You don’t have to know me that well to ascertain my general feelings about Zack Snyder. While I love his personality and warmth behind the scenes, I have been very critical of most, if not all of his films, many of which I’ve reviewed for this site. But as some of our loyal readers will remember, after hating almost all of the DCEU (the extended cut of BvS being an exception), I was pleasantly surprised to find myself giving the long-awaited ‘Snydercut’ a positive review. Needless to say, the cynic in me assumed this was a one-time deal, leaving little excitement for Snyder’s second 2021 release; Army of the Dead.
With pleasure I can report back that my cynicism was misguided and that Snyder has once again delivered an actually good film. That’s right, for the first time I’m actually considering the possibility that Snyder is in fact, getting better as a director. And while this comment is partially in jest, in a lot of ways I think Army of the Dead does show real growth and progression for Snyder as a filmmaker.
One of the most obvious ways in which this is apparent, and one way in which my praise for the film largely differs from what I’ve seen from others, is the lack of visual flourish. Snyder returned to his roots for Army of the Dead, taking control of both directorial duty but also serving as the Director of Photography too, something we’ve only seen Snyder do once since his feature film debut in his 2017 short film Snow Steam Iron. I’ve seen lots of reviews online complaining about the lack of style in the cinematography, aside from lots of shallow focus shots which I will talk about later, but honestly I think the film, and Snyder’s directing as a whole, works much better in this striped back way. The shoot-out as the crew are trying to leave the hotel is a great example of this, as it captures a moment of intense emotions for all the characters, but framed through a gory and blazing gun-fight without the screen feeling cluttered and obnoxious. Similarly, and again can be seen in this scene, with the more stripped back visual approach, the heavy use of slow-motion (which don’t worry Snyder fans, there’s plenty of slow-mo) works a lot better than in say Watchmen or Sucker Punch.
But let’s talk about the shallow focus shall we? I don’t know what it is but Snyder loves using this and it never looks good. Throughout the film this is implemented a bunch and it always just makes the frame look unfocused and messy. While Snyder did some great work with the camerawork in this film, the decision to shoot with such a shallow depth of field was a bad one.
I’ll hold my hands up and admit that going into Army of the Dead I wasn’t sure about Dave Bautista as a leading man. While he’s proven to be great comic relief as Drax in the MCU (and I always thought he was a cool wrestler), even when the trailer dropped I was hesitant about The Animal carrying the film, but Dave gives a career best performance. Scott Ward is intelligent, loving, and a bad-ass, and across the film he displays a wide range of emotions, it’s by no means a one-note or easy to play character but Dave embodies the character, nailing every scene and every emotion, effortlessly switching from shooting down zombies to a heart-felt moment with his daughter. While I still think Dave has a lot left to show off in terms of his acting, at least for me this film will be the benchmark going forward. The supporting cast has a lot of great performances too, with Ella Purnell, playing the aforementioned daughter, who has great chemistry with Bautista. Tig Notaro gives a great performance that is really funny and despite being CGI’d into the film in post-production, integrates well, albeit not quite seamlessly, but considering the reason she’s included it’s worth the few moments of awkward CGI. But my favourite cast member & character, is easily Matthias Schweighöfer as Dieter, the crew’s designated safecracker who steals the show in every scene he’s in, nailing every joke with superb comedic timing and showcasing great chemistry with everyone he shares a scene with.
What I think makes Army of the Dead work so well is that it’s just a lot of fun. While the opening scene sets up a wonderful sense of fear and terror, the title sequence shows that this isn’t a film that takes itself too seriously. While there are plenty of gripping moments and wonderfully tense sequences, the hibernating zombie room for instance is a superb lesson in suspense, but the bombastic shoot-outs and slick needle drops juxtapose the drama of the film wonderfully. The comedy is on-point and delivered well, narratively I think this is easily one of Snyder’s best scripts with the twists and reveals feeling immensely satisfying. The emotional climax of the film also feels very personal, and knowing what Snyder has been through it’s touching to see him express himself in such a poignant way in this film. I can’t believe I’m actually typing out these words but honestly after Army of the Dead I am actually quite excited to see what Snyder is going to do next!