Saturday, May 22, 2021

Escape from Vegas: ARMY OF THE DEAD

If you’re going to stage a zombie outbreak and are looking for some sociopolitical resonance, you could do worse than Las Vegas. Seeing hordes of zombies milling about the slot machines or mindlessly shuffling down the strip isn’t exactly a stretch. It’s a pretty clear escalation of Romero’s use of the mall in Dawn of the Dead. Why are they there? Well, it’s what they’re used to. But really, what Zack Snyder proposes in his newest film, Army of the Dead, which, name aside, is not an extension of his remake of the Romero picture from nearly twenty years ago, is that it’d be a really neat thing to stage a heist movie inside a zombie movie. He's right. (So was Yeon Sang-ho, whose okay sequel to his great zombie actioner Train to Busan coincidentally used the same premise last year.) So why does it have to have a metaphor at all? He creates a rough future — shooting it with a smudged bleary digital paleness; ironically there are even some fleeting dead pixels in some dark scenes that had me thinking my TV was on the fritz — in which Vegas is the source of a zombie outbreak. An early scene with a speeding car accidentally smashing head-on into a military convoy transporting Patient Zero from Area 51 is a splashy start. (Car crashes are just so cinematic, no?) The city has been walled off, Escape from New York style, and is, in fact, about to be leveled with a nuclear bomb in order to stop the spread. That leaves just a few days for a casino owner (Hiroyuki Sanada) to get a team of mercenaries into his abandoned vault and rescue his money. It’s up to a mournful tough guy (Dave Bautista) to gather his forces and execute the plan.

Snyder knows what he’s doing, making a movie retrofitted from borrowed genre parts, an ambulatory homage that doesn't push too hard on anything but gore. He brings some slow-mo and needle drops and complicated world-building. But here even the lore of his take on this sort of world gathers lightly and in the margins. He’s making what might be his simplest movie. The movie gathers up some unfussy men-on-a-mission exposition in its open act, introducing a big cast of potential zombie chow to arm up and go in. Bautista is a soulful center to this thin pulp, and the fun mix of personalities around him puts Omari Hardwick next to Ella Purnell next to Garret Dillahunt next to Tig Notaro and lets their various energies crackle well enough. Then the movie spends its time plunging headlong into an extended Aliens homage the rest of the way through as the machine guns and strategy play out against hordes of dangerous undead. As bullets splatter the decomposing dead walkers, and the blood in general gathers to such ludicrous geysers that one grenade down a corridor appears to result in a gush of chili against the wall, it’s clear Snyder is enjoying the brutal goofiness inherent in his approach. 

That aside, the action is mostly hectic instead of visually striking, with Snyder, one of our last big budget visual stylists, making some of his blandest functional shots. A Romero or Verheoeven or Carpenter would’ve pushed harder on the style and satire, too, the bright lights city going to set its soul on fire. But Snyder, for all his excess and action, has some hint of a softie in him, making a movie ultimately about broken families mirrored in both humans and monsters, and with Bautista approaching the mission mostly as an excuse to repair a relationship with an estranged daughter. (Those inclined to read autobiography here will find that relationship extra poignant.) So it may be so much reanimated thrills from its inspirations, but it has just enough motivation and good structure to its hook to work at a sturdy popcorn level nonetheless.

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