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 or shunting them to mid budget indies. Only a handful of directors are left who can draw a crowd and, for some reason, one of them is Zack Snyder.
Okay, so the reason 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 with 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.
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.
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. The film follows Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) as he assembles an elite team to recover hundreds of millions of dollars from the quarantine zone. 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 and have babies for reasons that are never explained. Despite a two and a half hour runtime none of the characters have satisfying introductions or backstories. Everything is 10% more complicated than it needs to be and every scene runs 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 breezy is suffocatingly sullen on the screen. The bright lights of Vegas and gory 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.
As a just a film, 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 them 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