starring Dave Bautista, Ella Purnell, Omari Hardwick, Garret Dillahunt
screenplay by Zack Snyder & Shay Hatten and Joby Harold
directed by Zack Snyder
by Walter Chaw A band of highly-outfitted soldiers enters a hive of monsters on a rescue mission. Accompanying them is a person scarred psychologically by a fight with these monsters, as well as a representative of an evil corporation that is more interested in harvesting the monsters--not for any humanitarian purpose, but to use as WMDs--than in exterminating them. For a little heroic comic relief, meet the not-completely-ordinary-seeming pilot, who, at a moment of crisis, appears to have disappeared only to reappear once our survivors have lost all hope. That's right, Zack Snyder's Army of the Dead is a remorseless, brazen rip-off of Aliens, down to outfitting a monster-killing badass exactly like Jenette Goldstein's "Vasquez" and to cribbing a few lines from James Cameron's script wholesale. At some point, Aliens apparently became an obscure, seldom-seen relic of a forgotten past ripe for strip-mining in this hotly-anticipated, deeply disappointing and distended genre epic. To be fair, Army of the Dead doesn't only rip off Aliens (which it does remorselessly): it also lifts Richard Matheson's I Am Legend conceit of "who are the real monsters, here?" in conceiving of a zombie civilization attempting to find purchase in the Nevada desert. If you have to steal, may as well steal from the best.
For Army of the Dead, a blowjob accident results in the unleashing of a King Zombie on the Vegas strip. During a fun prologue/opening credits sequence (Snyder is good at those), the zombie horde quickly overruns Sin City via a series of loaded images of people hitting jackpots and getting messily devoured by the newly-reanimated. Topless zombie showgirls track down an unctuous nightclub owner and feast on him in his hot tub. There's a case to be made that Snyder is doing here what Michael Bay did in Pain & Gain, i.e., lampooning his own excesses through a scrim of familiar genre tropes. We are gluttony, dig? Decadence is our deadliest sin and, as it happens, hedonism is the only goddamn thing that defines us as Americans. It's our most obvious external marker, and we wear it loud and proud. Our cast of characters is introduced as heroes of the day while the military walls in the city to prepare for a nuclear strike. You need to nuke the site from orbit, you see--it's the only way to be sure. Our Ripley is Scott (Dave Bautista), our Burke is Martin (Garret Dillahunt), our Bishop is Peters (Tig Notaro), our Vasquez is Geeta (Huma Qureshi), and our sense of déjà vu is just absolutely redlining. Battle-weary mercenary Scott agrees to step back into action when wealthy scumbag Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) offers him the chance to perform a heist of $200M from the basement of a casino. The money is protected, by the way, by a series of Indiana Jones boobytraps, which our raiders hilariously send a zombie to set off.
Which is to say that Army of the Dead is occasionally very funny--mostly because of late replacement Tig Notaro (seamlessly CGI'd into the film after some bro decided to check out of his unearned fame with hard-earned social carnage), but sometimes because it uses zombies in the Robert Kirkman/Edgar Wright sense. There's also a zombie tiger and a zombie horse. There are zombie other things, too, plus John Wick gun fu done at half-speed, but you take what you can get sometimes. Army of the Dead is best when it's excessive--too gory, too stupid, too loud--and worst when it's recycling key plot points from Aliens and spending frankly too much time in the unwinnable battle to provide depth to an unwieldy cast of characters. It's also not fantastic when, to help individuate its ensemble, certain stereotypes are indulged--especially the running joke of an effete safecracker (Matthias Schweighöfer) who lets out a high-pitched scream whenever he's startled. It's not funny the first time; it doesn't get funnier through repetition. That's the problem with Snyder films in general, and in this way he's not unlike Wagner: There's genius there now and again alongside extraordinarily sloppy shit, and both are reprised a few thousand times over the course of what seems an interminable span. I will say this much: I liked the call-out to the "Twilight Zone" episode "Time Enough At Last," dovetailing with a call-out to Walter Hill's Trespass. Oh, and I liked the Revenant scene, too, this time with a tiger instead of a bear because "innovation!" Meaning Army of the Dead is kind of fun, though I liked all of it better the first few times I saw it.