'Army Of The Dead' Keeps Threatening Us With A Good Time
After a decade of dour grimdark superhero movies, Zack Snyder's undead heist movie Army of the Dead defied audience expectations: it's an apocalypse movie but set in colorful sunny Las Vegas, a zombie movie but with the zombies trying to reboot society, a Zack Snyder movie but actually fun ... However, it was exactly the movie's constant subversion of expectations that also frustrated the living dead out of some audiences, because they kept seeing Zack Snyder pick up Chekhov Guns and never using them to blow the shit out of some zombies.
To explain why Army of the Dead may have felt so frustrating, I'd like to talk about a sly storytelling strategy called setup and payoff. Also known as plant and reveal or Chekhov's Gun, it's a trick where writers introduce a seemingly unimportant element at the beginning of a story, revisit it later to remind the audience to pay attention, and then have it become crucial to the story by the end. Not only does this payoff make the artist seem oh so clever, but it satisfies an expectation the audience (may not even know they) had developed since Act 1. Let's use a really obvious example from Army of the Dead. Muscle Guy (I dare you to remember his character's name) carries a massive circular saw the entire movie. We see him using it on a car and a couple of zombies in the beginning …
Then later, it gets brought up a bunch by the new team as the coolest thing ever ...
Obviously, at a very crucial moment, Muscle Guy will use his saw to saw shit up and save the day, right? Wrong. Not a single zombie gets gloriously bifurcated for the rest of the movie. This is the kind of unscratched itch that will drive your movie-trained brain nuts by the time the credits hit. The most frustrating one in the movie has to be the dormant zombie hordes. When the team arrives in Vegas, their guide explains that the regular outside zombies got dehydrated due to the blistering desert sun, but rain makes them come back to life.
Then, during the second act, they have to sneak/fight past a bunch of "hibernating" indoor zombies -- which the guide again warns will re-activate with bright lights or loud noises.
And before that action scene ends, your brain has done the movie maths: setup plus reminder equals holy shit, it's going to start raining, and a literal wave of zombies is going to pour into the crew's blinking casino! Yet no zombie horde ever manifests. In fact, this is the last time there are more dead shamblers on screen than there are dead pixels.
These cinematic blue balls keep occurring, though some feel a lot more cynical than accidental. Did you expect something to happen with the weird glowy-eyed zombies in the crowd of clever alphas?
You definitely did when one of them then gets headshot to reveal a bunch of metal and wires in its skull.
But that’s it. No explanation, no Bautista/zombot fight, not even just a quick scene where some four-star general gets told that “Operation Metal Walker” was a success. The Terminator-zombies are obviously meant to be a tease for an upcoming sequel -- but you can’t keep throwing the same easter egg at the audience’s head and not have them expect that the Easter Bunny at least makes a post-credit cameo in the movie they’re currently watching.
The same happens with the zombified Siegfried and Roy tiger that roams the strip. You know, the one that made your brain start chanting: Tiger Fight! Tiger Fight!
A chant that becomes deafeningly loud when the obvious backstabbing bad guy expresses a strong desire to kill this abomination.
But the epic zombie tiger vs. heavily armed mercenary fight you were already choreographing in your head will never come about. Instead, Army of the Dead closes the loop with a surprisingly tame scene of a CGI tiger spending a casual five minutes killing a whimpering man – and then it gets nuked off-screen.
There can be a lot of practical reasons for these unresolved payoffs: a limited budget, a need for sequel bait, even intentional(ly) dumb attempt at subverting the genre. But all of these pointless setups piling up to the point they’re impossible to ignore is definitely the fault of Snyder. The director spent the last 13 years geeking out over this screenplay, adding in every weird, borderline rapey idea that popped into his head. But when it came time to kill his darlings, Snyder couldn’t pull the trigger, allowing Army of the Dead to become overrun with cool ideas that never go anywhere -- like zombie hordes in the Nevada desert sun.
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Top Image: Netflix.