As a director who, according to his own statement, loves everything called a zombie film and made his feature film debut with an acclaimed new version of George A Romero's classic Dawn of the Dead, Zack Snyder has remained alarmingly far from the genre the last 17 years. But now he's back. After ten years in the role of Warner's tormented errand boy, he has landed outside the DC Comics sphere for the first time since Sucker Punch and with a script he wrote in 2005, believe it or not.
Snyder finished writing the first draft of Army of the Dead a little over a year after the cinema premiere of Dawn of the Dead and has over the years pitched the idea to almost every film company worth its name, without any luck. It was only when Netflix's creative big boss Scott Stuber heard about the old script that Snyder's bank account was filled, giving him the chance to realise his old zombie vision. On Friday, it has its Netflix premiere, and I've seen it.
Army of the Dead is a 150-minute action thriller about a group of former special forces who are commissioned by a former hotel magnate to, under current quarantine conditions in a post-apocalyptic future United States, sneak past fences, guard forces and 200,000 roaring zombies to finally find $200 million in unmarked banknotes that sit nicely in a giant vault under one of Las Vegas' many luxury hotels. The premise is super simple. Mix Dawn of the Dead with Predator and Ocean's 11 and you have what Snyder has chosen to call a "zombie heist movie". The main role is played by former WWE wrestler Dave Bautista and the rest of his gang of retired warheads are all cheap TV actors, to instead be able to put the bulk of the production budget on size and scope.
When the Army of the Dead first showed off its sun-bleached, zombie-infected creatures in the form of the first trailers, I started building hype. I love the 2004 Dawn of the Dead and consider it the best zombie movie of all time together with 28 weeks later, and thanks to Dawn, 300, Watchmen and Zack Snyder's Justice League, Snyder has a very special place in my black old man heart. Often his films are perhaps good-looking rather than good, but when he succeeds with both parts, he appeals to the comic book nerd in me while also appealing to the graphic designer in me. However, I would be lying to you if I even for a pitiful second claimed that I think this film is particularly good, because unfortunately it is not.
The basic problem in Army of the Dead is that the script basically does not work. The characters are mostly poorly motivated, pancake-thin stereotypes that make the Fast & Furious jokes appear like Shakespeare. Bautista's character, with its terribly woody, rigid appearance and limited range, is bizarrely the best of them all, which says a lot. Throughout the first hour, the written dialogue and performance of it feels like a box office Saturday Night Live joke and virtually nothing works as it should. The characters express themselves in ways that make scenes freeze to ice, the tempo slows down, the presence is lacking and the intensity is completely absent. It doesn't get much better after the gang has climbed over the barricades and taken to the Las Vegas Strip, either. Zack Snyder himself has acted as a film photographer here and drowns every single frame with what most resembles a stylistic music video composition where the ultra-short depth of field is the bit that saps the most. When he then cuts from extreme close-ups to sedentary full-lengths, where his "top-trained" soldiers move far from gracefully, the majority of "suspense scenes" just seem like a parody.
It gets a little better, but not much. The last half hour is tighter than the previous two hours and the amount of bloody splatter, intestines and other gore pulls up the rating a tad, but overall this is hysterically mediocre. Compared to Dawn of the Dead in particular, almost every high-quality ingredient is missing here. Pace, intensity, drive, shock, punch, momentum, excitement, nerve... Army of the Dead lacks the stir.