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Zack Snyder liberates himself from superhero glumness with zombie heist flick Army Of The Dead – The A.V. Club

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Note: The writer of this review watched Army Of The Dead on a digital screener from home. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.

Say what you will about the bombastic rock-video opuses of Zack Snyder, but the man does know how to open a picture, doesn’t he? The director of some of the dourest superhero movies of the last decade has, if nothing else, mastered the lost art of the opening credits sequence—a talent he flexes once more at the onset of his palette-cleansing new film, the action-horror hybrid Army Of The Dead. Through his signature style of near-tableau, Snyder depicts the fall of a Las Vegas overrun with ghouls. A Liberace impersonator is devoured by his dancers. A parachuting soldier floats helplessly into a horde, his billowing chute becoming a canvas painted bright red. Dropped bombs engulf the strip in gorgeous plumes of blue and orange. All this carnage is, naturally, set to the ironic tune of an Elvis cover and stamped with hot-pink text, creating a pageant of doomsday excess, a Sin City literally consumed by sinful appetite. It may be the best introductory montage to a Zack Snyder movie since, well, the Johnny Cash end-of-the-world blur that kicked off the filmmaker’s first feature and last visit to the zombie apocalypse, his Dawn Of The Dead remake.

Though the title and screeching main attractions imply otherwise, Army Of The Dead is not a continuation of that earlier movie, tonally or narratively. Rather than dabble again in the take-no-prisoners nihilism of his debut (what a proudly hopeless note on which to launch a career!), Snyder has slammed together an ecstatic pop-art genre pastiche, all familiar parts slathered in an appealing blockbuster polish. It’s at once his Aliens, his Ocean’s Eleven, and his Wild Bunch. One might call it his Suicide Squad, too, if that didn’t imply that the Man Of Steel director were still navigating a thunderously grim superhero universe of his own design, when he has in fact left it behind for one arguably just as indebted to the graphic component of graphic novels, just with a smaller helping of heavy-handed handwringing. This is a new kind of Snyder cut: fleet and almost breezy, even at a characteristically extended 2 1/2 hours.

What we’re seeing, under the flash of names, is a recap of the so-called Zombie Wars. Invaded by a virus-spreading escapee from Area 51, Vegas belongs now to the dead; it’s been walled off, like the New York of Escape From New York. This is the war-zone Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), a veteran of the bloody conflict, agrees to reenter at the behest of a wealthy client (Hiroyuki Sanada). The mission: retrieve nearly half-a-billion dollars locked inside an impenetrable vault on the top floor of an abandoned casino. Because every One Last Job requires a team of bantering professionals, Ward assembles his own dirty dozen/Ocean’s near-dozen. The roster includes old war-buddy-and-maybe-more Cruz (Ana de la Reguera); self-described “helicopter guy” Marianne (Tig Notaro); excitable German safecracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer); Reddit-famous headshot champ Guzman (Raúl Castillo); hardened French smuggler Lily (Nora Arnezeder); obligatory slime-ball tagalong Martin (Garret Dillahunt); trigger-happy Chambers (Samantha Win), whose red bandana recalls a certain James Cameron space marine; Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), who, uh, carries a big saw; and Ward’s estranged daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell).

It’s a big cast, but Army Of The Dead never feels overstuffed the way Snyder’s other 2021 team-building exercise did. Maybe that’s because the characters here are all flavorful archetypes with backstories easily conveyed in visual shorthand or quick snippets of dialogue. Or maybe it’s that the director (who co-wrote the script with Shay Hatten and Joby Harold) treats his plot like the derivative pulp it is, instead of like mythology transcribed from stone tablets. This is a long movie, but it doesn’t feel long. It moves, Snyder bounding with enthusiasm and little shame through clichés of his mashed-up video-store fare, like the moment where he walks us through—with a snappy illustrative flood of imagery—how the heist is supposed to unfold, which is to say how it won’t. Army’s general adherence to convention makes its deviations stand out. It’s a zombie movie with such enjoyable wrinkles in lore as a resurrected representative of the late Siegfried & Roy’s act, and a “hibernation stage” that turns crossing an infested lobby into a round of the quiet game with Bellagio-high stakes.

Army Of The Dead

Army Of The Dead
Photo: Netflix

Only in the context of a career swallowed whole by the superhero-industrial complex could Army Of The Dead look small in runtime, cost, or ambition. Snyder’s spectacle remains outsized, the volume of the threat teased by the title and realized through panoramas of teeming streets. It’s almost always striking. Occasionally, it achieves a Grand Guignol grandeur: a hand smearing blood off a windshield to reveal an approaching rocket, a congregation of misbegotten mutants moving into Renaissance-painting formation to mourn the loss of an heir to their wretched throne. Concerned almost exclusively with the power of his images, Snyder often neglects momentum, and his action scenes have more baroque swagger than excitement. But the stacked cast (led by Bautista, that slab of empathetic strong-man sensitivity) underscores the uncommon humanity of the material this time around. The personalities may be shopworn, but they’re personalities all the same, funny and engaging.

In a way, this B-movie on an A budget gets closer to the values of George Romero, the godfather of zombie cinema, than Snyder’s actual, hyper-adrenalized remake of Romero’s masterpiece. Turning Vegas into a fallen kingdom, its towers of glamour and vice emptied out, at least superficially recalls the satiric function of the multi-tiered shopping mall of Dawn Of The Dead, even if Snyder doesn’t pull hard enough on that thread. His characters are a multiracial, multicultural ensemble—a new generation of marginalized Americans (some of them immigrants), just like the ones that populated the early, best entries of Romero’s decades-spanning franchise. And if these aren’t the deepest heroes, they’re still starring in a Netflix zombie flick about veterans left to rot by their country and with scenes set within an abusive internment camp in the desert. That the film doesn’t belabor or over-stress its political conscience is vintage Romero, in the best sense.

“All this isn’t some excuse to reconnect with your daughter?” the level-headed Cruz asks her old comrade in the (re)killing business. She’s shrewdly acknowledging what really keeps Army’s heart thumping. It’s impossible, given the death of Autumn Snyder, not to see a personal dimension to the father-daughter conflict on which the story is built; the film is ultimately about as sentimental as it is fatalistic and irreverent—a thriller that takes its cues from Bautista’s classic “badass who’s actually a secret softie.” Mostly, though, Zack Snyder just seems to be having genuine fun. Even when queuing up a sad pop jam (guess which Cranberries hit gets an acoustic rendition?) or slowing the motion to the speed of an Aquaman strut, Army Of The Dead possesses few traces of the dreary self-importance that sinks his superhero epics. In fact, this unlikely liberation from that mode even hints at an auto-critique, putting the king of the dead in a cape and helmet, like some lurching refugee from a genre that’s entered creative rigor mortis. But maybe that’s overthinking the matter. Romero’s work aside, sometimes a zombie is just a zombie.

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