Monday, 4 October 2021

Army Of The Dead (2021) - Movie Review

Now that Zack Snyder seems to be in a better place creatively, I think it’s time to check out his other feature that came out this year. But while the build-up to Justice League involved years of socially-driven momentum right up to the release of the Snyder Cut, part of me has always been more interested in this effort of his. As much as I love just about anything to do with superheroes, combining two other genres that I adore (heist flicks and zombie flicks) was bound to grab my attention, regardless of who was behind it. And after how much ZSJL genuinely impressed me, I’m actually excited to see if he can deliver on what might be the single most tempting feature-length release that has taken place since I started this blog. No pressure, Zack.

Much like I did with the Snyder Cut, let’s start with the characters, of which this has some very strong contenders. Dave Bautista adds another notch to his cinematic belt as the mercenary/father Scott, ditto for Ella Purnell as his daughter. Matthias Schweighรถfer as safecracker Dieter, both in performance and in dialogue, has “we have big plans for this guy” written all over him and the man’s charisma on-screen certainly makes the idea of seeing more of him in the future into an appealing one. His budding bromance with Omari Hardwick as the philosophical solider Vanderohe definitely helps with that.

Garret Dillahunt may have his work on Fear The Walking Dead to explain his casting here, but considering the character he’s been given, the more genre-oriented part of my brain likes to think that him playing the duplicitous arsecandle in The 4400 had something to do with it too, and he’s just as good here as he was there. Nora Arnezeder, after how much she failed to impress with The Colony earlier this year, makes for an incredible surprise as resident zombie expert The Coyote, adding some real spice to the film’s more genre-savvy leanings. Samantha Win lives up to her name in how she sells the hell out of her character’s action cred, especially in her signature action scene, Tig Notaro does a good job as the sardonic helicopter pilot (especially as a pinch hitter casting choice), and Theo Rossi makes a good first impression as the embodiment of the themes of authoritarian dickery that border the story being told.

But the biggest surprise in terms of characters here? Much like with ZSJL, it’s the main villains with Zeus and the Alpha Queen, the two leaders of the zombie horde played by Richard Cetrone and Athena Perample respectively. Through only body language and facial gestures, they manage to establish personality, an animalistic form of survival instinct, and even the relationship they have with each other. They work for the same reason that Snyder’s short film Snow Steam Iron did, with the visuals doing all of the talking to tell the story.

Also like Snow Steam Iron, this film shows Zack Snyder to be a more-than-adequate cinematographer when he’s able to be so, with this being his feature-length debut as DOP. For how much shaky-cam, erratic zoom toggling, and speed ramping have defined the man’s style in the public eye, there’s a remarkable lack of all three elements here and for the better, I say. He and editor Dody Dorn work together to generate tension within the film’s many setpieces, taking their time to establish atmosphere and character emotion rather than just dictate it throughout. This is another case where the length isn’t an issue with me because it’s being used very well, either to wring the most out of the gloriously gory shootouts or layer the character dynamics to create people worth giving a shit about in terms of survival. Them being so capable in the action scenes adds to the latter effect, as it instils the notion that these are highly capable individuals… but there’s always a chance for one little thing to go wrong despite that.

Now for the genre specifics, starting with this film as a zombie flick. Given the Dawn Of The Dead remake and its place in Snyder’s creative history, him wanting to return to that form of genre engagement certainly makes sense, and the way he puts his own spin on that genre shows that he’s come a long way since 2004. As anchored by Zeus and the Queen, the pack-mentality work on the undead adds a lot to the main setting, what Coyote describes as the Kingdom of the Dead (which, gotta be honest, would make for an even better title). There’s also the inclusion of one of Siegfried and Roy’s tigers as a recurring zombie threat, and even Zeus charging into battle atop a zombified horse, which not only look great for CGI (in a film that prioritises practical effects, as all good zombie flicks should) but add little bits of world-building to the whole affair.

As for its place as a heist flick, it already wins points in how it doesn’t immediately make its own plot redundant. I mean, the idea of money still being worth anything in the middle of the zombie apocalypse is a stretch too far even for me, so thankfully, it doesn’t take that road. Instead, by isolating the zombies to a single location (Las Vegas), it creates a rare post-zombie-apocalypse story that shows our main characters (most of whom were involved in the initial battle) irrevocably changed by the event and wanting to make things better for themselves and others in the aftermath.

There’s definitely some timely themes to be dug out of that, about how the world doesn’t change as much as one would think after a life-threatening virus breaks out, but more so than that, it shows a sideways view of its own genre. This kind of story, that largely takes place after the big bad zombie outbreak that usually occupies the entirety of other zombie narratives, has always felt like a well of untapped potential within this genre. Prior to now, only 28 Weeks Later (to my knowledge) has come close to that idea, and even that didn’t ultimately deliver on it. Much like the multi-genre description, this could just be a thing that only appeals to me, but that doesn’t make me any less thankful to see it pulled off this well.

Snyder has described this film as "a purely joyful way to express [himself] through a genre", and the end result certainly comes across like he was very passionate about the project. That he stepped into areas he doesn’t usually touch in the filmmaking process like writing and camera work, and managed to do them well, is quite gratifying, but they also add to how refined this film feels. Like it could only come about because everyone was working in unison under a singular vision. As someone who builds a lot of their understanding of film from auteur theory (and yes, I recognise that’s not always an ideal way to view such things), that’s the kind of vibe I can really get behind.

It has a similar sense of liberation to Michael Bay’s 6 Underground, another film where the director went off his leash, except this manages to far surpass that in terms of humour, action, heart, and its want to induce happiness in its audience. This is exactly what I want out of the intersection of two of my favourite cinematic genres, managing to do them both justice while including enough smaller moments to create a highly enjoyable and memorable outing.

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