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Army of the Dead

Year: 2021
Production Co: The Stone Quarry
Studio: Netflix
Director: Zack Snyder
Producer: Zack Snyder/Deborah Snyder
Writer: Zack Snyder/Shay Hatten/Joby Harold
Cast: Dave Bautista, Ella Purnell, Ana de la Reguera, Omari Hardwick, Tig Notaro, Matthias Schweighöfer, Raúl Castillo/Samantha Win

First, it has to be said that trying to give zombies a new dimension by inventing a class of them that are intelligent and can plan, communicate and strategise with each other is a step in the wrong direction.

There are plenty of ideas we've seen in zombie movies that elevate and augment the mythology, but the reason they're so scary is because they have no intelligence or plan, because their numbers will be overwhelming, they'll never stop coming for you thanks to an enraged hunger for your flesh and because when they get their hands on you they can't be talked, scared or tricked out of eating you.

When a team of crack soliders penetrate the walled off ruins of Las Vegas and discover that the ground zero zombie we saw escape a military convoy accident in the opening coda is now an overlord with an established heirarchy of minions of varying levels of intelligence, it really defangs the best elements of the genre.

But director and co-writer Zack Snyder isn't making a horror movie, he's making an action heist thriller. We spend a little bit of time meeting the Suicide Squad-style mercenaries who are recruited to empty a vault full of money under the ruined Vegas strip (and like that film, their position on the casting tree dictates how much backstory we get to see).

To the script's credit, it's not just a plain old rogues gallery of cannon fodder you know we're going to see dispatched in ever-brutal boss battles. There's a subplot about a tracker that guides people in and out of the quarantine zone who joins the heroes, and a slimy corporate type installed by their mysterious paymaster who you just know is going to screw them at the worst possible moment (to the script's further credit, the characters are smart enough to know that too).

Years after the undead contagion has swept the Nevada desert, the military has walled off the ruins of Sin City and left it to the zombies. Soldier-turned-diner owner Scott (Dave Bautista) is approached by an enigmatic billionarie and promised a steep payday if he makes it into Vegas and out with the money before the President's planned nuclear strike that will wipe the city from the Earth.

He scoops up former colleagues Maria (Ana de la Reguera), Vanderhoe (Omari Hardwick), sardonic chopper pilot Marianne (Tig Notaro), comic sidekick safecracker Ludwig (Matthias Schweighöfer) and a duo of YouTube stars known for their gunplay, Mikey and Chambers (Raúl Castillo and Samantha Win).

There's a subplot about his daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) which I didn't fully understand – she's an aid worker trying to stop mistreatment in processing camps nearby or something. She's connected to the tracker who they team up with to lead them inside because of some woman Kate is trying to protect, which leads to them all accompanying Scott and his team against his better judgment.

Once inside they become aware of the organisation of the army they face, which involves an escaped Ziegfried and Roy tiger that's as undead as the humans, Zombie zero (also called Zeus), and a female he's apparently taken as his queen.

But there's a conspiracy (natch) and the money is just a cover for the team plant to do his work, sacrificing the rest of the team if necessary. He's been sent in to secure a sample of undead flesh for weaspons research, and when he captures the queen and cuts her head (his real prize) off, it enrages Zeus.

We discover she was preganant with his zombie baby, and Zeus sends his entire army after the team to tear them limb from limb. And with the President having bought the nuclear strike forward, they now have little more than an hour to execute the plan and get out.

I remember appreciating how Snyder followed the in-camera effects aesthetic in his first film, the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead , at a time when genre fans were getting increasingly irritated with the overuse of CGI in horror. He seemed to only use VFX sparingly, reverently homaging Romero and Savini's work make-up effects work in the original.

What an irony then that he's become one of the filmmakers most associated with excessive CGI, reaching a blinding crescendo in Justice League. Army of the Dead doesn't have as many city-flattening, armies-meet set pieces, so huge animated sequences aren't as front and centre as they could have been, but it's still everywhere. I'd be surpried if any less than 90 percent of the frames in it had animated elements than weren't just colour grading or post production treatment.

It wouldn't be such a big deal either, but probems in other areas take you increasingly out of the film and make it even more noticeable. For starters, there are a couple of confusing subplots that aren't handled very well as they tie together. The zombies made less scary by turing them into generic monsters was a fatal (pardon the pun) flaw, but a bigger one was my expectations.

Because of the premise I thought it was going to be kind of a comedy, but everybody involved takes an essentially silly idea too seriously – even while it includes set pieces so over the top they border on camp – meaning little of what anyone says or does rings true.

But here's one interesting thing the VFX achieved you probably don't know. Disgraced comedian Chris D'Elia had shot all his scenes as chopper pilot Peters, but after the misconduct allegations against him, Tig Notaro shot all her scenes in front of a green screen and they were composited into the final product.

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