The year is 2004. A remake of the iconic Romero flick Dawn of the Dead is released in theatres, promising a modern retelling with a more vicious bite than its predecessor. It’s given a relatively low budget of $26 million, though far more than Romero ever had access to, and the odds are stacked against it – George Romero is the literal godfather of the Zombie genre, after all. Well, this remake goes wild, making over $100 million worldwide with its frightening scares and its gruesome gore; this movie had a particularly visceral style that set it apart from other remakes. That style came from the plucky newcomer known as Zack Snyder.
Zombies are what propelled Snyder into the cinematic consciousness – many regard Dawn as his best work, and one of the best modern zombie films. Interestingly enough, despite Snyder’s latest philosophical waxing in his approach to superheroes, the socio-political subtext of Romero’s original was noticeably lacking in Snyder’s adaptation. Perhaps it’s because Snyder knew he needed to terrify his audience into amazement before injecting in his complex philosophical interests, and figured the easiest route was style over substance. It certainly worked.
17 years and a nasty divorce with Warner Brothers later, Zack Snyder has returned to the world of the undead to remind everyone of what his name meant. Taking us back to a time before he was wading into the complicated waters of cinematic universes and people in tightened spandex. Army of the Dead makes sense as a cinematic rebirth for Zack when you consider his beginnings, but there’s a lot more riding on it. No one knew Zack Snyder when Dawn of the Dead premiered – now, for better or worse, everyone knows who he is, or at least his cut of a certain superhero team-up.
Army of the Dead feels slightly connected to Dawn, although this time the Snyderian philosophy seems to make itself known – by having Las Vegas as the epicentre for zombie rule, the subtle critique of consumerism feels more like a shotgun blast to the head. Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) leads our rag-tag group of misfits, tasked with heisting $50 million from a casino’s vault before the U.S. government annihilate the Sunset Strip with an atomic bomb. Snyder wastes little time with the backstory and lore, with his opening montage filling us in on some of our characters’ humble beginnings, alongside his signature slow-motion peppered into some vicious zombie annihilation – the key players of the team all assisted or participated in escaping the initial outbreak from Las Vegas.
Snyder gets the gang together: there’s Ludwig the Safecracker (Matthias Schweighofer), Marianne the Pilot (Tig Notaro), and Maria and Vanderohe the Old Friends (Ana de la Reguera & Omari Hardwick). From the outset, you know exactly the types of individuals we’re dealing with and thus the journeys and endings they’ll ultimately meet – the human dimension of Army of the Dead does feel relatively formulaic and routine, there’s certainly nothing ground-breaking nor subversive that Snyder brings to the table. It feels a little like he binged the Fast and Furious series and made some passing notes on their own rag-tag group. However, whereas Fast and Furious’ has strong, independent female characters, Army just has female characters. Each seems to serve a male master in some form, unable to have their own drives or objectives – both Maria and Scott’s daughter Kate’s (Ella Purnell) stories end up pivoting entirely around their feelings toward him (though I would certainly go to Kate and Scott’s artisan grilled cheese food truck.) The only truly strong and independent woman of the crew is Marianne, ironically telling considering Tig Notaro was a last-minute replacement for what was originally Chris D’Elia.
Where Snyder lacks in humans, he makes up for in zombies. Perhaps ‘army’ was the wrong word to put in the title however, ‘battalion’ might make more sense considering the lack of a horde or an indominable mass like the numbers we see in Dawn of the Dead. While I wouldn’t say it’s an innovation, Snyder does add to the zombie lexicon in creative and intriguing ways that reanimate the horror into the undead beings. The ‘Alphas’ as they’re labelled are immensely unsettling in their evil cunning and unflinching aggression, the fear coming from your doubt of being able to outsmart them – it seems that by putting just a drop of humanity back into them, they terrify us all over again. There’s also the highly-publicized zombie tiger, which is purely for spectacle’s sake; a tiger in itself is a heart-pounding adversary, so having to face a zombified version doesn’t add much more to the danger factor – either way, you’re getting eaten. It definitely feels more like a moment of pure stylistic spectacle thrown in by Snyder to dazzle the audience, a recycling of his toybox of tricks from Dawn of the Dead, perhaps. There’s also a moment that is entirely inexplicable, and downright confusing to the point of absurdity that it must be purely for shock value – when you watch it, you’ll know what I mean. There are some rotting foes that aren’t explained, but perhaps this is some intentional setup we’ll see paid off in the universe’s additional instalments coming.
Army of the Dead also feels too long – there’s a certain moment in the second act where we just begin to lose momentum, where they enact this dance of comical problems and equally silly solutions. It does eventually pick up as the stakes are expectedly raised, because this is a heist film, shit goes sideways and fast. It’s not hard to see coming the curveballs that Snyder throws.
Ultimately, Army of the Dead doesn’t re-capture the same outrageous and stylistic flair that Zack’s debut with Dawn of the Dead did – there’s fun to be had with this zombie-heist caper, but it’s certainly nothing new or ground-breaking, which is what feels like Snyder should be doing if he’s choosing to return to a genre, rather than go through the motions again. With superheroes, he made gods feel like they were cursed with purpose, but with this, it just feels like an Ocean’s off-shoot. It’s certainly worth your time to watch, but perhaps Zack should cash out from the zombie genre while he’s up.
Army of the Dead is available on Netflix from May 21st.