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“See, what’d I tell you? America always sorts its shit out.” It’s been seventeen years since Zack Snyder made his feature film debut with Dawn of the Dead (2004), a remake of George A. Romero’s 1978 zombie classic of the same name. With that film, Snyder helped usher in a wave of both horror remakes and zombie films that would go a long way in shaping pop culture during the first half of the 21st century and positioned himself as one of the hotly discussed filmmakers of his generation. In 2021, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any film fan who doesn’t have at least some opinion on Zack Snyder and his filmography. 2021 has also marked a successful creative and critical year for the director who has developed quite the cult following over the past decade, first with the long-awaited release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League on HBO Max, and now with Army of the Dead on Netflix. It’s the second milestone that will likely have the biggest effect on Snyder’s next steps, as all signs point to him putting the DCEU and his relationship with WarnerMedia in the rearview in exchange for the scenic foreground of a partnership with Netflix and a franchise for Army of the Dead. To borrow from Dawn of the Dead‘s CJ (Michael Kelly) once again, but without the irony implied in the film, Hollywood, as a microcosm of America, always sorts its shit out. And with the release of Army of the Dead, consider Zack Snyder’s immediate future as well and sorted.
Having had the pleasure of seeing Army of the Dead in theaters, there’s no question that the film is a visual and auditory feast, of the likes fans of Snyder’s films have come to expect. Despite it being a Netflix release, it’s a film that, if possible, deserves to be seen on the big-screen. But beyond the familiar trappings associated with Snyder’s stylistic choices and visual flair, Army of the Dead feels like a breath of fresh air, with Snyder, who also co-wrote the film, served as DP, and produced alongside his wife Deborah Snyder through their company The Stone Quarry, seeming to have the most fun he’s had in years. Undoubtedly, a large part of this comes from the freedom Netflix provided him, allowing Snyder to work without the concerns of runtime or content that have dogged the most recent entries in his filmography. But another, equally important aspect, is that for the first time in a decade, when he released Sucker Punch (2011), Snyder is free of the baggage that comes with adapting pre-existing material.
Sure, it’s impossible to do anything with zombies without facing comparisons to the genius of Romero and his creations. But that pales in comparisons to adapting the world’s most beloved comic book characters in Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, or Justice League, or the once said-to-be unadaptable magnum opus of the superhero comics medium that is Watchmen. And let’s be real here, horror fans are a lot more open and flexible with different interpretations of familiar mythos than comic book fans. As someone who is very much a fan of Snyder’s DC adaptations, I think his time in that world has come to an end, for various reasons. Army of the Dead on the other hand feels like a world that’s just beginning, and a world through which Snyder can channel many of his ideas about mythology, gods, human nature, strong leading women, parenthood, and the end of the world through.
Without going into spoilers, Army of the Dead makes a strong case for why Netflix went ahead with a live-action prequel film, Army of Thieves, and an animated prequel series, Army of the Dead: Lost Vegas. The film is filled with big characters with strong personalities, led by Dave Bautista’s Scott Ward and his daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell). Rather than the everymen and women who made up Dawn of the Dead, Army of the Dead features a specialized group of operatives who are writ large, circling, and in some cases, elevating tropes of the action genre, or at least leaning into them with abandon. These are comic book characters without the comic book source material to contain them. There isn’t a single character in the film’s diverse cast of characters, Lily the Coyote (Nora Arnezeder), Mikey Guzman (Raul Castillo), Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada), and so on, who wouldn’t be prime for a spin-off film or series, and that seems to be the idea. As much as Army of the Dead stands alone as its own heist/zombie flick, and kills off characters brutally and without any qualms, it’s still paving the way for a future in which these characters’ stories can continue in the past or future.
What about zombie fatigue? Surely the more expansive Army of the Dead becoming a franchise means the interest in each subsequent piece of media will lessen after a while. This has certainly been the case for The Walking Dead, though even that franchise is still shambling on with more spin-offs and eventual movies to follow the conclusion of the main series. The Snyders have carved out a path to avoid repetition, using different mediums and genres. Lost Vegas is an anime with its own cast of big-name actors, and, as revealed in The Hollywood Reporter‘s recent interview with Deborah Snyder, Army of Thieves is a rom-com heist set during the zombie apocalypse. While some dyed-in-the-wool Snyder DC fans may grimace at the comparison, the plans for Army of the Dead seem not so dissimilar from what Marvel Studios is doing to combat superhero fatigue: lean into different genres and mediums to keep audiences invested and feeling like they’re seeing something fresh each time that also serves as a piece of a larger story.
Certainly, it helps fight zombie fatigue in that Snyder takes a page out of Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985) and Land of the Dead (2005), by using zombies who have evolved, which in Army of the Dead has resulted in subspecies, and even the early stages of culture. The zombies faced in Army aren’t just the “shamblers,” they’re smart, capable, and able to use tools. They even feel emotions like love. If Romero is on one side of Snyder’s Army of the Dead influence, then Richard Matheson’s novella, I Am Legend, is on the other. The potential for that exploration certainly feels worthy of a franchise. It’s not that Army of the Dead is doing anything particularly novel or revolutionary, but that Snyder is giving new life to the material with his own signature. A Zombie leader named Zeus who wears a metal face mask and leads hordes of undead on horseback across the ruins of Las Vegas could not be more attuned to Snyder’s impulses and aesthetics, and it works wonders.
Snyder has earned a reputation for exploring the darker side of superhero mythos and deconstructing them. Those who only know the director from those works may be surprised by the amount of humor and bursts of color that punctuate Army of the Dead. The film starts off with a pink credits sequence and a Liberace-esque Elvis impersonator singing “Viva Las Vegas,” and actors Tig Notaro and Matthias Schweighofer provide the film with much of its comedic energy and back and forth banter. The film never feels self-serious yet remains emotionally honest throughout. This isn’t a deconstruction of Zombie mythos. We’re not being invited to watch the BvS of zombie movies. Instead, Snyder builds off of what has come before with everything from The Return of the Living Dead (1985) to 28 Days Later (2002) serving as a prequel, not in terms of continuity but the cinematic language of the film. Interestingly enough, Army of Dead is quite a bit reminiscent of the work of James Gunn, who wrote Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead. From a family of working-class misfits, humor that explores and exposes characters, third act sentimentality, and a bounty of pop songs, it wouldn’t come as a shock if Gunn served as some conscious or subconscious form of inspiration for Snyder’s return to the world of the dead.
Army of the Dead may be Snyder’s most accessible film since his first, yet his growth as a filmmaker is apparent throughout. Is it indulgent? Of course. Magnificently so, but Army of the Dead also feels like his most controlled film. That’s not to say it’s bereft of deeper meanings, or hints at grand theories, including an absolutely wild one about time travel. But there’s little room to run off track with questions of logic or interrogations of character motivations or methods. Army of the Dead feels like the work of a filmmaker who has an expansive new playground before him, and has nothing to do but let loose in a world entirely of his own.
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