In 2004, Zack Snyder made his first film. Remaking what is objectively George Romero’s best film isn’t ideal for a debut, but at least he and the production had the right idea—to reimagine Romero’s film much like John Carpenter had Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World. And so begins the dawn of the Dawn of the Dead remake, incidentally also Snyder’s best film, that is until the Snyder Cut of Justice League. It was—as fans fondly remember it—a pompous action-horror film much like the 1978 original, and just as wide-eyed and inspired. With the help of then-unknown screenwriter James Gunn, Snyder stripped much of the social resonance the Romero film had, but he also streamlined and modernized its appeal entirely separate from the original Dawn.
Flash forward to 2021, and we get Army of the Dead. There isn’t any better way to say it, except that it is everything that Dawn is not. Where his 2004’s debut feels obliged to contribute, his new film—exhaustively—likes to take (funny because it’s essentially a heist film). For starters, the plot is a shoe-shined derivative of Peninsula, where a group of mercenaries infiltrates an undead-infested Korea in order to retrieve a wealthy sum of money. Swap the setting with Las Vegas and have the team front-lined by Dave Bautista, et voila, you’ve got Netflix bankrolling your film. Whatever vivacity Snyder had for making an original zombie flick seems lost here.
What’s left, though, is Snyder’s thought to “care about every shot”. Apart from directing, he also partook in the film’s cinematography, an aspect at which the film excels. Some recognize it as mere flair or steak-less sizzle, but I take it more as a showcase of a skilled craftsman who tries to make space for his work. Whether that is in service of the story is an entirely different discussion, but here you can’t deny how hard Snyder flexed on his lensing and technical know-how. The bloat and the excesses are unmistakably there, but dang it if don’t they look pretty.
The film kicks off at the recession of the outbreak, with the United States able to contain the virus within Las Vegas. Seemingly determined to crack the hard-beaten punchline of “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”, the U.S. decides to nuke it, and the hordes of undead stuck inside. But before that, ex-vet Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) assembles a team to crack a safe containing an enormous amount of money, enough to split with fellow survivors, Maria (Ana de la Reguera) and Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), as well as a shady business magnate, named Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada). Being a Snyder film, there’s a considerable amount of bloat, and so when Scott & Co. survey the Vegas ruin, they encounter a more advanced type of zombies, an echo from Romero’s own Land of the Dead.
Interestingly, there’s talk of the zombies actually having extraterrestrial origin, and that, ridiculously, the U.S. government has been deploying robot zombies to study them, presumably in the hopes of weaponizing the undead. Though at first I thought it to be yet another indulgence on Snyder’s part, in hindsight it feels like a subconscious fear seeping into the film, given especially with worsening international tensions in various parts of the world. It’s one, however, that feels like an afterthought, barely central to the film unlike, say, the original Dawn of the Dead spurting socio-political commentaries left and right.
What’s most dishearting, however, is the film’s treatment of female characters. The zombie genre has gone a long way from the prototypical female lead, Barbara as played by Judith O’Dea in The Night of the Living Dead. Snyder’s own Dawn continued the trend of showing a capable and insightful female survivor with Sarah Polley’s nurse-turned-bona fide badass, Ana. Here, the screenplay—co-written by Snyder, Shay Hatten, and Joby Harold—female characters are yet again relegated to being either obnoxious mouthpieces or plot devices. Two death scenes feel particularly off, in that both deaths feel executed solely for the purpose of driving male characters’ arc forward.
In the end, it’s tough to recommend Army of the Dead, especially when there are decades of better zombie stories before it. There simply isn’t enough to excuse the bloat and janky screenwriting, even if a new Dave Bautista picture can be considered a win every time (seriously, cast him in more movies!). Though it’s nice to see Snyder going back to his no-frill-thrills roots, it isn’t unfair to say that he can do so much better than Army, and his past efforts are proof.