Army of the Dead (2021) Army of the Dead (2021) **

     Among the less immediately obvious fringe benefits of not caring about superheroes is that nobody expects me to have a strongly held opinion of Zack Snyder, even though he looms almost as large over the current mainstream cinema landscape as Michael Bay, Dean Devlin, and Joe Eszterhas did in their respective heydays. Most of what Snyder does is quite simply irrelevant to my interests, so while the rest of the internet works itself up into conniptions over Watchmen or the “Snyder Cut” of Justice League, I can just ignore the whole business except to have an occasional chuckle over how that one guy’s head is apparently actually shaped like that. But since the one Zack Snyder movie that I both saw and enjoyed on its own terms was his meat-and-potatoes remake of Dawn of the Dead, the news that he was writing and directing a straight-to-streaming zombie movie for Netflix got my attention in ways that none of his other projects have over the past seventeen years. And then once I saw the promo clip with the zombie tiger… Look— how can I not watch a movie with a zombie tiger, even if it is both a Netflix original and fully an hour longer than it has any kind of reason to be? To be sure, I went into Army of the Dead fully expecting to be disappointed, and in fact I was. But along the route to that disappointment, there were enough hints of the five (five!) much better movies that Army of the Dead intermittently flirts with being that I don’t regret the two and a half hours that I spent on it.

     Let me start by enumerating the five Army of the Deads that Snyder didn’t quite make, so that you’ll be able to recognize their individual dorsal fins whenever they break the surface of the lazy, beat-for-beat Aliens copy that he actually gave us. In each case, the core premise is the same: a band of extremely skilled badasses must infiltrate the walled-off ruins of zombie-infested Las Vegas, and bust back out again with a fortune in abandoned casino cash, a trapped refugee mother, and/or a “live” zombie head before the Air Force nukes the city to solve the problem of the undead once and for all. The differences are mostly a matter of tone and emphasis. Alternate Army of the Dead #1 is a cynical and misanthropic heist movie in which the job goes bad due less to backstabbing among the thieves than to the intervention of a horde of flesh-eating corpses. In this version, the money is the prize, and the mood is one of dashed hopes and overhanging doom. Alternate Army of the Dead #2 tells exactly the same story, but plays it for transgressive laughs like the post-Pulp Fiction crime comedies of the mid-to-late 90’s. #3 shifts back to bleakness, but emphasizes the quest for the zombie head to play up the desperation of the team-members’ day-to-day existence. These people are so totally and irrevocably fucked that they’ll sign on for a mission to make the world worse for everyone if it means there’s even the slightest chance of improving their own lives. #4, in comparison to the others, is downright idealistic. It’s a Dirty Dozen-like story of severely damaged people reclaiming their souls by sacrificing their lives, and in it, the infiltrators abandon their quest for mere loot to save someone whose motives for entering the city reawaken their capacity for selflessness and nobility. Finally, the fifth unmade version of Army of the Dead downplays the Vegas commandos in favor of the local woman whom they hire to guide them into and through the stricken city, and plays like a cross between Stalker and I Am Legend. Note that a trim, 80-minute take any of the first four possibilities really could be edited down from the sprawling, slovenly, tonally incoherent Army of the Dead that exists in the real world, although to do it right would require reshoots, rescoring, and dialogue overdubs in varying amounts. The fifth potential variant never held Snyder’s attention for very long, however, and would therefore be noticeably incomplete without a major investment in new footage. Inevitably, that’s the one I’d most like to be able to see.

     Anyway, some years ago, a pair of newlywed idiots (Dave Corona and Chelsea Edmundson, the latter from Howlers and Killer Eye: Halloween Haunt) were driving across the Nevada desert after their quickie Las Vegas nuptials when the girl got the bright idea to suck the guy’s dick right there in the front seat of their car. (It was a late-70’s Lincoln Continental Town Car, so she had plenty of room to maneuver.) Note that this did not involve pulling over onto the shoulder or stopping the car, and as the moment of orgasm approached, the groom drifted leftward into the other lane— just in time to ram headlong into the lead vehicle of an Army caravan transporting something from the notorious Area 51. Car and truck alike were instantly obliterated in the resulting explosion, but the sealed steel pod housing the mysterious package was thrown clear of the fireball. Although badly knocked about, it remained sufficiently intact to preserve its cargo. That was in fact a bad thing, because the cargo in question was an undead version of the gray-skinned, late-80’s incarnation of the Incredible Hulk (Richard Cetrone, from Ghosts of Mars and Underworld). Zombie Hulk broke loose from the damaged pod, massacred his military escort, and led their reanimated corpses in an attack on Vegas. For once humanity was able to get its shit well enough together to stop the spread of the undead contagion, but the city was a total loss. All that could be done was to surround the whole place with ramparts made from stacked shipping containers, and then to surround those with refugee camps for all the displaced residents who might or might not be carrying the zombie plague. The latter unfortunates became America’s latest permanent underclass in the ensuing years, NIMBYed out of resettlement anywhere else.

     Among the heroes of the Zombie War was Scott Ward (Dave Bautista, of Riddick and Blade Runner 2049), apparently an employee of some Blackwater-like private security firm. Ward’s country has taken about as good care of him as it usually takes of its war heroes, and he’s now estranged from his twenty-something daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell, from UFO and Maleficent), wracked by depression and PTSD, and supporting himself by flipping burgers at a shitty desert diner. Not everyone has forgotten Scott, though. One day he receives a visit at work from a man named Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada, of Ring and 47 Ronin), whose company owns the twin Las Vegas casino hotels, Sodom and Gomorrah. As Tanaka explains to Ward, the vault in Gomorrah’s basement contains $200 million in cash which naturally had to be left behind when the city was evacuated. His company was already reimbursed for those funds by its insurers, so Tanaka doesn’t care about the loss in and of itself. Wouldn’t it be nice, though, to get that money back, now that it’s untraceable, untaxable, and officially nonexistent? Tanaka thinks it would be so nice, in fact, that he’d be willing to part with fully a quarter of the purse to pay for the privilege. The trouble— but also the opportunity— is that Las Vegas is to be nuked at sunset on the 4th of July, about 96 hours from now. The military has been pulling its forces out of the quarantine zone at a rapid clip, and the soldiers who remain have their hands full evacuating the refugees to new camps farther away from ground zero. This is therefore both the last and best chance for someone with the right skills and experience to slip through the blockade, grab the cash, and slip out again richer than most people can practically imagine being. Ward has exactly the qualifications that Tanaka is looking for, and he hasn’t exactly been enjoying life lately. If he agrees to take the job, Tanaka will give him not just leadership of the raiding party, but also complete control over its size, composition, and compensation, with just two constraints. First, anyone Ward hires as a subcontractor gets paid out of his $50 million. And second, he and his team will be accompanied by Martin (Garrett Dillahunt, from The Road and The Last House on the Left), Tanaka’s chief of security. Scott doesn’t need long to think it over. After all, the worst that could happen is something that he halfway wants anyhow.

     For the core of his task force, Ward turns to the people who fought alongside him in the Zombie War and lived to tell about it. Vanderhoe (Spell’s Omari Hardwick) will be the muscle. Marianne Peters (Tig Notaro) will fix up the helicopter that Tanaka says is sitting, neglected but basically intact, on Sodom’s rooftop landing pad, and then fly everyone to safety in it when the job is done. And Maria Cruz (Ana de la Reguera, of Cowboys and Aliens and The Anguish), the woman with whom Scott has almost become romantically involved on several occasions since the day he had to stab his zombified wife (played in flashbacks by Colby Lemmo) in the brain, becomes Ward’s partner in mission planning, helping to recruit necessary talent that he wouldn’t even know how to look for. Like, Scott would never have thought to seek out Mikey Guzman (Raúl Castillo), the sharp-shooting YouTube influencer from East Las Vegas who got internet famous by posting videos of himself gunning down zombies like a bloodthirsty Annie Oakley during the early days of the uprising. Cruz also finds the safe-cracker they’ll need once they reach the vault, an Aspergery German locksmith by the name of Dieter (Feardotcom’s Matthias Schweighöfer). Finally, Guzman tries to sub-subcontract a few of his most trusted friends (to be paid out of his own cut, of course), but only a girl named Chambers (Samantha Win) has the nerve to go through with it once the team assembles to hear Tanaka’s briefing on the details of the mission. The other guy (Colin Jones, from Transcendence) decides that it sounds too much like suicide once he understands what he’d really be getting into.

     Once Ward and company reach the Vegas quarantine zone, they discover that the party wasn’t as complete as they thought. First, it quickly becomes apparent that they’re going to need a guide on the other side of the container wall. Luckily, a tough, punky refugee girl by the name of Lilly (Maniac’s Nora Arnezeder) makes her living providing exactly that service. In fact, during the small hours of this very morning, Lilly helped three fellow refugees, among them an immigrant woman called Geeta (Huma Qureshi, of Dobaara: See Your Evil), do just that. In a roundabout way, that’s how the team acquires its second unexpected member, because it just so happens that Geeta is a friend of Ward’s daughter, who has been volunteering as something like an ombudsman-cum-social-worker for the quarantine community. Lilly’s a “no questions asked” kind of gal when it comes to conveying the desperate into Las Vegas, so she knew nothing about Geeta, or about what she wanted inside the city. Kate, however, knows that she’s a single mother, and that she was hoping to build a less hopeless future for herself and her kids by mounting a more modestly scaled casino raid of her own. Mind you, Geeta had no realistic plan for how to pull off such a thing, so Kate did her damnedest to talk her out of it. As soon as Kate learns that the fool went ahead with her half-assed scheme anyway, she appoints herself Geeta’s rescuer. If Scott would like to help, that’s about the one form of interaction with her dad that the girl would welcome, but she’s going in no matter what. The third and actually final addition to Ward’s crew is perhaps the unlikeliest of all. For reasons known only to herself, Lilly insists on bringing along Burt Cummings (Theo Rossi, from Cloverfield and House of the Dead 2), the biggest, sleaziest bully and bonercreep among the quarantine camp’s civilian guards.

     Lilly’s motives aren’t so hard to fathom, though, when seen from inside the city limits. The hordes of mindless, Romero-style zombies that overran Vegas years ago have mostly withered up into inactive, sun-baked mummies (although you wouldn’t want to be around them when it rains). Instead, the sealed city now belongs to a different breed of the undead— less numerous, but faster, more agile, superhumanly strong, apparently impervious to desiccation or decay, and possessed of human-scale (albeit decidedly not human-like) intelligence. (That suite of abilities should sound at least dimly familiar from before the opening credits.) To reach Sodom and Gomorrah will require venturing deeper into Zombietown than Lilly has ever dared go before, and she hopes to buy safe passage for the party by giving Cummings to the inhabitants as a peace offering. No one but Fucko the Cop himself objects very strenuously. After all, they’ve all met the guy. And if Ward’s agenda were still the only one in play, there’s a decent chance that Zombie Hulk (remember him?) and his “people” would have remained content with Lilly’s arrangement. The trouble is, Kate and Martin each have agendas of their own, and the Sin City dead aren’t going to like either of them. For one thing, Geeta and her companions have indeed fallen into the zombies’ clutches, and although they’ve been neither eaten nor turned yet, that doesn’t mean the undead are willing to let Kate run off with them. And for another, Martin’s true mission has nothing to do with the money in Gomorrah’s vaults. Tanaka wants him to bring back a zombie head, which will soon become the only one in the world— and therefore a commodity of much interest to anyone in the business of biological warfare. The one on which Martin sets his sights belongs to Zombie Hulk’s mate (Athena Perample), hands-down the scariest showgirl in town now that Nomi Malone has decamped for LA, and the corpse-king of Las Vegas won’t be at all pleased to see his queen decapitated.

     My friend and colleague, Tim “Captain Telstar” Lehnerer, cohost of the Fiasco Family Movie Night podcast, says of Zack Snyder that he doesn’t understand anything he adapts. I haven’t seen nearly enough of Snyder’s movies to know for certain whether I’m in general agreement there, but my limited experience of his work certainly does point in that direction. The ancient Spartans were not homophobes; Dawn of the Dead was not an apolitical gut-muncher; the central message of Superman is not “every man for himself.” Those are all mistakes, Zack— I looked them up. And having seen Army of the Dead, I can now posit that Snyder apparently doesn’t understand anything he rips off, either. I shouldn’t have to explain this to anyone, but the story beats in Aliens all occur where, when, and how they do because of reasons rooted in the specific characters and situations present in that film. Change either to any significant extent, and you can no longer just port over the plot outline wholesale. Marines on a rescue mission will respond differently to any given turn of events than desperados carrying out a heist for a crooked tycoon. A self-aggrandizing kiss-ass trying to salvage his own personal power play after it’s gone bad will behave differently than a loyal henchman fulfilling secret orders, even under analogous circumstantial pressures. A woman driven by newly discovered maternal instincts will go to different kinds of extremes to protect the object of those affections than one acting on a combination of friendship and commitment to social justice.

     Army of the Dead’s biggest and weirdest distortions of the Aliens formula, however, all flow from Snyder’s attempt to merge the heist and suicide mission templates without adding any recognizable fulcrum for the shift between modes. The perpetrators of a heist are usually in it for themselves, and indeed that’s what we’re explicitly told about this bunch here. We might sympathize or even agree with their motives, but they’re fundamentally selfish ones. People on a suicide mission, though, are by definition not in it for themselves. We might find their motives incomprehensible or even appalling, but selfishness is not an accusation that we can credibly level. Hell, people on a suicide mission aren’t even going to have selves for very much longer. Consequently, a heist can’t also be a suicide mission, or at least not in the eyes of the heisters themselves— no point in stealing what you don’t expect to be alive to spend! To have it both ways, as Snyder tries to here, requires some moment of epiphany for the doomed characters, some stark impetus to change their whole outlook on what they’re doing and why. Army of the Dead hasn’t really got one of those. To be sure, it has several potential turning points of the necessary sort— about one for each of the aforementioned not-quite-made versions of the film, as a matter of fact— but again Snyder refuses to pick one, or to make any of them mean what they’d need to in order to do the job.

     Instead, he tries to import random bits of meaning not obviously related to anything else in the film— usually in the laziest possible way, and often (that’s right) in ways that also betray a total lack of understanding. Take, for example, the long and rather pointless epilogue, which walks back a small, intimate, almost-earned downer ending only to replace it with an apocalyptic, crass, and gratuitous one, set to the strains of the Cranberries’ “Zombie.” Come on, Zack. I know it’s called “Zombie,” but did you listen to the lyrics? Then there are all the easy, cheesy stabs at topicality like the temperature scans that people in the refugee camps have to submit to, or Sean Spicer’s cameo as a right-wing TV blowhard, or the news report quoting the unseen president defending his choice of dates to nuke Vegas by saying that it would be “cool” to do it on the 4th of July. I halfway suspect that this dumb shit is in here as a response to the complaints about how Snyder had so assiduously extracted all the social commentary from his take on Dawn of the Dead, but if that really was the intention, he’d have been better off not bothering. That’s especially true since the one bit of honest subtext that Army of the Dead has— all the anger and loss and sorrow and regret that swarms around Dave Bautista and Ella Purnell whenever they share a scene alone together— is more than enough to answer any criticism of that sort where this movie is concerned.

     Apart from that, the main upside to Army of the Dead is that practically every member of this cast is acting as if they really were in one of those much better alternate versions of the film, and just about all of them would be nailing it in at least one of them. Omari Hardwick, Raúl Castillo, and Samantha Win show what the 70’s-bleak heist version could have been. Tig Notaro and Matthias Schweighöfer would walk away with the whole picture if it were the Quentin Tarantino/Guy Ritchie-style crime comedy. Indeed, Notaro’s first scene is quite simply one of the best and funniest character introductions I’ve seen in years. Dave Bautista, Ella Purnell, and Ana de la Reguera would have been equally great had this been either Bring Me the Head of Zombi Malone or The Walking Dead: Dirty Dozen. And Nora Arnezeder turns in such a brilliant performance in such an unexpected role that by far my biggest frustration with Army of the Dead is that it isn’t just straight up Lilly’s story. There really is a lot to like in this movie— including, let us not forget, a zombie tiger! It’s just that none of it ever adds up to any really satisfying whole.

 

 

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