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Watch your fingers, Mr Big Hand.

Movie

Army of the Dead
(2021)

 

Or Zack Snyder’s Aliens. There’s no shame in being obviously influenced by another film or filmmaker, particular when that film or filmmaker is, or has delivered, a genre classic. But the only way to do so and truly succeed is to be creative with it. Even Snyder’s abundant visual flair cannot mask that Army of the Dead most emphatically is not that. Zack (Shay Hatten and Joby Harrold share screenplay credit) laboriously follows Jim Cameron’s template in his Vegas-set zombie movie, and it does Army of the Dead no favours. Cameron, lest we forget, has never won an Oscar for screenwriting – no, not even for Rambo: First Blood Part II – and as a conceptualist, Snyder is no Jimbo.

So what do we have here? There’s a hero (Dave Bautista’s Scott Ward) who must return to the place he first encountered the monsters (Vegas, rather than LV-426), a place where he experienced great loss and which still gives him nightmares years later. There’s a crack team assembled to accompany him on this mission, armed to the teeth and full of cocky so-and-sos. There’s a daughter figure (Ella Purcell’s Kate Ward) he must protect. There’s a “company” man (Garret Dillahunt’s Martin) who has his own motive – which is, surprise, surprise, to use the monster for the weapons’ division, to create “the ultimate zombie army” – and is bent on sabotaging the chances of other team members to escape. There’s eventual camaraderie between unlikely crew members (Omari Hardwick’s soldier Vanderohe and Matthias Shweighhöfer’s safecracker Dieter). There’s an inordinate amount of time (fifty minutes here) spent on the setup before the bloodletting really begins. There’s the hero having to “go back in” to the monsters’ nest to save his daughter during a countdown to nuking the site. There’s a means of escape (via Tig Notaro’s helicopter pilot Peters, replacing cancelled Chris D’Elia) that has the hero believing he has been deserted, only for salvation to arrive at the last minute. There’s even a “You don’t see them fucking each other over” Aliens quotation.

If one wants to take it even further, the climax tips into Alien³ and Alien Resurrection; the hero has been infected and so must die. And the infection is being taken elsewhere on Earth (Alien Resurrection doesn’t say this, but they were clearly setting it up for a fifth that didn’t happen when the box office wasn’t there). True, Army of the Dead’s daughter figure survives and Newt doesn’t in Alien³, but that highlights one of Army of Darkness’ bigger problems; it simply lacks sufficiently engaging characters to sustain itself. Readily identifiable, yes, because they come stacked with a host of clichés, but if there was one thing Cameron got down in Aliens, it was making his characters distinctive and memorable and ensuring you invested in them.

There’s zero reason to want Kate to survive. She does everything possible to cause disruption to the mission (it isn’t as if Newt runs off on purpose in the last act of Aliens). She’s also tiresomely one note in her virtuousness: she volunteers at a quarantine (read refugee) camp, is set on saving one of the refugees who has gone into the city, and has issues with dad. Purnell doesn’t do anything very wrong in the role, but Kate’s the last person in the cast – aside maybe from Theo Rossi’s OTT odious security guard – you have any interest in seeing cross the finishing line.

As wrestlers turned actors go, Bautista’s probably got the biggest chops of all the lot, but he’s saddled with a real nothing-burger piece of cardboard in Scott: grieving the wife he killed when she became infected, riddled with guilt, determined to do something to make amends to his daughter. A real yawn. Bautista’s presence does much to make the character land, but Snyder tries his hardest to defeat him at every turn with banal tropes (one is tempted to read Snyder’s own life experience into the character, but this does neither director nor Scott any favours).

Hardwick and Schwieghöfer fare much better, able to bring some humour to their roles. The latter steals the show early on (Hardwick gains ground as the movie progresses, however). Ana de la Reguera is burdened with the unrequited love, meaning she’s most memorable for the sick twist – literally – that sees her exit the movie. Nora Arnezeder is striking as guide Coyote. Again, she’s been given some tiresomely rudimentary guilt baggage, but her attitudes to and understanding of the lie of the Vegas land make her memorable. Notaro is surprisingly not that annoying (I say that, because in Star Trek Discovery she was nothing but). Dillahunt is rather wasted; if you’ve got someone that good, you want to make him more than simply hissable (it’s also pretty ridiculous that, if all his boss wanted was an alpha zombie head, a team wouldn’t have gone in and accomplished exactly that before now. No need for any of this safecracking malarkey).

All of this means Snyder has rigorously B or C movie material on an A movie budget. He throws in several cute visual set pieces, homages to Edgar Wright, as billionaire Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) explains the ease with which they will enter the city. When it comes to building the tension, he’s up with the best of them.

A sequence in which Chambers (Samantha Win) – quite blatantly referencing Vasquez in Aliens – veers from the safe path through a hotel of hibernating zombies escalates with the kind of mastery that reminds you why Dawn of the Dead was such a strong debut. The scenes in which Dieter and Vanderohe attempt to access the safe are some of Army of the Dead’s best, probably because they find Snyder moving away from the zombie apocalypse into fresher heist territory; really, this was the best idea he had for the movie, but he’s unable to integrate it in such a way that makes the remainder sufficiently different or distinctive.

He also does well with something that has become a bit of trademark (see Watchmen): the shrewdly-conceived introduction. We see a military convoy from Area 51 crash into a car in which newlyweds are distractedly celebrating their nuptials, so unleashing the threat. The pink stencilled credits proceed to show life in the city of as it’s overcome, with a Liberace impersonator, topless zombie strippers and a zombie Elvis among the complement. There’s a welcome lacing of humour, from the slightly risky – “I think it’s fine it if he’s Japanese-y”, suggests Peters of Tanaka quoting politically incorrect “Easy-peasy…” – to the old standard of ironic lift muzak (Culture Club’s Do You Really Want to Hurt Me). “Is there anybody else here who hasn’t killed a zombie?” And Vanerhoe’s riff on the discovery of another would-be heist team’s corpses is amusing: “It could be us in another time line, or we’re caught in some infinite loop of fighting and dying, fighting and dying”.

Elsewhere, Snyder shows his adolescent attempts at thematic depth, however, referencing “the great Joseph Campbell” and calling Vegas towers Sodom and Gomorrah. When he’s intentionally playing on portentousness (“If I can open it, it will be either destruction or renewal. Death or rebirth”), the material lands, but when he’s striving outright for meaning, he fumbles it. This means the essential motive of most of those coming along – greed – fails to carry any cachet in the scheme of things. And for every nice soundtrack touch – Wagner’s Götterdämmerung will forever be most associated with Excalibur as far as cinema goes, but it’s still an evocative shorthand – there’s one that seems desperately crude (The Cranberries’ Zombie).

The other problem with plundering Aliens wholesale is that you’re going to be caught rather short if you don’t have something at least approaching the xenomorph for impact. Snyder returns to his Dawn of the Dead running zombies (as well as having trad “shamblers”; one scene finds Coyote discussing a group that “weren’t smart enough to get out of the Sun. You should see what happens when it rains. For a few hours they all come back to life”). And aesthetically, they’re a disaster. Because the other, much less admirable influence on Army of the Dead is John Carpenter’s penultimate movie (at least, to date): Ghosts of Mars (itself plundering another influence on Army of the DeadEscape from New York).

Punk rock, roided zombies is the least inventive of options, and we’ve seen variants of this in the CGI realm (I Am Legend, also with a guilt-wracked protagonist) and the overtly Mad Max one (Neil Marshall’s Doomsday, where a team must enter a quarantined zone – Scotland – on a mission to find a cure for a deadly virus). When your zombie king resembles a muscle-man version of Steve Tyler, you know you’ve gone very wrong somewhere along the line. But it simply shows that, for all Snyder is able to hit the mark every time in some technical respects, he’s entirely tone deaf with equal frequency in others. I’m sure everyone high-fived when he thought up “a goddamn zombie tiger”, but it’s much less “rad” in practice.

It’s also a curious task trying to make out where Snyder is coming from on the messaging front. He’s a big fan of Ayn Rand – his adaptation of The Fountainhead is on the backburner until there’s “a little more liberal government”, whatever that means – but he voted for Biden, presumably because his enablers told him he had to. Of course, it’s a misconception that libertarian = Republican (Rand was critical of both right and left), but it’s a damn sight more likely than finding one who’s a Democrat. Sarah Polley – she who eagerly savaged Gilliam for retroactive traumas suffered on The Adventures of Baron Munchausen – attempted to pin Snyder down on his affiliations, and he expectedly avoided going all James Woods on her: “I vote Democrat! I’m a true lover of individual rights”. You’ve got the Biden-Rand dichotomy right there. He followed it up with some blather about his progressive streak, “I would say I’m a pretty liberal guy” and “People see what they want to see”. Which is, pretty much, ducking.

Particularly when he responds to a reading that the zombies represent the vaccinated and the robbers the decliners with “I love that superimposition. You could probably do the exact opposite argument if you wanted”. Way to pin it down, Zack. In case you weren’t clear, though: “I hope the vaccinated people are winning. I wanted to be vaccinated immediately”. Well, no one could ever accuse Zack of being a thinking man. If he’s in any way an admirer of Rand, he’d be entirely opposed to such persuasive measures. And his view of the zombies that “They’re a replacement for the human race more than a threat to it. In our movie, humans are the ones that kind of blow it” would be seen as a warning of the transhumanist future to come (as well as clearly echoing I Am Legend).

But who knows what goes on in the garbled gloop they call the Snyder brain. He opens Army of the Dead with apparent swipes at the official narrative in a playful conversation regarding conspiracy theories, referencing the “lunar lander that was supposedly left on the Moon”. This leads to the assessment of their Area 51 payload that “I’ll say it. It’s an alien”; the Wiki page reports alien DNA as the source of Zombie Zero, but I’ve been unable to source this (in terms of the movie, it’s obviously speculation on the part of the soldier). In theory, then, Snyder is supporting the “threat from space” narrative that can be found in everything from Wells to Lovecraft and beyond (to the forthcoming fake alien invasion).

And yet, it’s quite evident from Army of the Dead that the real threat is from science, not aliens. It’s science that has unleashed a force that will destroy the population (or life as we know it) and which created the means to rid them of this force (if you buy into the nuke hoax, the same one referenced as having seen “thousands” of bombs detonated in the Nevada desert). Science that repeatedly wields temperature guns as a coercive means to subjugate and discipline (“All he has to say is that you dropped a degree, and no one would question it”) – not to mention decimating the pineal gland – and which offers vague and goal-post moving parameters for testing positive (“You know, the first sign of infection is belligerence, and actions outside of social norms”).

At the same time, Snyder throws in a news report appealing to Biden fans (you know, the virtual masses), comparing those quarantined to political prisoners and suggesting anyone – left leaning, essentially – of questionable immigration status, advocating gay rights or abolition of abortion may find themselves with a temperature gun pointed at their head and dragged out of their house. Most likely, Snyder doesn’t buy into the Hegelian dialectic force-fed an obedient public by the eager media, but being a Hollywood player and lacking a strong moral centre, he’s more than happy to play both sides and say whatever will make anyone happy and any given moment. After all, deep down he remains an uncompromised “individual”. Right, Zack?

I’ll say this for Army of the Dead. It at least feels like a proper movie. Most of Netflix’s homegrown offerings have been deficient on a genuine big-screen vibe, even when delivered by a genuine big-screen director (Michael Bay’s 6 Underground, for example). The bane and virtue – more the bane, given the quality – of Netflix is that they allow filmmakers to do their own thing unhindered. And if that filmmaker aspires to being a writer, despite having considerable talent deficiencies in said area, that’s no reason to foist someone on them who can help things along. Lest we forget, Zack’s last wholly self-originated project was Sucker Punch. He has a director’s cut of that one too somewhere, for anyone interested. Anyone? Anyone?

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