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‘Army of the Dead’ scrapes the surface but fails to make a mark

Rating:

The pandemic has been boring. If you were going to make a film about our experience of a disease crisis, Covid-19 wouldn’t inspire much. This is where zombie films come in. Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead just released on Netflix – never a more apt time for a zombie film, right? Yeah, perhaps a bit late.

The film is a mish-mash of already overused and usually dull genres (not the zombie bit, though). Combining an action film, with a heist plot amidst a zombie outbreak could either make for an intense thriller or a laughably crass and immature charade. Unfortunately, Army of the Dead feels more like the latter.

The film is a mish-mash of already overused and usually dull genres

Army of the Dead certainly isn’t a good film per se. Compared to some more original zombie films, it pales in comparison. It certainly doesn’t exhibit much talent on Snyder’s part. But for a zombie-heist movie I wouldn’t expect anything else! It’s funny (albeit mostly unintentionally) and it has enough of an action punch to keep you interested, even if you find yourself predicting what will happen next and congratulating yourself because your predictions later came true.

Army of the Dead proves how zombie films can hold immense potential. Many are able to tell heroic and semi-realistic stories of survival and humanity, allowing what many might dismiss as cheap gore and violence to really make an impact on the viewer. Army of the Dead fails to realise any of the potential it only hints at in the opening scenes, but it does have a spark that you cannot fail to notice amidst the shoddy writing.

Snyder seems to be going through the motions: it feels chaotic but not in an exciting or intricate way. The basic structuring only serves to make it predictable. Thankfully, the plot does inspire enough hope that Army of the Dead will at least be some fun, and the film mostly gets that right. A group of mercenaries go into quarantined Las Vegas to steal some cash before a nuclear missile is launched to destroy the zombie-infected city. Oh, and some of the zombies are weirdly clever ‘alphas’. Our band of gimmick-ridden mercenaries also have to contend with the patient x ‘big bad’ zombie who also has some weird gimmicks of his own.

Our band of gimmick-ridden mercenaries also have to contend with the patient x ‘big-bad’ zombie

It’s with this ‘big bad’ zombie that the film’s failings are made clear. It’s with this monster where, to quote a particularly one-dimensional character, things get ‘perverse’. We discover that this ‘big bad’ zombie has a zombie ‘girlfriend’ (who we later see was pregnant!), rides a zombie horse and wears a cape. These ideas might seem to be a bit of fun, but the pregnant zombie girlfriend idea is more than a dumb storyline. It is perverse and gratuitous.

Certainly, as with any zombie film, you may want to get into the debate of what makes a proper zombie. Army of the Dead loses a lot of credibility with its undead villains. We don’t need to see a zombie tiger or a zombie horse to make the film feel like something different from other zombie movies, and we certainly don’t need to see ‘big bad’ zombie pulling out the foetus of his unborn zombie child from his decapitated zombie girlfriend. What was Snyder thinking here!?

What was Snyder thinking here!?

Watching a zombie film now you can think: “Thank God our pandemic didn’t end up like that.” But you can appreciate that the genre is more than just thrills and gore. Zombie films and TV series have an impressive ability to deal with questions of our own moralities and mortalities and the relationships that hold our society together. They don’t simply conjure up a Hobbesian state of nature, but instead reveal the importance of trust and truth in holding up what we might deem to be perfect society. And of course, they can also bring about ideas of utopia and reveal everything that is so wrong, yet so entrenched, in present day society.

Army of the Dead also made me think about what it is in the zombie genre that is actually frightening. There were several things in the film for our hardy protagonists to be frightened of. Scott Ward (played by Dave Bautista) was seemingly more paranoid about his relationship with his daughter, who was also on the heist mission (!), than the imminent nuclear blast. The zombies were really just one of many issues that had to be dealt with and even the threat of ‘big bad’ zombie paled in comparison to the nuclear threat.

What is scarier? A zombie being almost human and possessing enough intelligence to stand a good chance against humans, as we saw in Snyder’s ‘alphas’. Or are The Walking Dead variety more frightening? Being rendered little more than shuffling, vicious and rotting wild animals. Both are terrifying depictions of what we fear humanity could become. But which version of altered and degraded humanity strikes more fear into our hearts?

Fear and chaos makes even the most rational and kind humans become dangerous and untrustworthy assailants, and authors of more evil and destruction than even the zombies are capable of

And of course, in many zombie movies there is the real clincher. It’s the effect these zombies have on people, the fear they kindle and the chaos they create. This fear and chaos makes even the most rational and kind humans become dangerous and untrustworthy assailants, and authors of more evil and destruction than even the zombies are capable of.

See, zombie films can do a lot. Army of the Dead scrapes the surface but fails to make a mark. The film is enjoyable but it’s not memorable. You don’t need the clever Snyder zombies to create a decent and scary enemy; if anything, their ‘intelligence’ makes them more laughable and more disturbing than frightening, but not in a good way. Less really can be more with zombie media, soft world building over hard. Look at The Walking Dead. Most people will watch Army of the Dead for one reason, a bit of easy-going escapism and some decent action. In that sense, it delivers, and it delivers well.

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