Okay, I admit it… I’m not a fan of zombie movies. For me personally, the idea of a zombie apocalypse is an inherently silly one. Time and time again zombies are depicted as feral beasts who are a force of nature, but who can quite easily be outsmarted and exploited by even small groups of survivors. It’s for this reason I tend to prefer more campy takes on the genre, since the lighter tone allows me to suspend my disbelief a little bit more. Watching zombies movies that take themselves 100% seriously has always been a struggle for me, even the ones hailed as classics like 28 Days Later; How does the film not expect me not to laugh when a character looks up at a power line and a drop of blood falls at the exact moment, angle and trajectory to land in his eye, thus coincidentally infecting him? Alas this isn’t a discussion about 28 Days Later, this is first and foremost a discussion about Army of the Dead.
Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead is not a film I’d have been interested in, were it not for the fact I have been stuck in my house for so long, desperately trying to pass the time in this Covid-19 era. Based on the hyper-active trailers, I think we all knew going in that this was going to be complete shlock, but there is nothing inherently wrong with that. Action schlock can be just as entertaining as more deep and thoughtful films, but in their own insane way, and if there’s one thing Zack Snyder is good at, it’s putting together and filming action sequences. And don’t be mistaken, there are plenty of those in this movie.
But what did genuinely intrigue me was the premise of robbing a casino overrun by zombies because it meant that this wasn’t just a zombie movie, it was also a heist movie. This is significant because the best thing about zombie movies is never the actual zombies, but more so the helpless scenario they create that breeds human conflict and corruption. Again using 28 Days Later as an example, the highlight of the film isn’t “that great big showdown between human and zombie kind”, but rather when the characters are on the verge of escaping a rouge sector of the old world military, and when Christopher Eccleston blasts the protagonist with a pistol from the back of their escape vehicle. The same can be said for popular shows like the Walking Dead which thrives off the human drama between characters because there’s only so many times you can shoot a zombie in the head and have it remain interesting.
So there I was sitting down and preparing to watch this zombie heist movie only to find… It’s not a zombie heist movie. It’s a “let’s shoot all the zombies” movie, with a single scene of “we should probably open this vault and get the money”. And that wouldn’t have even been too bad if the character drama was above awful. The main emotional hook in this movie is between a father and daughter who had grown apart and who must reconnect as they battle a bunch of zombies together. To be frank, it’s as cliché as it sounds, which is to say a lot, and about as developed as you’d expect, which is to say it’s not. And what doesn’t help it is that Dave Batista gives the performance of a brick wall, while nearly every other member of the cast seems to be severely over dramatizing everything.
But hey, at least there was that cool fight scene, right? Oh, and that other cool fight scene. Oh, and that other one too.
The thing is that Zack Snyder doesn’t realise is that this movie isn’t a videogame, and thus rampant action isn’t going to substitute for a story that is even remotely concerned with delivering on its premise of being a heist movie. I said before there are some well executed action scenes in this movie, but it really doesn’t amount to anything. And although it does feel like a Zack Snyder movie, and thus clearly does have a style to it, it never once feels engaging. Every bullet the characters fire is a headshot. Every instance of hand to hand combat involves targeting the head, and no one is ever concerned about being accidently bitten. The characters are out of range of every explosion, even the nuclear ones. And thus every death is one that is contrived by the script forcing characters to take actions they never normally would and the zombies doing things they could have done to kill the characters sooner in previous scenes. At the end of the film I was unable to remember the name of any character, and really didn’t care to know. Every single character was either “man who can shoot gun”, “woman who can shoot gun”, or “Dave Batista and his annoying daughter.” Resultingly, this should be well within the top five films of all time that have the least amount of tension, as well as ranked highly among others that actually lose suspense as the story progresses.
But we can’t forget the “zombie king” character, leader of all the zombies. He kidnaps human women for the implied purpose of raping them, infecting them after they become pregnant and then awaiting the birth of his undead sons. Not only is it disgusting, but it is also so underdeveloped that it matters even less than the supposed heist this film is about and is also just edgy for the sake of being edgy.
Simply put, this movie spends a lot of time trying to be cool at the expense of actually being cool. The closest thing I can relate it to is that one kid we all know from high school who spent so much time trying to get everyone to like him that he was never truly able to fit in with any one group of people particularly well.
An actual example of a super cool zombie movie is Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, which delivers on all the fronts that Army of the Dead failed to. For one, it actually succeeds in being something other than a zombie movie – a romantic comedy – which is excellent because it means the characters can have more identifiable traits beyond “is good with gun”. Shaun, for example, is a very loyal man who will stand up for his girlfriend, Liz, even after she’s dumped him, defend his friend Ed’s laziness despite the fact he’s an unemployed slob, and stands by his mother, Barbra, despite his dislike for the man, Philip, she ended up marrying. Notice that I remembered all of the character’s names because they are treated as and written to be people, rather than cardboard cut outs holding assault rifles.
But while the film’s main focus is on Shaun’s redemption arc pertaining to his life with Liz, with the zombies mainly serving as the driving force behind him needing to get his life together, it still manages to have something to say about the zombie genre. It often parodies other zombie films by, instead of having a clear contrast between life before and after the apocalypse, having so little contrast that most of the characters aren’t even aware the apocalypse occurred until well after the film’s half-way point. That’s not to say us viewers don’t know it’s occurred – because the warning signs are everywhere – but what it does mean is that the first half of this film contains some of the most self-aware and best dramatic irony you’ll find within the zombie genre.
I also like how to film parodies the idea that any character in a tense situation can land consistently accurate headshots against a horde of zombies, by having its characters consistently miss targets. This gag of characters not being able to aim isn’t drawn out to annoying lengths, and zombies do certainly die to bullets in the brain, which means that you get both the satisfying gore of watching a zombie die, and the tension of knowing these characters aren’t invincible, like Army of the Dead’s cast of super soldiers who can wipe out hundreds of zombies without issue up until the part of the script that says they HAVE to struggle.
The result is that a film about a man holding out in a pub with his mates while trying to win back his girlfriend is cooler, more stylised and entertaining than a film about trying to rob a casino guarded by the undead. And the main reason behind that is because Shaun of the Dead is a film that knows what it wants to do and sets out to do that as well as it can, while Army of the Dead is simultaneously being drawn between being action schlock and a sub-par character drama… Without the characters.
Watch Shaun of the Dead. It’s funny, endearing, surprising and very rewatchable.
Don’t watch Army of the Dead. It’s boring, lacklustre and shallow, and somehow feels repetitive even on first viewing.