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Give in to the Blockbuster Excess of Zack Snyder’s ‘Army of the Dead’

Depending on whom you speak to, the director has either doubled down on his worst impulses or blossomed into an uncompromisingly brilliant (and misunderstood) auteur

Scott Laven/Netflix

In the immortal words of the Giant from Twin Peaks: It is happening again. Polarizing filmmaker Zack Snyder is in the middle of a press tour and has some things to get off his chest. In case you were wondering: Snyder would’ve included a gay love story in another 300 sequel, would’ve added a giant alien squid to his Watchmen adaptation with the wizardry of modern visual effects, and would never allow anyone to sit in a chair on the set of his most recent production. (Somewhere, Christopher Nolan is nodding his head furiously in agreement.) Didn’t we just endure enough discourse with the four-hour Justice League director’s cut to sustain Zack Snyder hot takes for at least a couple of years? Normally, yes, but the Snyder news cycle has suddenly reanimated because, rather fittingly, he’s made another movie about zombies.

For most filmmakers, even those with blockbuster ambitions, going back to one’s roots implies working on a project that’s comparatively small scale—before Nolan and Rian Johnson were handed the reins of Batman and Luke Skywalker, they did Memento and Brick, respectively. But Snyder seems incapable of dialing it back; he’s just never had to. Within the opening 10 minutes of his feature film debut, the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake, a zombified little girl chomps down on a man’s neck as a suburban neighborhood devolves into an apocalyptic nightmare. While mostly devoid of the same political bite as the movies of the godfather of the zombie flick, George Romero, there’s still plenty to appreciate from Snyder’s action-oriented approach. Who has time to think about What It All Means when these undead hordes pursue their victims with the speed of an outside linebacker?

Depending on whom you speak to, in the time since his Dawn of the Dead remake, Snyder has either doubled down on his worst impulses or blossomed into an uncompromisingly brilliant (and misunderstood) auteur. After inhaling over seven hours of his director’s cuts between Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League, I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m starting to get on the guy’s wavelength—in internet parlance, I’m Snyderpilled. But Snyder, who endured a personal tragedy and apparent hostility from Warner Bros. in wrapping up his biblical superhero trilogy, seems to want nothing more than to move on, even as some of his biggest zealots implore the studio to #RestoreTheSnyderVerse. Thankfully, putting the DC Extended Universe behind him is a lot easier to do when there’s a new blockbuster on deck.

Snyder isn’t quite returning to his roots with Army of the Dead, which, given the title, could be mistaken as a long-awaited sequel to his directorial debut. From how the movie portrays evolution of the (un)dead to the bloated running time to the gleeful excess of explosions and artillery, this isn’t just another zombie flick: Netflix has aspirations of turning Snyder’s latest project into an in-house franchise it can build upon. (A prequel and an anime spinoff series are already on the way.)

With Army of the Dead, Snyder has added a couple of interesting wrinkles to a genre that’s been running on fumes as of late. The first was making Army of the Dead primarily a heist movie, in which a ragtag group of mercenaries, led by Dave Bautista, are enlisted by a mysterious billionaire (played by Hiroyuki Sanada) to enter a zombie-infested Las Vegas and retrieve $200 million from a casino vault. (Naturally, there’s an urgency to the mission because the government plans to nuke Vegas in a matter of days—on the Fourth of July, no less.) The second was incorporating a zombie hierarchy of sorts, where the top of the flesh-eating food chain communicate with a level of intelligence resembling pack animals and [checks notes] form a society, foster relationships, and possibly have offspring. They also employ one of Siegfried and Roy’s tigers—it’s zombified, obviously—to patrol the perimeter of their territory.

While there is potency in Snyder’s message with the movie, especially with displaced Vegas survivors being mistreated at what’s effectively an internment camp outside of the barricaded city, it might be doing the filmmaker a disservice to overthink his intentions. (Given that the zombie outbreak and quarantine measures could also be read as a commentary on COVID-19, it’s worth remembering that the majority of the movie—sans the late inclusion of Tig Notaro to replace disgraced comedian Chris D’Elia—was filmed before the pandemic.) In a revealing Guardian interview, Snyder disputed the assertion that his movies have a right-wing agenda: “People see what they want to see.” Their gripe is legitimate, particularly given the fascistic lens of 300 and Snyder’s own professed admiration for Ayn Rand. But this is also the same guy who explained that he wants to adapt Rand’s The Fountainhead because he thinks it’d be “super fun and crazy” to do.

This isn’t to suggest that, on the whole, Snyder’s movies are completely devoid of larger ideas. But when Army of the Dead’s zombie pack leader Zeus lives in a decaying tower called the Olympus and wears a tattered cape, I’m inclined to believe that Snyder isn’t taking a dig at the superhero industrial complex: Giving a zombie a cape and the name of a Greek god might just be a super fun and crazy thing to do. Zombies have a rich sociopolitical history on screen, but in Snyder’s hands, they’re primarily a vehicle for gnarly theatrics. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Perhaps it’s best to admire Snyder not only as a blockbuster auteur, but as cinema’s resident himbo incorporating Greek mythology, slo-mo, and on-the-nose needle drops for the simple reason that he thinks it’s dope.

This might seem like a backhanded compliment—there are definitely more ideas behind Snyder’s dour superhero epics—but at his crowd-pleasing best, the filmmaker gives viewers exactly what they’re craving. That’s most encapsulated in the opening 15 minutes of the movie, when a newly hitched Vegas couple inadvertently crash their car into a military convoy. (Take one guess as to what the convoy is transporting that should absolutely not escape, but inevitably does.) The zombies spreading across Vegas are then captured in Army of the Dead’s lurid opening credits sequence, in which a cover of “Viva Las Vegas” plays over a montage of zombified showgirls and Elvis impersonators feasting on Sin City’s clientele. It’s absolutely ridiculous, but knowingly so, and already deserving of a spot among Snyder’s greatest hits.

The rest of Army of the Dead can’t quite live up to that opening, but there’s not a lot to complain about with a film that plays out like a Russian nesting doll of zombie and heist movie clichés. Over nearly two and a half hours, Snyder takes his sweet time putting together a team and having them picked apart in increasingly creative ways. (Rest assured: The zombie tiger is put to good use.) No longer burdened with the expectations of adapting comic books for a studio eager to compete against the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it seems like Snyder is having a genuine blast orchestrating a gory B-movie with an A-list budget for Netflix, which has developed a reputation for giving auteurs the freedom to do whatever they please.

Another studio might’ve reined Army of the Dead in somewhat—certainly, a hybrid zombie-heist movie that runs for nearly 150 minutes is a tad overindulgent. But on the whole, Snyder appears to have turned the page from his more contentious era of superhero blockbusters, returning to a more broadly palatable kind of high-octane filmmaking under the backing of a streamer that’s happy to sit back, write the checks, and let the dude cook. Army of the Dead might be an explosive and silly spectacle, but that doesn’t make it brainless. If anything, Snyder has proved that there’s still plenty of life behind his particular brand of mayhem.