I feel like the zombie thing has run its course, and I’m not alone. Google the phrase “Enough with the zombies already!” and you’ll find blog posts and articles dating back at least 10 years.
Zombie films have been around since the 1930s, but George Romero deserves the credit for making them stick in 1968 with “Night of the Living Dead.” He created and inspired a few more over the next couple of decades but things didn’t really get going until the early 2000s. Projects like “28 Days Later” and “Resident Evil” put a contemporary spin on the concept while other titles like “Shaun of the Dead” and “Zombieland” made artful fun of it. It all worked, because fighting off the undead was something we just could not get enough of. Which is why by the time “The Walking Dead”premiered in 2010, we had reached the saturation point. That was 11 years ago.
Netflix’s latest contribution to the canon is “Army of the Dead.” Directed by Zack Snyder, whose first film was a remake of “Dawn of the Dead” in 2004, this movie is billed as a mash-up of the zombie and heist genres. The story is pretty simple: An eccentric billionaire hires a group of mercenaries to brave the infested streets of Las Vegas and raid the vault of his own casino. Complicating matters is the fact that the government has decided to drop a nuke on the city to rid the world of the shambling hordes trapped there behind the makeshift walls.
If that set-up sounds like fun to you, I can only agree. It does sound like fun—especially in the hands of an iconic action veteran like Snyder. He has his detractors, especially in the DC fandom, but I’ve defended him here on “On Set” before and I’m willing to do it again. Probably not today, though. “Army of the Dead” has truly tested my allegiance. It is an overstuffed mess, and a huge disappointment.
From the very beginning, “Army of the Dead” takes itself simultaneously too seriously and not seriously enough. The first thing you notice when you press play is that it is two and half hours long. No zombie movie should be two and a half hours long. With that amount of time to work with, Snyder could have set the stage with something fresh and intellectually gripping. Instead, he chose a lazy establishing scenario that would have been more suitable in a trashy frat house comedy.
The title sequence that immediately follows is vintage Snyder, fun and visually luxurious. But from there things go quickly back to bad. None of the human characters have motivations or backstories worth investing in, even though some of them try very hard to convince us they do. The heist subplot is silly and has about a thousand logic holes. And the zombies themselves are more often funny than scary. The alphas, which are the more agile and cunning type of Vegas undead, have a mannered, fussy body language you might expect to find in a community theater production of “Cats.” They don’t look like monsters. They look like people dressed up as monsters. Because of this, Snyder’s Alphas never fully bloom into worthy antagonists, even when their leader Zeus is displaying supernatural intelligence and power. In the end, as stylish and earnest as everything is, it all comes off like a video game—and not a particularly good one.
I never thought Zack Snyder would be the one to put the final bullet into the zombie genre. I’m a big fan of his work. But “Army of the Dead” proves that there is absolutely nothing interesting left to say in this space. It’s time to let the dead stay dead.