By the time The Cranberries’ Zombie plays out over the closing montage of Zack Snyder’s apocalyptic heist epic Army of the Dead, you’re likely to be in one of two camps. Either you’ve shut your brain off and become a zombie yourself, tapping your toe to Dolores O’Riordan’s vocals, or you’re shaking your head in disgust at the gall it took to toss this somber treatise on IRA bombings into a literal zombie film.
But Army of the Dead should not have been such a divisive experience.
The high-concept setup instantly sells the movie: after a zombie breakout in Las Vegas, quite nicely depicted in Army of the Dead’s opening credit sequence, the city is sealed off to prevent undead spread. A tent town of escapees is set up outside the walls to monitor any potential infections, while the government plans to nuke Vegas as a quick solution.
But there’s still plenty of cash in those casinos. So a ragtag group of mercenaries and other assorted characters led by Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) plot to sneak into the zombie-infested Vegas strip, break into an impenetrable casino vault, and fly a helicopter out of the place with tens of millions in cash on board.
It’s Ocean’s Eleven meets Dawn of the Dead, and it really can’t go wrong. But it does, in almost every way imaginable, largely due to decisions made by writer-director-cinematographer Zack Snyder, who was handed a $90 million sandbox by Netflix and cut loose from any inhibitions.
For starters, the version of Army of the Dead shot by Snyder is an obnoxiously ugly visual experience. The film’s brightness has jacked up so artificially that the usual black levels are now a pale gray. The result fits the sun-drenched setting but the washed-out look, especially in interior locations that should be awash in inky blacks and neon casino lights, is downright ugly.
Army of the Dead was also shot using a special 1970s Japanese-made lens with an incredibly shallow depth of focus. Throughout the entire film, just a single object or character on screen is in focus while both the foreground and background are a blurry mess. Snyder even rubs our nose in the style during nauseating rack focus shots.
Press photos from the set reveal how great-looking Army of the Dead might have been if shot in a more traditional manner. Maybe someone captured it on an iPhone.
Beyond the film’s visuals, Snyder has also put together a script that lurches from set piece to set piece rather than develop in any kind of cohesive manner. The result is a film that makes no sense, driven by characters whose actions make no sense: characters behave as cliches because this is how these archetypes behave in other movies, no because of any motivation given to them here.
Case in point: in a twist that will surprise no one, the shady businessman (played by Hiroyuki Sanada) that hires the heist crew to rob the casino actually has other motives. But when those motives are revealed, they render the entire movie pointless: there’s no rational reason for him to have gone to these great lengths to plot the casino heist in the first place. He betrays the team only because this is what this type of character does in these kinds of movies, internal logic be damned.
For those digging through Army of Dead in search of the zombie Ocean’s Eleven that they were sold, a single sequence actually pays off when safecracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer) and merc Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick) utilize the undead to disarm some of the traps around a massive vault.
Otherwise, Army of the Dead goes through the motions. The zombies aren’t a threat until the movie needs them to be a threat. Characters come to others’ aid when the movie calls for it, and betray them when the movie needs them to. Zombie king needs to get from one casino rooftop to another in a matter of seconds? No matter, insert a CGI shot of him riding a horse between the locations and outrunning a helicopter.
Tig Notaro’s character was been added in post-production, and the effect is seamless; not because the effect is so advanced that we believe she’s actually there, but because all of these characters might as well be acting their scenes out in front of a green screen and being patched into the movie afterwards. There’s no logic to what occurs between any of them.
Despite everything that doesn’t work in Army of the Dead, however, there’s plenty that does: Snyder is still an expert filmmaker in terms of spatial awareness and setting up individual sequences. Each set piece tends to play out just fine, even if it has little logical connection to what came before it.
And despite being bereft of character work, the cast is a lot of fun here: particularly Notaro’s sardonic helicopter pilot, Raúl Castillo’s gung-ho zombie shooter, and Nora Arnezeder’s coyote who sneaks the team past the gates. I could have done without the entire storyline involving Bautista’s character’s daughter (Ella Purnell) and the woman (Huma Qureshi) she’s hell bent on rescuing, however.
Despite its shortcomings, there’s enough of oddball interest in Army of the Dead to make it a worthwhile experience for both audiences looking to shut off their brains and audiences looking for something… strange. But for anyone who requires a coherent story and logic in their 2.5-hour zombie epic, or visuals that won’t cause eye problems, Army of the Dead is not the film they’re looking for.