degrees of success. The latter rests almost exclusively on the (very broad) shoulders of Bautista, who continues to prove himself as an impressively versatile actor as he carries Snyder's fairly on-the-nose interrogation of familial trauma to a place of emotional honesty. The former is probably why you bought a ticket though, and for the most part Snyder delivers, crafting crisp zombie action and gross-out violence while shooting the film himself, making use of extremely shallow focus to interesting — if sometimes distracting — effect.
But Army of the Dead really shines when Snyder’s career-long fascination with gods and mythology takes center stage, twisting the typical zombie tropes into something reminiscent of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend as the director spends long scenes with the undead society living inside the abandoned city. It’s in these moments where Snyder’s themes and visual stylings best co-exist, hinting at something far darker yet perhaps still human in a way that both thrills and disgusts. In a film that threatens to exhaust itself before it reaches the finish line, it’s this sort of blockbuster-friendly perversity that — along with the talents of Bautista and the likeability of the rest of the cast — keeps the whole thing afloat.