Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
This has been touched on before, but it’s truly fascinating to see what filmmakers deliver when they’re let off the leash. Sometimes the result is cinematic gold, but other times it’s a perplexingly mixed bag. On the plus side, films like these are always worthy of discussion, even when it’s an unsatisfying experience. Nearly every great director like Christopher Nolan, P.T. Anderson, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Darren Aronofsky, Sofia Coppola and many others do sometimes have duds in their filmography, but these ‘duds’ still represent cinema at its most innovative and varied. Zack Snyder may not be the most universally beloved filmmaker, but you can’t deny he has a signature artistic style which gains a lot of attention and prompts constant debates. You know a Zack Snyder film when you see it, as is the case with Army of the Dead (2021).
The story begins with a deadly zombie escaping from a military convoy coming out of Area 51. The creature enters Las Vegas, resulting in the city being overrun with the zombie infection. In the battle to save Vegas, a handful of mercenaries make a name for themselves as effective zombie killers. This includes Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), Maria Cruz (Anabell Reguera), Mikey Guzman (Raúl Castillo), Chambers (Samantha Win) and Marianne Peters (Tig Notaro). After a while, Las Vegas is completely abandoned, thus letting the zombies form their own society. As Vegas is scheduled to be nuked, Casino owner Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) enlists Ward to assemble the mercenaries and recover $200 million from the city before the bomb drops. Meanwhile, Ward is trying to rebuild his relationship with his estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell). Kate goes along for the ride to rescue her friend Geeta (Huma Qureshi), who is currently lost in the zombie infested wasteland.
As you can probably tell from the above synopsis, there’s quite a lot of story to develop inside (what should be) a fairly simple plot. Snyder is clearly aware of how much ground there is to cover, as he opens the film with a stunning opening sequence reminiscent of his iconic Watchmen (2009) title scene. Right from this staggering start, the viewer becomes primed to experience a hilariously fun thrill ride. Snyder wastes no time in succinctly setting the stage for adventure, which is impressive considering how much set up is needed. We are told the rules, the stakes and introduced to the characters without any of it feeling expositional or confusing. The first act manages to cleanly set up so many interesting things and that momentum continues all the way through. By the third act Snyder has created an entire universe, but (strangely) a two and a half hour runtime isn’t enough to pay it all off.
This is probably the biggest issue holding the film back, as Snyder keeps introducing concepts without allowing the necessary breathing room to see them through. Granted, these threads are probably intended to lay the ground work for an inevitable cinematic universe of sequels and spinoffs, but this constant barrage of world-building prevents the story at hand from being appropriately developed. We are frequently intrigued by exciting ideas, yet very rarely do these ideas pay off. It’s a shame too, because nearly every single one will illicit extreme excitement and anticipation. Sadly, the effect this has is that you’re left waiting for nearly the entire runtime, making the extended middle stretch drag.
It can be very beneficial for action heavy films to have slower sequences, as it generally enhances the viewer’s investment (if the story is told effectively). This can even build the tension to a fever pitch, making the action blow out even more powerful. No action film has achieved this better than James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), and it feels like Snyder is completely aware of that. So much so, that Army of the Dead (2021) borrows so heavily from that earlier classic that it’s actually somewhat distracting. Characters, scenes, plot points, and even significant pieces of dialogue are all lifted straight from Aliens, which immediately puts Army of the Dead‘s narrative at a disadvantage. It’s not really possible to beat Aliens at its own game, so all Army of the Dead can do is redress Aliens’ famous moments with extra fluff.
That ‘fluff’ mostly comes in the form of Army of the Dead’s intense violence, which is all wonderfully on brand for Snyder. Dating all the way back to Dawn of the Dead (2004) and 300 (2006), Snyder has made a career out of delivering visually jaw-dropping action, and he definitely hasn’t lost his edge. At almost every turn, there are absolutely stunning and imaginative moments which will make you squirm in ways you weren’t expecting. Some of it may seem like overkill, but it’s to be expected from a zombie thriller. With that in mind, there is occasionally a slight lack of tension to these action sequences, as they mainly consist of just waves and waves of zombies being mowed down in machine gun fire. It’s to be expected that not all of our colourful characters make it out unscathed, but these moments also lack engagement as they can feel contrived.
This may sound like Army of the Dead isn’t any fun to watch, but that’s not entirely true. The film is definitely intending on being an enjoyable experience, and it is for the most part. However, it’s not as much fun as it needed to be, nor is it fun for the reasons you’d expect it to be. The set up and presentation makes you expect a romp, but Snyder attempts to tap into moments of compelling drama, which can confuse the tone in places it really shouldn’t. This isn’t helped by the bizarre choice to shoot everything with incredibly shallow focus, as this is a very deliberate artistic decision which doesn’t fit with the content. Whenever we are allowed to see the entire image clearly, it’s truly staggering how gorgeous this bleak world looks. It’s just regrettable that we don’t get many chances to see it.
Ultimately, Army of the Dead is a prime example of a director’s work in full view. We get to see Snyder’s greatest strengths and his greatest weaknesses, making it a perfect discussion piece for his filmography. It’ll probably be A-plus viewing for Snyder’s diehard fans, even with its imperfections. Regardless, those imperfections may hold it back from breaking through into public consciousness like Snyder’s earlier cult classics.
Best way to watch it: When you’re a few beers deep.