Skip to main content

Watch your fingers, Mr Big Hand.

Army of the Dead

(SPOILERS) 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 overAliens 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 makes sure 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 down 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 Dead, Escape 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 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 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?


Popular posts from this blog

Maybe he had one too many peanut butter and fried banana sandwiches.

3000 Miles to Graceland (2001) (SPOILERS) The kind of movie that makes your average Tarantino knockoff look classy, 3000 Miles to Graceland is both aggressively unpleasant and acutely absent any virtues, either as a script or a stylistic exercise. The most baffling thing about it is how it attracted Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell, particularly since both ought to have been extra choosy at this point, having toplined expensive bombs in the previous half decade that made them significantly less bankable names. And if you’re wondering how this managed to cost the $62m reported on Wiki, it didn’t; Franchise Pictures, one of the backers, was in the business of fraudulently inflating budgets .

White nights getting to you?

Insomnia (2002) (SPOILERS) I’ve never been mad keen on Insomnia . It’s well made, well-acted, the screenplay is solid and it fits in neatly with Christopher Nolan’s abiding thematic interests, but it’s… There’s something entirely adequateabout it. It isn’t pushing any kind of envelope. It’s happy to be the genre-bound crime study it is and nothing more, something emphasised by Pacino’s umpteenth turn as an under-pressure cop.

You absolute horror of a human being.

As Good as it Gets (1997) (SPOILERS) James L Brooks’ third Best Picture Oscar nomination goes to reconfirm every jaundiced notion you had of the writer-director-producer’s capacity for the facile and highly consumable, low-cal, fast-food melodramatic fix with added romcom lustre. Of course, As Good as it Gets was a monster hit, parading as it does Jack in a crackerjack, attention-grabbing part. But it’s a mechanical, suffocatingly artificial affair, ponderously paced (a frankly absurd 139 minutes) and infused with glib affirmations and affections. Naturally, the Academy lapped that shit up, because it reflects their own lack of depth and perception (no further comment is needed than Titanic winning the big prize for that year).

The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?

The Box of Delights (1984) If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delights  may well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box ’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare doe not age well but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisi

I must remind you that the scanning experience is usually a painful one.

Scanners (1981) (SPOILERS) David Cronenberg has made a career – albeit, he may have “matured” a little over the past few decades, so it is now somewhat less foregrounded – from sticking up for the less edifying notions of evolution and modern scientific thought. The idea that regress is, in fact, a form of progress, and unpropitious developments are less dead ends than a means to a state or states as yet unappreciated. He began this path with some squeam-worthy body horrors, before genre hopping to more explicit science fiction with Scanners , and with it, greater critical acclaim and a wider audience. And it remains a good movie, even as it suffers from an unprepossessing lead and rather fumbles the last furlong, cutting to the chase when a more measured, considered approach would have paid dividends.

You seem particularly triggered right now. Can you tell me what happened?

Trailers The Matrix Resurrections   The Matrix A woke n ? If nothing else, the arrival of The Matrix Resurrections trailer has yielded much retrospective back and forth on the extent to which the original trilogy shat the bed. That probably isn’t its most significant legacy, of course, in terms of a series that has informed, subconsciously or otherwise, intentionally or otherwise, much of the way in which twenty-first century conspiracy theory has been framed and discussed. It is however, uncontested that a first movie that was officially the “best thing ever”, that aesthetically and stylistically reinvigorated mainstream blockbuster cinema in a manner unseen again until Fury Road , squandered all that good will with astonishing speed by the time 2003 was over.

Remember. Decision. Consequence.

Day Break (2006) (SPOILERS) Day Break is the rare series that was lucky to get cancelled. And not in a mercy-killing way. It got to tell its story. Sure, apparently there were other stories. Other days to break. But would it have justified going there? Or would it have proved tantalising/reticent about the elusive reason its protagonist has to keep stirring and repeating? You bet it would. Offering occasional crumbs, and then, when it finally comes time to wrap things up, giving an explanation that satisfies no one/is a cop out/offers a hint at some nebulous existential mission better left to the viewer to conjure up on their own. Best that it didn’t even try to go there.

How do you melt somebody’s lug wrench?

Starman (1984) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s unlikely SF romance. Unlikely, because the director has done nothing before or since suggesting an affinity for the romantic fairy tale, and yet he proves surprisingly attuned to Starman ’s general vibes. As do his stars and Jack Nitzsche, furnishing the score in a rare non-showing from the director-composer. Indeed, if there’s a bum note here, it’s the fairly ho-hum screenplay; the lustre of Starman isn’t exactly that of making a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but it’s very nearly stitching together something special from resolutely average source material.

You cut my head off a couple of dozen times.

Boss Level (2021) (SPOILERS) Lest you thought it was nigh-on impossible to go wrong with a Groundhog Day premise, Joe Carnahan, in his swaggering yen for overkill, very nearly pulls it off with Boss Level . I’m unsure quite what became of Carnahan’s early potential, but he seems to have settled on a sub-Tarantino, sub-Bay, sub-Snyder, sub-Ritchie butch bros aesthetic, complete with a tin ear for dialogue and an approach to plotting that finds him continually distracting himself, under the illusion it’s never possible to have too much. Of whatever it is he’s indulging at that moment.

We got two honkies out there dressed like Hassidic diamond merchants.

The Blues Brothers (1980) (SPOILERS) I had limited awareness of John Belushi’s immense mythos before  The Blues Brothers arrived on retail video in the UK (so 1991?) My familiarity with SNL performers really began with Ghostbusters ’ release, which meant picking up the trail of Jake and Elwood was very much a retrospective deal. I knew Animal House , knew Belushi’s impact there, knew 1941 (the Jaws parody was the best bit), knew Wired was a biopic better avoided. But the minor renaissance he, and they, underwent in the UK in the early ’90s seemed to have been initiated by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers, of all things; Everybody Needs Somebody was part of their That Sounds Good to Me medley, the first of their hits not to make No.1, and Everybody ’s subsequent single release then just missed the Top Ten. Perhaps it was this that hastened CIC/Universal to putting the comedy out on video. Had the movie done the rounds on UK TV in the 80s? If so, it managed to pass me by. Even bef