A look at the film ‘Army of the Dead’ directed by Zack Snyder
Of all the things in life that we should value the most and protect and respect, that we must treat with the utmost care and attention…
No, not our collections of Lego kits, though that is something that ranks quite high for me. What I’m talking about is friends; people who have elevated themselves above the rank of acquaintance and with whom you are happy to spend time with on a non-mandatory basis.
Friends are people who look out for each other. People who suggest things you ought to try, and warn you away from those things that would cause harm. It’s because of this that I write this essay with a little chagrin as I had been warned well away from ‘Army of the Dead’ not even a week ago.
It was a conversation much like any other. “Seen anything new?” I asked.
“Yeah. Watched ‘Army of the Dead’ and it was shit!”
“Cliched, shallow, bollocks…”
I was then given a basic rundown of the premise of the film; a military convoy carrying a zombie solider has an accident and the zombie gets loose. It finds it’s way to nearby Las Vegas which is quickly overrun and the city is walled off. A long time later, just a couple of days before the city is to be nuked to eliminate the contained zombie threat, a small team are put together by a wealthy businessman to retrieve money from a bank vault.
And from there, you can quickly form a mental picture how it will play out. There’s the usual ensemble of cliché characters formed using the usual cliché archetypes. The big, tough one. The nerdy tech guy who’s never learned to fight. The military warrior woman. The compassionate one with a humanitarian side-concern. The dry, sarcastic one and last, but not least, someone with business ties to the instigator of the mission who is duty bound to have a secret objective of his own and will unsuccessfully betray all the others.
This film manages to be as disappointing as any film can possibly be by not disappointing a single one of your prejudices or expectations. It gives you everything you suspect it’s going to do which makes it predictable in the most egregious of ways possible. It goes well beyond ‘unsurprising’, even blows well through the platform of ‘well-used-trope’ and crashes through the buffers of ‘unforgivable nonsense’, and ends up in a crumpled and bloody mess in a wreckage of ‘rehashed and ripped-off ideas’.
Imagine if a great film like ‘Aliens’ had it’s core premise ripped out of it and then dropped into any cookie-cutter zombie-nonsense project with no attempt to hide the similarities. It’s like a bad TV-movie version of a real disaster that begins with the words “this is based on actual events. Some names have been changed and composite characters used for dramatic purposes.” Except in this instance, it would have to say, “You’ve seen all this before in other, much better films already. Plot devices have been unceremoniously ripped off, others shamelessly copied and character names have been changed to avoid getting into trouble with copyright lawyers.”
What makes this even more of an horrific offence is that not a single character warrants any investment from the audience. Any half decent film can be paused after roughly half and hour and you can name all the primary players but have no idea how it will all play out. This one has it all back to front; you already know how the rest of the film will pan out but you’ve not had any reason to remember anyone’s name, care about where they came from or why they’re there now.
Now, I’m not well versed on the back catalogue of Zack Snyder, but I’ve seen just enough, and heard from reliable sources about the rest, to be able to say that he’s establishing a bit of a reputation for overlong, messy films full of padding and fluff and lacking in real substance.
This film, again, is disappointingly up to standard in this respect also. What was easily an eighty-minute film will take nearly two-and-a-half hours to reach its frustrating, forgettable and predictable outcome. Most of the padding is achieved with gratuitous use of slow-motion scenes that do nothing for the overall pacing of the film.
And as if that isn’t enough to give you a tension headache, you’ll get also get one from eyestrain while you hunt across the screen for the one tiny little bit that is actually in focus. You can’t even blame this on a dickhead, inexperienced Director of Photography since Snyder himself chose to be the DP on this film.
He’s, somehow, managed to find all the lenses with a focal length roughly as deep as the width of your middle finger and then shot the entire film with them dialled as low as they’ll go. While you could argue that this forces the viewers perspective into a single relevant point in each shot, you can also argue that it takes away all sense of ambient perspective and makes each scene even softer than a tub of margarine that’s been left out in the afternoon sun for a few hours at a picnic.
It’s yet another nail in the coffin of misery for ‘Army of the Dead’ which has no shortage of nails holding the lid closed. It’s so hard to find anything positive to say about it. To suggest that the arrival of the end credits is the only positive take-away would be as overused a cliché as any of the films crucial characters or plot elements. But I honestly struggle to find anything else to offer in terms of what I can say to provide just cause for approaching it.
The zombie genre has taken a real pounding in the last fifteen years or so. Some of the escapades have been light-hearted and fun, some have attempted to be a bit more serious and profound. Some were over and done with after about a hundred mins, others ran for a decade as a series. Each has had its good and bad points but all had at least ‘some’ redeemable moments, even if they eventually outlived their welcome.
Each time, whether good or bad, there was something brought to the table that offered something slightly different and provided a little entertainment if nothing else. Sadly, Snyder’s attempt is neither entertaining nor bringing anything yet unseen to the playing field. What may have sounded like a great idea while half-cut with a group of friends around a pub-table doesn’t always translate well into the world of sober thought.
You know a friend has your back when they talk you down from doing something stupid. Whether it’s reminding you not to take the toaster in the bath with you, warning you away from life-threatening dangers like watching ‘Swiss Army Man’ or even trying to save you two-and-a-half hours of your life you could have better spent licking gunpowder residue from the barrels of loaded guns… If ever there was a time when I should have heeded the warnings given to me, this was one.
So don’t make the mistake I did and think that what you’ve heard must all be a bit of light-hearted overreacting, or exaggerating for comedic effect.
There really is no need for ‘Army of the Dead’ to exist, nor is there any point in watching it. You’ve seen everything it does elsewhere in a better state.
You want a film about Vegas? Watch an ‘Oceans’ film.
You want a heist film? Watch ‘The Italian Job’.
You want to see the company guy betray the heroes? Watch ‘Aliens’.
You want zombies? Watch ‘Zombieland’ which at least manages to make a tired and tedious genre fun and fresh.
You want to find out if your friends are the good kind who look out for you or are the toxic, horrible ones who need to be given lots of distance from your circle of influence? Ask if they would recommend ‘Army of the Dead’ to you.
A better test of trustworthiness there is not.
A reason why you should watch it: You’re a huge fan of shallow depth of field camerawork, shallow characters, and shallow plots.
A reason why you shouldn’t watch it: You’ll find more redeemable features in a character study of Adolf Hitler than you would this wretched film.