Zack’s Zombie Survival Guide:
Ch. 5 - Aftermath
1 June 2021
This is Part Five of a five part series anticipating the premiere of Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead on Netflix.
The following review offers spoilers of Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead. However, if you love good zombie films, you might skip this film, anyway, and if you are a fan of Snyder or just thoughtless entertainment, you won’t care.
V.A. Scope and Framing
As the radioactive dust settles on the ruins of Las Vegas and very few of the characters we meet in Army remain alive (or at least fully alive), one wonders what we accomplished during its 150+ minute ordeal. Like the characters themselves, viewers are left with a futility that either their hours were wasted or they must see the film as a “sunk cost” and thereby invest still more time in prequels and spin-offs.
I won’t spend time writing much of the film itself, its (usually) excellent effects, its cliched complications (why won’t that helicopter engine work?), its no-holds-barred gore (especially sound effects), its fast but understandable action sequences (owed in part to actor Rich Setron), its excruciating and needless pauses for “professionals” to wax angsty over some trivia (pause at helicopter door & missile inbound & big-baddie unkilled, for a father-daughter moment). Rotten Tomatoes and other sites will do all that justice. Instead, we are interested only how it fares as a zombie film.
Just add water.
V.B. The Snyder Zombie: Divergent Species
Snyder’s shamblers are more or less worthy of the traditional zombie, though he almost cleverly adds some new dimensions to common criticisms. Zombies, for instance, who stay out too long in the heat become desiccated and immobile (though apparently you can “just add water” to re-animate them, which raises new questions about the nature of the infection. To save energy, they often go into near-hibernation, even while standing, if there is no stimulation or food nearby. These changes underscore a zombie vulnerability to the physical world (welcomed), though they answer only half the questions which might arise.
More significant are the smart and fast “Alphas” which Snyder has created, one-offs of the original Zombie King. Unlike most diseases, an infection from the original source/host does not, in fact, make you less human but causes you to retain more humanity–in fact, in some ways you are superhuman: incredibly strong, unreasonably fast (often dodging bullets), but primitive in organization. Snyder equates the level of intelligence to wolves, and that might be close enough. Wolves with tools, armor, egos, long-term planning, evolving strategies, and a scientific understanding of basic biology.
Why do they need biology? Why, to redeem Snyder’s infamous (and rightfully deplored) zombie baby from 2004’s Dawn of the Dead! Intriguingly, the Zombie King has decided that bites aren’t the best way to reproduce. (A pacifist? Not enough human targets around?) Instead, we now have to imagine multiple experiments with undead sex. Let’s, um, not.
“It’s not that Snyder’s creations aren’t scary, not even that they aren’t fun to watch. But they aren’t the ‘nearly human’ thing that is so difficult for us to kill.“
It’s not merely that the idea is disgusting: it defies the biological physics which Snyder endorses in the shamblers. If the zombies are zombies–they are, to a greater or lesser extent, dead and decomposing–necrotic tissue does not spawn living tissue, except as parasites. And it’s not that we have never seen the undead played in sensual ways: vampires not least of all. But the vampires engaged in sexual interaction (even in–*shudder*–Twilight) have eternal bodies, not decomposing ones: they sustain themselves with living human blood.
Moreover, what may be said of the half-human minds that now reside in the Alphas? Are they remnants of the memories and psyches of their living selves? Would the showgirl Petunia (definitely 100% her human name, really), now Zombie Queen, be recognized by her sister in Reno? Would Petunia want to kiss her living mother? If not, what is this new sentience we are encountering? To some extent these are philosophical and religious questions, but we need not pause before concluding at least that the original horror of the zombie–the us and not us, the absence and void, the lack of malice or intention–is vanished. By the middle of the film, the Zombie King is merely a semi-smart monster we must kill. The Alphas are not zombies, at all.
Undoubtedly, Snyder will end up agreeing here. When pushed for origin stories, explanations for characters, sequels which “explain the mysteries” of the original film, the creative genius will point back to Area 51 and say, “Well, it’s of alien origin. That’s why they are superstrong, etc.” In other words, the zombies have ceased to be zombies. They are closer to the manufactured atrocities from Resident Evil or the alien invader from The Thing.
It’s not that Snyder’s creations aren’t scary, not even that they aren’t fun to watch. But they aren’t the “nearly human” thing that is so difficult for us to kill. Now, if Queen Petunia still showed hints that she remembered what she once was . . . . And thereby we have Snyder’s missed opportunities for storytelling and potential futures to repair it.
Too frightening for words.
V.C. The Zombie Film
We have already established that Snyder’s Army violates the first criterion for a zombie film: it must be about zombies, and–so far has been developed in this film–the Alphas do not qualify. Nevertheless, the shamblers exist as a fairly pervasive (but mostly harmless) zombie threat. By the end, they are turned to lab-mouse comedy for the heist, but this is a familiar trope to such films. And does it surprise any of us that one of the most intense and unnerving sequences is the team’s maneuvering through the hibernating horde and Chambers fighting off dozens of them with a single knife? Even old-school zombies can be terrifying with the right circumstances.
The Alphas, however, are not a horror threat at all but simply a physical one, little different from being stalked by a group of militia or by armed and obsessive paparazzi. Unjustly angered, their intention on vengeance is obvious. The film, then, is just an extended firefight, literally no different from any first-person shooter game, and the stakes are just as low. Snyder can have one of his characters suddenly (and completely without urgency) confess her long love for our main man Scott “Dave Bautista” Ward, but such character “insight” was more a filmic cue for Cruz’s quick death rather than pathos. (Wait, nix that, Dave “Scott Ward” Bautista does pause with a face for three seconds before he retreats.)
And this is exactly why the Alphas fail the film. Any enhancements to the lore must help develop the character storyline, be essential to it. But Army makes no pretensions of such thought at all: Snyder (who, remember, demands credit for all aspects of the film) simply said, “Well, THAT would be cool!” and we suddenly have zombie tiger, zombie Queen, zombie baby, zombie squashed, zombie dehydrated, zombie with a helmet, zombie with a Reese’s). Then he dropped the traditional (and very cliched) ragtag military group on top of the cool stuff, rigged the explosives, and rolled camera.
The main “conflicts” of the film (a father and daughter who don’t talk, a missing mother who takes a risk for her kids, a father and daughter who don’t talk, an outsider who betrays them all, and a father and daughter who don’t talk) are storylines resolved entirely apart from the existential threat around them. The enormous (I dare not say “pregnant”) pauses for these stories make the zombie attacks an annoyance or, more often, render the story absurd. The most vital issue, that of the mother seeking escape for her children, becomes literally a side story for an extra in the film–she is so trivial that in 2 ½ hours we cannot learn if she even escaped from the helicopter debacle. None of it mattered.
Delicious pastry or “really cool” special effects gore?
V.C.II. Commentary & Anxiety
Unfortunately, Snyder squanders a similar opportunity in creating a new idea for the zombies as contemporary anxiety. Behind the scenes of the heist motivation is the failure of recognition for military service. Ward “Bautista Scott” Dave is found flipping burgers in a desert grill even after saving VIPs before Vegas goes under. His crew has similar backgrounds. The President of the US is forced to move a nuclear blast on American soil off the 4th of July. One character comments that Zombie Vegas is “more free” than America. Here are some real questions around our concept of American patriotism and our armed services, mirroring our own. They are neither easy nor worth mere political posturing, as seems to be the fashion. Snyder appears to see this, but my list above (along with a broken war medal case) is the extent of the exploration.
Even here, Snyder cannot seem to reach far enough into a reflective moment to play out the implications. What is the nature of “the adversary” and “duty”? What honor do we owe the armed and the (un)dead? How does money fall short as a reward for patriotism? What lines are drawn between obligation and freedom, between family and country? What if Kate’s mother had been killed as collateral damage during the Vegas Zombie Wars rather than in a domestic scene? What if the zombies honored their warriors meaningfully? Any one of these questions might have been explored as personal conflicts for any of the characters, made more complex by the enhancement of zombies into something which compelled our heroes to face these issues. Do you still kill a Zombie Queen, for instance, who waves an American flag? If a Zombie Kingdom declares itself, to what extent might it be autonomous? a fortification? a reservation? a refugee camp? Does the arrival of a zombie baby in Vegas signal a new category of immigrant? Could Queen Petunia claim she is still a citizen of the US? Great Scott! Could Bautista be compelled to Ward a zombie camp from harm by angry property holders?
I’m not suggesting that any of these questions should have been in Army, but it was Snyder who cracked the door to many of them but refused to enter. His interviews reveal a self-congratulatory cleverness to his sympathy for armed service men and women, but we could hardly call this a theme for the film.
V.D. After Army
Fortunately, or unfortunately, it is not too late. While I’ve invested 150 minutes with Snyder’s film and several more hours in preparing this series, my best 30 minutes were with The Pierce Brothers who reminded us that there is “nothing left to say” in this genre of film-making. And with respect, I disagree.
The larger Snyder Zombieverse is upon us now, still in the relatively free creative space of Netflix. Set aside the already-designed anime prequel (which will do little but answer trivia origin questions, probably reveal alien viruses, and expand the viewer base), because we still have the inevitable sequel set-up with Vanderohe as the new Zombie King (Lich King?) in Mexico. Let it happen. But if the progeny of Army wish to impact the Canon means "center," and a literary canon is a set of works... More of zombie lore, they need to kick open a door, any door, and let the horde assault not just our visual sensibilities, but our ideological ones.