Second Sight: The Economics of Army of the Dead (2021)

images courtesy Netflix

It is fitting that a world ravaging pandemic would have the ability to transform a man from wanting to adapt The Fountainhead into directing the most thoughtful zombie film since Dawn of the Dead.  Undeniably divisive, Zack Snyder's cult of personality continues to endear his passionate fan base with unique, over the top concepts to traditional subject matter while simultaneously continuing to embolden his distractors, of which there are many.  With his latest offering, Snyder seems to have a lot on his mind, particularly with respect to the failures of government, the dangers of unchecked corporate greed, and the ever-present trauma of a father losing a daughter.  Featuring bizarre visual choices, stupefying action sequences, and a scathing satire of American exceptionalism, this is an extremely, maybe purposefully flawed popcorn film with a lot on its mind. 

A zombie outbreak forces the United States government to wall off Las Vegas, leaving thousands without homes.  A mercenary team is recruited to enter the city and steal millions of dollars, all while contending with zombies who are more than just the walking dead. Snyder co-wrote the script with Shay Hatten and Joby Harold and the result is a congealing of several genres that all gravitate around a central conceit: The American dream was dead on arrival and we are all the undead, meandering in its wake.  Time and time again terrible decisions are made, things go unexplained and random terrors materialize without any plausible reason.  It would be easy to tear apart the thin narrative that exists underneath the violent candy colored aesthetic, but perhaps this is by design.  In Snyder's almost apocalyptic America, the country hasn't decided to use nuclear weapons, despite the inherent danger, symbolizing how; despite all logic to the contrary, we in turn can't give up the fantasy of working hard and rising to fame and fortune, a conceit that is reflected in the washed-out environs, both inside and outside of the city.  

Snyder also served as cinematographer and his choices range from inspired to insane.  Rack focus shots flood the optics over and over again bringing the decaying corpses of undead royalty to the fore in almost every appearance.  It is a jarring decision and one that overstays it over for the two plus hours runtime, and yet it is almost symptomatic of the world in which Snyder is experimenting.  Caricatures are treated as such, soldiers of fortune accept ill advised (and planned) suicide missions whose point is ultimately Pyrrhic, yet another condemnation of a country that continues to tear itself apart at the expense of those who need help the most.  

Another evolution in the mythology is the decision to give some of the zombies a higher form of intelligence, a blatant, but well-done homage to Romero’s Land of the Dead.  While most of the alterations to the dead’s physique range from interesting to cringe-worthy, one particular choice sets up one of the most nerve wracking and pulse pounding actions sequences ever filmed, and this is precisely what Snyder excels all.  For every 4 failures, there is one ingenious success that makes it all worth it.   

Beyond the symbolic ramifications, the gloss of Snyder's playful rebellion does not disappoint.  While there is an undeniable philosophy at work, there is also a good time to be had.  Action zombie movies promise boatloads of bloodshed, gnarly character deaths, and melodrama whenever possible and it is here where Army shines, perhaps almost too well.  Snyder's patented traits (love or hate them) are all on display.  Overlong runtime, strange dialogue choices, endless plot holes and leaps of logic, and yet, it works simply through its existence.  No one makes films like this and it is clear that the freedom Netflix allows a creator is the difference, for better or worse.  

Now streaming on Netflix, Army of the Dead is an action extravaganza that is heavy on the carnage and light on logic.  Viewing it as a post populist critique may be a stretch, and yet as the smoke rises from the ashes of one of the most iconic cities in the United States, it's impossible to not remember January 6th.  Army isn't Snyder's greatest or even most ambitious offering, but it is a showcase of his inherent talent, a cathartic joy ride for a father still grieving the loss of a daughter, and most importantly, it's a fun experience if you surrender to its imperfections.    

--Kyle Jonathan