Modern Hollywood offers precious few opportunities for auteur directors. Long gone are the days when a big name auteur behind the camera — someone like Hitchcock or Coppola — meant a critical mass of eyeballs. Big franchises have crowded out the idiosyncratic blockbusters of old, either assimilating their directors into the IP fold or shunting them to mid budget indies. Only a handful of directors are left who can draw a crowd for an original idea and, for some reason, one of them is Zack Snyder.
Okay, so we all know the reason and it isn’t all that complicated. The studio industrial complex lifts up comic book content and Snyder is perhaps the genre’s most prolific purveyor. His ultra grim Superman trilogy won him legions of devoted fans and launched him into a tier of sought after filmmakers given near total autonomy. The cult of Snyder netted him blank checks from Warner and Netflix to reshoot and recut his disastrous Justice League and create the brand new Army of the Dead respectively.
We don’t need to re-litigate the Justice League debacle, that has been done plenty with very little value coming from it. Army of the Dead — and what it says about Snyder and Hollywood — is the the much more interesting subject at this moment.
Only the second original concept of Snyder’s career, Army of the Dead is a big action/horror heist film. Las Vegas has been quartered off after being overrun by a zombie outbreak and is set to be nuked to protect the rest of the country. Part mercenary, part treasure hunter Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) believes he can recover hundreds of millions of dollars from the quarantine zone before the blast. In furtherance of this goal he seeks the help of an elite team of wisecracking soldiers and safe crackers to pull the job. Zombies! Nukes! Heists! Sounds like fun, right?
It’s Zack Snyder so things are a bit more complicated than “fun.” Zombies are tiered into a ruling class and a mindless horde. The undead have babies for some reason that the film mercifully never explains. Despite a two and a half hour runtime none of the characters have satisfying introductions or backstories. Everything they do is at least 10% more complicated than it needs to be and every scene runs at minimum 10% too long. Most importantly though, Army of the Dead exists to create a new franchise. A prequel has already been shot, an animated series will follow.
Army of the Dead is Snyder calling all the shots. It’s also the director giving into his worst excesses. What should be fun and gory is suffocatingly sullen and still gory on the screen. The bright lights of Vegas and gruesome zombie combat never manages to lighten this relentlessly dour film. Like Justice League before, it’s a long film that’s tough to sit through.
On its own merits, director and context aside, Army of the Dead is simply another bad movie, but it’s more than just a film. If we can only get a handful of big budget films that aren’t Marvel, Star Wars or Fast and the Furious, it’s a shame to waste one of the industry’s exceedingly rare blank checks on something so thoroughly bleak. At least other big ticket auteurs like Nolan or Anderson are making visual spectacles out of inventive ideas. They can fall short too, but at least the ambition level is high. Neither of Snyder’s releases this year carry any hope that his ascension to the top tier of studio direction will reach that bar.
Army of the Dead has all the hallmarks of a fun summer blockbuster but executes on none of them. The result is a dull film as emotionally dead as the zombies it depicts. 2/10