‘Army of the Dead’ Review: Has Snyder rediscovered his sense of fun?

In this startlingly original tale a dirty dozen/suicide squad are assembled to infiltrate a walled off American city (think Escape from New York) to retrieve a rich man’s fortune from a zombie infested casino. Unfortunately Burke from Aliens is here to complicate matters with his ulterior motives pertaining to the weapons market. The zombies have also evolved, forming a savage society (like Ghosts of Mars) hellbent on turning the hapless band. Can they steal the gold and escape the advanced zombies before a nuclear weapon destroys the entire city?

Of course Zak Snyder’s zombie apocalypse started with a blowjob that got out of hand. In its opening moments, Army of the Dead promises a more irreverent and over-the-top experience than Snyder’s dower and joyless superhero efforts. However one of Snyder’s great weaknesses has always been tone. The lengthy opening sequence features tongue-in-cheek moments of splatter intercut with our main characters stoically standing with pictures of their lost families. Comedic moments land with a thunk, emotional beats pass by like a mild breeze. There are several character death scenes the intended tone of which are impossible to discern. Needless to say, almost none of the deaths are mourned by another character or have any impact on the plot, which again is mostly the plot of Aliens. Mostly.

In addition to the more overt plot points borrowed from classic cinema, the film also makes reference to An American Werewolf in London, Die Hard, Game of Thrones, and Mad Max Fury Road. It really can’t be understated the extent to which this film lifts plot points and even dialogue from Aliens. Of course there is no true originality in any artistic endeavour, everything is borrowed, but it’s very distracting to have constant reference made to superior films when the film is so incapable of making these elements feel fresh or interesting. These characters are cliched and flat. The talented cast rile against the confines of the writing, trying to squeeze as much life and meaning as possible out of the lacklustre dialogue but it’s tragically in vain. Not even the zombie tiger can liven this dirge up.

The purest distillation of Snyder’s style is still Sucker Punch and all of that film’s faults are on display here. The only development in his style is that since Man of Steel his films have all been torturously long. Two and a half hours is far too long to spend with bland characters and a script that doesn’t know how to be serious or offbeat. Add the usual complaints of Michael Bay style colour palettes, Adam Sandler style humour, morose pop music covers, and an over-reliance on CGI and you’ve got a film that is trying to be a romp, but can’t avoid being a drudge.

It does have a delicious premise and politically interesting, exploring how an oppressive system might use the cover of a pandemic to justify horrific abuse of power. It’s a dramatic concept and one that is of course very relatable, though in a time when a global pandemic is only finally being suppressed by mass vaccination which depends upon mass public compliance, perhaps not the message we need most right now. The most troubling abuse of power experienced in the west lately is certainly not that governments did too much. Not that any of this lasts beyond the opening act. It’s window dressing that allows it to breezily skirt by one of the dark moments of the story. If there is a unifying theme or moral, it can be a holdover from what was stolen from more entertaining films.

Snyder’s recent films haven’t quite felt like films. The lengths and repetitive nature make them feel more like videogames in which narrative is secondary to gameplay. This is Snyder the superstar playing to his fans. His name appears several times over the opening credits, and perhaps somewhere in the world people are applauding. I wish I found him fun in a visceral way. I wish I could get on board with a director owning his style and delivering something disposable but compelling but Snyder just represents far too much of what I feel is ruining potential cult movies like this. Use some practical gore effects, find a writer who can write characters and has a sense of humour, stop making everything so dour, and for god’s sake keep it to 90 minutes. I do get the impression Snyder is having fun, but I no longer believe he is capable of delivering a fun experience.

Two Stars

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