7/10 In Zack Snyder’s Justice League, Snyder’s name famously appears before even the Warner Bros. logos. In the electric opening credits sequence for Army of the Dead – a depiction of the city falling to a zombie plague and being walled off set to “Viva Las Vegas,” regrettably the only time the movie actually makes use of its location and by far the best part of a quite decent film – writer/cinematographer/director/producer Zack Snyder’s name appears a whopping six times.
In Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead, a military convoy traveling from Area 51 is sucked into a head-on collision by some newlyweds giving each other road head on the way to Las Vegas. This frees their cargo, a single zombie, who unleashes a plague on the nearby city, which must be walled off to contain the horde. Years later, with 96 hours left before the government nukes the problem away, casino owner Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) recruits Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) to recover $200 million in cash still stashed in his vault beneath the Strip.
Army of the Dead is a weird beat-for-beat remake of Aliens with a cinematography style that Snyder clearly wanted to experiment with. It’s a decent example of the kind of thing you get when a director who is more distinctive than he is talented gets full control of his project from before its start until after its finish.
For Snyder, who debuted as a director with 2004’s Dawn of the Dead, Army of the Dead is a long-awaited homecoming. He’s been trying to produce a sequel since 2007, but only secured $90 million in funding in 2019 after turning to Netflix, as many name directors are these days. After the years-long saga with the DCEU, he described the project as a “palate cleanser” and an opportunity to explore genre. He actually said that.
Auteurism isn’t just a matter of the creative control that DC tried to sell, it’s a matter of passion, the project being the director’s idea in the first place, and so Army of the Dead is a Zack Snyder film in a way that Justice League, even Zack Snyder’s Justice League, never could have been. This part of Snyder’s career seems to be defined by rapidly changing hyperfixations – this is what really sunk the idea of Zack Snyder’s Justice League as being Zack Snyder’s original vision, as it was billed. He spent the four years between the theatrical release and his director’s cut making an ass out of himself in interviews, claiming that ideas he’d clearly just come up with on the spot were always part of his original ideas for the movie, turning what was already a disorganized mish-mash of styles into an even bigger mess when he was finally allowed to “fix” it.
In this, he’s much better able to capture a specific set of ideas, and it’s an interesting mix. This is Snyder’s first director of photography credit and his first digitally shot film with cameras were custom-built for the movie – Red Digital Cinema made Snyder cameras for some 60 year-old lenses he found on eBay – and at its best, Army of the Dead is just a camera nerd playing around with his half-new, half-antique toy. They spent inordinate amounts of time on minor scenes so Snyder could work more with natural lighting, and Bautista said that Snyder would often just keep the camera rolling and dick around with it, which is great. Camera nerds getting to spend exorbitant amounts of time and money with tools so expensive no one ever buys them outright is a wonderful outcome for a movie production.
The whole movie is shot distinctly in the style of the tacked-on epilogue at the end of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, with the extremely shallow focus and lens flair shifting into and out of the frame as the camera swims. That specific part wasn’t half-bad, and Army of the Dead is a much better and more dedicated exercise of the technique, which clearly goes back to the unique tools they were working with – what drew Snyder to these lenses was their extremely wide aperture, which defines this style. It’s not for everyone, but it’s immediately distinctive, and that’s another wonderful outcome.
Army of the Dead builds an elaborate caste system for its zombies, in part to build up the already-approved spinoffs and in part to differentiate the zombies’ behavior so we can have different styles of scenes. This turns into a weird ripoff of Aliens, with many of the same characters and moments and even some lines pulled straight out, and that’s unfortunate. I don’t know why they went that direction. It was clearly not a smart move to lean so heavily on a movie that remains a beloved and influential classic.
The fear of losing a child pervades the film in some uncomfortable ways. There’s a whole subplot about Ward reconnecting with his daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell), who volunteers at the refugee camp bordering Las Vegas and insists on going into the quarantine zone with them, which feeds into the Aliens plot points. Additionally, the zombies appear to reproduce asexually, and there’s a detailed scene of the loss of a zombie fetus later in the film. Snyder says this is all in good fun, but for someone whose personal and professional life has been very publicly ripped apart over the past five years after the sudden loss of his daughter, that’s hard to take at face value.
Army of the Dead is irreverent, violent and usually fun, and it serves as a strange window into a filmmaker who might have been, his talent taken out from the shadow of the DCEU’s missteps and his own attempts at being a media mogul instead of an artist. He’s actually still quite good at it.