In fact, it could be said that Army of the Dead is something of a throwback for the director, marking a return to his early work. As a hyper-violent zombie action film with a satirical edge, Army of the Dead invites comparisons to his first feature, his remake of George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead. However, Army of the Dead is not a sequel or belated sequel. It is that rare modern big-budget genre film that stands on its own as much as is possible for a high-concept zombie movie.
Army of the Dead isn't a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination. It's a bit indulgent and overlong, and suffers from the familiar pacing and tone problems that plague many Netflix-produced films. However, Army of the Dead is a fun and interesting genre if approached on its own terms. More than anything, freed from the constraints of established properties and shared universes and the ensuing scrutiny, Army of the Dead gives the sense that Snyder is genuinely having fun. And that's something you can't fault him for.
Army of the Dead is built around a number of lofty concepts. The most obvious is the collision of a zombie apocalypse movie with a heist thriller. The film takes place in a world where a zombie outbreak unleashed from Area 51 has swept through Las Vegas, but the U.S. government has been able to contain it. Las Vegas is walled off from the world. The threat posed by the creatures is persistent, but not existential. This is not Mad Max or The Book of Eli. It's not even The Handmaid's Tale.
There's something oddly compelling about this setup, which haunts the film even if it's never fully explored. Army of the Dead imagines a world that has managed to survive the apocalypse. The kind of catastrophic event that signals the end of humanity in most stories has struck the world, but humanity has endured. Society did not collapse. Business continued as usual. Veterans of the campaign to secure Las Vegas now work menial jobs on the outskirts of the state as fry cooks. The dispossessed were regrouped in camps where they could be quickly forgotten.
This is perhaps the central dark joke of Army of the Dead, and the one that most resonates with the current moment. After all, Army of the Dead arrives in a world possibly experiencing several simultaneous apocalypses, only to insist that business must go on as usual: an unprecedented global pandemic, the possibility that climate change is past the point of no return, and the collapse of democratic structures in the face of a resurrected fascism.
Army of the Dead takes place in a zombie world, where the structures of late capitalism are solid enough to withstand the seemingly unimaginable and life somehow perseveres in the face of the impossible. Army of the Dead illustrates the absurdity of satire in the modern world, as many of its absurd plots are disturbingly believable in the context of the last half-decade, such as an unnamed U.S. President planning a nuclear attack on Las Vegas "coinciding with the sunset on the Fourth of July holiday" that would be "really cool, and the ultimate fireworks show" and "actually kind of patriotic if you think about it."
It's fascinating, bizarre, and ultimately creepy that Army of the Dead is a zombie satire that isn't as outlandish as it would have been a decade earlier. It's difficult to parse parts of the film, to determine how the film intends certain elements to read. Borrowing from Snyder's fascination with the exaggerated surreality of American public opinion, Sean Spicer even has a small cameo as a talking head debating the bizarre state of this alternate world. It's partly creepy to see Army of the Dead normalize and even rehabilitate someone connected to that administration, but it's also oddly appropriate to see it in this genre.
Army of the Dead runs into a horror version of the challenge that has faced comedians in the post-Trump era, the question of whether the real world exists in a state beyond parody or nightmare. As expected within the zombie genre, Snyder bakes in a healthy does of heightened social commentary. That commentary is somehow more unsettling for the fact that it doesn’t seem absurd. The idea of classifying people as subhuman for perceived “belligerence and actions outside of social norms” based on temperature checks in lawless detainment camps doesn’t seem particularly far from where the United States was – and still is.
Still, Snyder is having fun. Army of the Dead is a zombie movie that is an eighties action movie throwback that finds time for elements like zombie horses and “a goddamn zombie tiger.” That sensibility is infectious.
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