Fresh off the success of his four-hour cut of Justice League (2021), Zack Snyder takes his screenplay that had been stuck in development hell for years and uses his current goodwill to jump behind the camera and make the film himself.
Army of the Dead sells itself as a George Romero zombie film mixed with Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven (2001). Dave Bautista plays Scott Ward a mercenary for hire who assembles a crew to infiltrate the walled-off, zombie-infested Las Vegas. The goal is to steal the $200 million from an underground vault before the government nukes the city in hopes of containing the outbreak.
The script for Army of the Dead is a mess. It has very awkward pacing – highlighted by a far too long prologue – and is filled with numerous things for YouTube cynics to nitpick. The script’s largest issue comes from the film’s supposed emotional center. Scott uses the heist as an excuse to reunite with his daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) who works as a volunteer in a camp adjacent to the walled off Vegas. She is clearly meant to be who the audience resonates with as Scott is a cold protagonist. Before the reunion with her father, Kate makes a pact with her friend who is being forcefully held in the camp that if she attempts to escape – which must be done through the infested city – Kate will watch her friend’s children until they can be reunited. As Scott and the others are preparing to enter the city, Kate realizes that her friend did in fact enter Vegas but has not emerged leaving the children abandoned. This sets up a powerful dilemma for Kate, but instead of exploring that Snyder simply uses it as an excuse to force Kate into the city with her father and completely forgets about the abandoned children. In a script filled with head scratching moments, denying the film its natural heart is the most damaging to the film.
While Snyder may have looked to Romero and Soderbergh for inspiration, the only director whose influence Snyder truly takes to heart is his own. Romero’s Living Dead films were filled with social commentary from a man with a lot to say on the subject. Snyder on the other hand is extremely misanthropic, and this deprives the film of any meaningful commentary. While the film sets up for the potential of an immigration story, the open-air detention facility is purely used as a plot contrivance and then promptly ignored for more action. Zack Snyder does not care to use his platform to create an allegory. This same misanthropy is also at the heart of why Snyder struggles to capture the wit in Soderbergh’s Ocean’s films. While the film is filled with jokes, each of them is mean spirited and come at the expense of someone. This provides none of the levity that drives the Soderbergh’s films and instead creates an unpleasantness which causes the film to feel a slog.
If the film fails to capture the essence of the narrative’s inspirations, Snyder does at least perfectly replicate his own style. Every shot is stylized to the point at which it ceases to have any connection to reality. For the first time, Snyder chose to sit directly behind the camera and shoot his own film, and his personal vision does not work well as a cinematography. In service of making every shot interesting, he kept the depth of field extremely shallow often putting important characters behind a soft focus for no discernible reason. Just as a film should not use exclusively flat shots, one also should not always employ extreme composition techniques. This flawed decision is further amplified by Snyder’s signature desaturated color pallet – a decision which completely wastes using the gaudy Vegas Strip as a setting. The result is a film that is actively straining on the eyes to watch.
Snyder’s other stylistic signatures are present as well. The film makes liberal use of bullet time imagery and dramatic rewinds to create entertaining set pieces. This is where the film is most comfortable, creating graphic violence by and against the zombies. Unfortunately, this positive aspect of the film becomes gratuitous at times, and the interesting visual flare does little to counteract the numerous other flaws.
Zack Snyder was intimately involved in nearly every part of Army of the Dead and his presence comes across clearly on the screen. The film is not without vision, but vision alone does not create a good film. Between a nonexistent theme, the misanthropic souring of narrative tropes, and a headache inducing visual style, Army of the Dead is the most Zach Snyder film in the worst way. Snyder is best when subject to some restraint, and it is clear that no one felt comfortable telling him “no” for this endeavor.