Some may point to Snyder’s return to droves as zombies as evidence that he’s fallen even further into his own past. Snyder first proved himself behind the camera within 2004 with a clever and exciting remake of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. But since then, Snyder has always shown a preference towards adaptation. As a result, of the nine titles in his filmography, only two have been original. The first was 2011’s Sucker Punch, which has the dubious distinction of being widely considered Snyder’s worst movie. The second is Army of the Dead, which, ten years later, may be his best.
From the jump, Army of the Dead feels like a breath of fresh air. Netflix kicked off 2021 by promising a new movie on their platform every week. But Army of the Dead feels like the first Netflix title of 2021 with any cultural sticking power. There tends to be a kind of slipping standard applied to these streaming efforts. It’s the kind of slip responsible for phrases like “good enough for streaming.” But Army of the Dead isn’t good enough for streaming. It’s just good. From the first sequence, the movie has a high production quality and deliberate point of view that distinguish it as a movie you happen to be watching on Netflix, not a “Netflix movie.”
Part of what helps Army of the Dead feel special is selecting a cast that doesn’t feel overly focus-grouped. We don’t often talk much about the work of Casting Directors (who, not incidentally, deserve their own Oscar). But Maya Kvetny’s work assembling the film’s main team is in no small part responsible for the movie’s success. With all due love and respect to actors like Tom Holland, Sebastian Stan, and Chris Pratt, it feels like the stars of the MCU have dominated Hollywood for the last five years. And Army of the Dead does star Dave Bautista, fresh off Guardians of the Galaxy under Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead collaborator James Gunn. But having replaced his alien makeup with a more metaphorical tough exterior, he’s hardly recognizable in the role even if his character’s motivation is just copied and pasted straight out of Guardians.
And the rest of the team is a triumph. Much of the film’s casting news swirled around Tig Notaro’s late addition to replace Chris D’Elia amid accusations against him. But perhaps not enough is being said about the diverse group of relatively untested actors surrounding Bautista and Notaro throughout the film. Ana de le Reguera (Narcos), Omari Hardwick (Power), and Theo Rossi (Sons of Anarchy) all feel right at home on the metaphorical big screen of streaming. Matthias Schweighöfer makes short work of his assignment as the comic relief in his first mainstream English role. But for my money, Nora Arnezeder (Mozart in the Jungle) steals the show as a zombie-Vegas tour guide who is just as strange and unpredictable as her undead adversaries.
And, in Army of the Dead, adversaries is the right word. In his first original screenplay since 2011, Snyder has created a zombie culture unlike any we’ve ever seen on screen before. But, without spoiling too much, the movie never lets the viewer rest easy when it comes to understanding the zombies’ origins. Whether they’re the result of a virus-run-amok, alien invaders, a government conspiracy, or a rift through time seems inconsequential to Snyder, who has always been more are interested in the “how” than the “why.” But for an autor who has spent most of his career providing clear answers to even the most insignificant question, this fun and freewheeling “Why not?” attitude feels unexpected and promising.
And, in the end, maybe that is the secret to the film’s success. Snyder had always been pilloried as a filmmaker who sacrifices scenes at the alter of moments. He is well suited to comic book adaptation because of his slavish dedication to capturing individual images. But in Zack Snyder’s Justice League and now, even more so, in Army of the Dead, he has transitioned from a fanboy to a visual master. In his comic boom fare, Snyder had often felt resistant to expanding out beyond his comfort zone. Here, he feels like a master of his craft who knows what he does best. Where he used to feel like an amateur musician, trying to play the same three chords to impress the girls at the party, Snyder had become a virtuoso, playing the hits to delight long-time fans.
That’s the magic of Army of the Dead. With Dawn of the Dead, Snyder kicked off the first era of his career with a style over substance approach that wowed a small cadre of die-hard fans but quickly faded with wider audiences. Now, with Army of the Dead, he seems more mature. Like Zack Snyder’s Justice League, my only complaint is I wish it were longer. But the Netflix animated series Lost Vegas promises to scratch that itch.
After his unceremonious departure from Justice League, Zack Snyder’s career seemed like it was dead. But the director has surprised us all, rising again. And he’s not only back. Unrestrained by the barriers of the comic book movies that used to be his comfort zone, he seems more capable than ever. He’s revealing himself to be a complicated and interesting director.
Let’s see what he does with it.
Army of the Dead is available to stream now on Netflix.