[Review] ARMY OF THE DEAD (2021)

@craiggors

I’ve never been to Las Vegas, but like any conscious American I know that it’s a city with a reputation for being both a glittery, glitzy haven of overindulgence and pleasure-seeking and a sleezy, scuzzy monument to mindlessness and braindead, gluttonous consumerism. Zack Snyder‘s Army of the Dead takes that braindead moniker quite literally, producing an epic zombie film that bites off a bit more than it can chew while still being an enjoyable enough ride through post-apocalyptic desert mayhem.

Co-written by Snyder (Justice League, Dawn of the Dead ’04), Shay Hatten (John Wick: Chapter 3), and Joby Harold (Awake), and directed by Snyder, Army of the Dead explores what happens when an undead infection takes hold over Las Vegas and decimates those that live there. After a rapid spread, the City of Sin is quarantined to prevent further contamination. Cutting their losses, the U.S. government prepares to annihilate the city and its entire walking dead population with a nuclear bomb set to drop on the Fourth of July. Thirty-six hours before detonation, casino owner Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuka Sanada) recruits ex-mercenary Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) to put together a ragtag team of misfits to infiltrate the barricaded city and retrieve five hundred million dollars from the vault in Tanaka’s casino. Tempted by the thrill of one last job, Ward and his rough-and-tough cronies drop into Vegas, unaware of the true danger that lies ahead of them…

Heat stroke, obviously

Snyder, who directed the well-received remake of Dawn of the Dead, is no stranger to both zombie movies and big, flashy, look-at-this-cool-shit films, so you’d think this would make for a pleasing combo, but the magic of his earlier entry into the genre is missing here, and though the colors and the gore pop, the rest of the movie is dull and uninspired.

It’s a shame, as the movie starts strong with a gorgeous opening sequence depicting how the outbreak happens (road head is involved, so it’s automatically an A+ origin story) that segues into a credit sequence montage of Vegas getting overrun and falling into glorious zombie chaos. Oh and there’s zombie strippers in the montage at one point because Vegas. Also because Zack Snyder. I don’t know, it works. It’s a high energy, balls-to-the-walls type of opening, and it sets the stage for what should be a thrilling heist story set against the brain-eating background but instead becomes a string of quasi-decent action sequences broken up by scenes full of halfhearted dialogue exchanged between uninteresting cardboard characters.

Honestly the money has more personality than like six of these characters

Arguably, Snyder has always been a director that favors style over substance, and that’s certainly the case with this film. The neon-infused aesthetics of the posters and promo materials carries over into the film, but isn’t pushed nearly as much as it could have been. In that same vein, there’s a few choice set pieces, but the desolated Vegas wasteland remains underused. We see almost nothing of the plethora of iconic Vegas landmarks and locations, the film containing itself to bland hallways and unremarkable hotel lobbies. It’s an odd production decision, especially because when we do get the occasional well-crafted set, often between action sequences.

As to the action, there’s certainly some blood-pumping chases, fights, and explosions. Snyder has always been adept at delivering on Big Movie Action. The trouble here is there’s too much downtime between each throwdown. The film pushes 160 minutes and its characters just aren’t interesting enough to justify that runtime. The “getting the band back together” sequence takes almost an hour, and by the time they’re finally equipped and ready, you’ve forgotten half their names. Tig Notaro’s helicopter pilot Peters and Matthias Schweighofer’s safecracker Dieter do stand out, but as is the running theme of this film, they’re underused.

Break me open, Daddy

No one seems to know quite what to do with the zombie genre these days, and I do applaud the film for experimenting with some different narrative approaches, namely the idea that some of the undead are intelligent and that the Alphas like Zeus (Richard Cetrone) can somehow “make” other smart zombies who are capable of communication and strategic thinking. As many horror fans know, grandfather of the modern zombie George Romero originally intended to have semi-intelligent zombies wielding weapons in Day of the Dead (1985) and the fast-moving, quick-thinking zombies of Snyder’s film feel like a fruition of that discarded story idea.

All in all, Army of the Dead delivers enough hyper-stylized action, gore, and grit to please the average zombie lover. It’s overlong and carries no emotional weight, but it’s entertaining enough if you’re having a lazy afternoon that could use a shot or two of undead adrenaline. While the overall gamble doesn’t pay off, there’s not a whole lot to lose, so you might as well play.

Army of the Dead

5 – Totally Terrifying
4 – Crazy Creepy
3 – Fairly Frightening

2 – Slightly Scary
1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #18: IN THE TALL GRASS (2019)

@craiggors

It’s always tricky taking a short story or a novella and adapting the events into a longer narrative. Stephen King and Joe Hill’s In the Tall Grass is known for it’s shocking violence and gut-punch ending, a simple story told in a tight, brisk novella. In stretching that story out to feature-film length for Netflix, director Vincenzo Natali (Cube) expands on the surreal hints of the original pages, plunging the viewer into a weird fiction universe of ancient, ritualized evil aided by sinister, semi-sentient grass.

Pregnant Becky (Laysla De Oliveira) is traveling across the country with her brother Cal (Avery Whitted) to meet her unborn child’s potential adoptive parents in San Diego. Driving the empty back roads of the nation, the two are attempting to keep things as positive as possible given the heavy situation. On a particularly deserted country road, the siblings hear a cry for help coming from the tall, thick fields of grass stretching for miles on either side of the highway. Entering into the grass to help find the lost boy (Will Buie Jr.), Becky and Cal soon find themselves lost in a dizzying maze of grass that seems to defy logic. As dehydration and heat exhaustion set in and the siblings are separated, they soon come to realize that something else moves through the grass, something that has no intention of letting them go…

Though De Oliveira and Whitted are more than fine in their roles, along with Buie Jr. as the lost, innocent Tobin and Harrison Gilbertson as baby daddy Travis, the film really belongs to Patrick Wilson who plays Tobin’s father Ross. The shifty, shady nature of the character allows for Wilson to swing from his trademark charisma to being rivetingly unhinged at the drop of a pin. The rest of the characters are somewhat shallow, even given the expansion of the relationship between Becky and Travis, and the focus on the emotional and psychological weight of being in the grass as supposed to the in-your-face gore of the father/son novella. Not that the gore isn’t present, it’s just overshadowed by an invented mythology that thrusts the story into a bizarre Lynchian-esque world that, while visually stimulating, can be difficult to track in terms of story beats and character development.

Natali knows how to move the camera, play with light, and craft striking imagery. It just so happens that, in this particular instance, these artistic choices to favor a surrealist aesthetic over surface-level characterization prevent the viewer from ever really attaching themselves to the characters or feeling their peril. Given the narrative loops, it’s hard not to wonder if any of the danger that lurks behind the grass is even worth fretting about, thus lowering if not entirely negating the stakes, and you can’t have a horror movie without stakes (insert vampire joke here). Yet this has been sacrificed for a more idiosyncratic storytelling approach.

In The Tall Grass – Patrick Wilson, Harrison Gilbertson, Laysla De Oliveira, Avery Whitted – Photo Credit: Netflix

I think Natali was hoping to create a sense of disorientation for the viewer in an effort to mirror how the characters felt once they realized they were trapped within the tall grass. It’s a stylistic move worthy of attempting, and he doesn’t fail entirely, but he leaves his characters to fend for themselves too much and as a result they’re under-baked, leaving us with a film that’s heavy on atmosphere and stimulating to watch, but with little real heart. Wilson is able to pull layers from Ross and deliver an engaging performance, but you can feel that that’s his own doing. Everyone else’s characterization has been sacrificed in the name of tone and mood. Lost, as it were, in the weeds.

In the Tall Grass

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #11: THRILLER (2018)

@craiggors

Earlier this year, Netflix surprise-dropped several low profile horror films from Blumhouse. Such a strategy is always a gamble, but it can occasionally pay off, as in the case of Mercy Black, which dropped at midnight and hooked viewers with its eerie, Slender Man-esque story and glossy visuals. Less successful was Thriller, a standard slasher that gets caught up in it’s own mechanics and forgets to actually slash until it’s too late.

In South Central LA, a group of middle schoolers lures a shy outcast into an abandoned home in order to play a cruel prank. Chauncey, the loner, is sweet and crushing on Lisa, the only vaguely nice girl out of the group of popular kids. She’s reluctant to punk Chauncey, but is pressured to go along with the gag anyway. When the prank goes awry and results in someone’s death, the group bands together and pins the accident on Chauncey, who is sent to a juvenile detention center. Four years later, Chauncey is released and the pranksters, now seniors about to enjoy their Homecoming weekend, find themselves getting sliced and diced by a masked killer.

There’s a lot of time spent establishing who’s who in this film. It’s made especially challenging because the group of kids that pull the prank is unnecessarily large, and they’re all recast with older actors after the opening time jump. Many of the characters fit into slasher stereotypes as well and could easily have been combined for digestibility, but this may be because Thriller quickly pushes the horror to the background in favor of a social study on what it means to grow up in a neighborhood like Compton and how that affects young residents. For almost an hour, we explore how some characters seek to escape their home streets, and their various plans for doing so, while others have decided to embrace the roughness and the hard life as a means to either survive or thrive. These are interesting ideas to explore, and getting to spend time with our characters helps break down some of those tropes and make them more human so that when the killing does start happening, the audience feels each death.

The trouble is that most of the kills happen off screen, and a bloodless slasher is a boring slasher. Combine that with a group of unseasoned actors who can’t sell their characters and the result is a watered down fright flick that leaves little to be desired. Final Girl Lisa (Jessica Alain) is bland, receiving the least amount of development despite being our focal character. Chauncey (Jason Woods) is all brute and no brain, a revenge-fueled monster without layers, and Kim (Pepi Sonuga) is a sweet party girl chasing a local rapper that only has a personality disorder in which she speaks in the distorted voice of her dead sister. Huh? It’s all too strange, or familiar, to have any real impact, and genre fans will be able to call every expected turn before it happens, all the way up to the final, lackluster finale.

Unfortunately, Thriller‘s uninspired title is an accurate reflection of it’s uninspired plot. What could have been a nuanced, updated, urban version of Prom Night (1980) instead fizzles as a generic “seen it before” slasher. I have to wonder if first-time director Dallas Jackson originally envisioned an entirely different type of movie, given how much time is spent exploring the daily lives of these characters, and if the horror element was shoehorned in during later stages of writing/development. I’m not sure what the story there might be, but I have to assume that it’s far more thrilling than the result.

Thriller

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror