Review of Army of the Dead (2021)

Moving picture, 148 minutes

Seen in 2021.

Watch it for the snapshot of Hollywood in 2021. Private tyrannies were exchanging blows in wasteful development hell; this particular project started with Warner Bros. at a time when zombies were still a hot topic and ended with Netflix 14 years later, recouping about 1% of its budget from barely-open cinemas. The COVID-19 pandemic was raging then, exacerbating a tendency to rely on chroma-keyed shoots and post-production visual effects. Some of the budget presumably went to its ensemble cast, including Dave Bautista, the third most prominent former play-act wrestler working in Hollywood at the time, after Dwayne Johnson and John Cena, all brought to prominence by the presale market’s penchant for absurd masculinity. Tig Notaro, who appears in a comic-relief role replacing another actor, joked after making the movie that she had never met Bautista, and it shows.

Director Zack Snyder also made, or rather remade, the excellent Dawn of the Dead (2004). Army of the Dead—no intellectual property relation—is well beyond remake territory. The worldbuilding and plot blow the most top-heavy high-concept grand spectacles of 1970s blockbuster cinema out of the water. Check your bingo sheets:

One thing the movie does not have is exposition on its premises, beyond establishing that a zombie will go for a microwaved zombie hand. There was room for more in a runtime of 2 hours and 28 minutes, but that’s all you get, and yet it’s a far cry from the elegance of Dawn of the Dead (1978).

The most entertaining things about this piece of kitsch are: Omari Hardwick as Vanderohe, the oddly philosophical second-string action hero and the only person in this film smart enough to protect their ears from the frequent gunfire; Athena Perample who outdoes Queen of the Damned (2002) with her floppy arms; and finally Matthias Schweighöfer as Ludwig Dieter, whose comic-relief acting is better than Notaro’s because he apparently met the other actors and therefore had the privilege of working with them.

The film’s Las Vegas is a tired, hopeless metaphor for US political and economic corruption, not arrogance in the face of nature. It is not raised to the mythological status of The Stand (1994). More should have been made of the Wagner theme for Dieter’s opening of the vault below the city. There is symbolic material there for a deeper story about greed and transgression in the Cadillac Desert, but the money in the vault is never more than a means for heroic underdogs to raise their status. Geeta, supposedly an important character at the intersection of the immigration and sexual victimization themes, needed money to escape that victimization. However, Geeta disappears into thin air for the finale and never shows up again. Her themes were just window dressing. There is no depth.

The real Las Vegas was the site of Stephen Paddock’s 2017 mass shooting that left 411 people injured by gunfire and 61 dead. To set such a dumb massacre as Army of the Dead in Vegas, filmed (elsewhere) while the last people Paddock killed were not even dead yet, is even more symptomatic of filmmaker callousness than the goof of Geeta’s disappearance. To state the obvious, the true selling point of the film is violence as entertainment. The other motifs and topics and genres within it fade into the background for the hours of killing nameless people conveniently made evil by uninvestigated magic. Given the aforementioned use of the Cranberries’ anti-violence song over the closing credits, that is unusually gauche.

moving picture zombie fiction