Army of the Dead

Army of the Dead ★★★½

The zombie film is uncanny in the same way the zombie is uncanny: it reveals the ugly drives and contradictions already present in the living. There is a reason Dawn of the Dead opens with the rapid breakdown of cinematic order, and that's because the form Romero reconstitutes is at once panicked and bored, singularly focussed and always dilating time to a languid crawl. It is the meeting of undead surplus and the emptiness of meaning in the dystopia of late capitalism. Fulci of course takes this zombified form further, and Snyder's 2004 film repurposes news footage and burst pixels to say the digital mutation of the new millennium has already taken place. The issue for the 21st century zombie film is that there is no living form to corrupt because the blockbuster is already undead. There is nothing more uncannily dead-alive than Carrie Fisher's ghost, and the title of quintessential 21st century zombie work goes to every resurrected IP across film and television that is there but not, familiar but wrong. The meeting of infinity and crushing finitude, implosion and eternal recurrence, is so pervasive that it leaves the would-be zombie filmmaker stumped. What compulsions and excesses can be revealed in a cinematic landscape defined by the excessive compulsion to resurrect and repeat?

Army of the Dead is useful because it is not fun. Zack Snyder is not the first to notice the interconnection between postmodernity and zombification because the two have always been synonymous, whether this is thanks to Jameson's oft-cited lament for the (living) artist who must cannibalise their own medium ("all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum"), Fisher's words on the compulsion to consume resurrected media ("there is a sense that 'something is missing' - but no appreciation that this mysterious, missing enjoyment can only be accessed beyond the pleasure principle"), or any choice quote from Baudrillard, or a hundred years earlier in Marx, or just Romero's Dawn of the Dead, which spells the formula out more bluntly than anyone else, and with more blood and guts. A postmodern zombie film that cannibalises pop culture, that greets the death of meaning with empty enthusiasm, that speaks only in quotation finds its form in something like Zombieland, but as I have said beyond the zombie mask it is no different to any rebooted film franchise or TV show. Like Romero, Army of the Dead diseases its body to make the zombie film unbearable, because it regrets rather than celebrates its finitude.

The colourful eccentricity of Army of the Dead's poster is a red herring for drab environments, and moments of comedic relief are buried in an ever-moving sound and image mix as much W.S. Anderson distraction as Malickian impressionism. It concerns a single objective, but it is not structured around any kind of narrative unity. Instead it pulls in any other direction it can, searching for different details and ethical or political or ontological expressions before resetting itself at the objective, aching at having to return to a mission it cannot believe in. There is a sadness permeating Army of the Dead that is familiar across all of Snyder's works, but this is the first in a while that does not lead progressively to the notion of a transcendent hope. In fact it works in the inverse: there is life between the cracks the film cannot touch, and it ultimately concludes the film is the sum of its failures, of everything it misses and doesn't change. Snyder explains its cursed undeath in case there's any ambiguity: members of the team encounter their own corpses, and as if their doubled uniforms and weapons aren't enough they begin to muse It could be us in another timeline, and we're caught in some infinite loop of fighting and dying, fighting and dying, fighting and dying. There is no hope because there is no escape from eternal recurrence.

Death and rebirth have long been a preoccupation for the director, but this is his second film released in a year that is explicitly concerned with undeath. Where Dawn of Justice ends in a death that leaves the living free to elevate the deceased to an eternal idea (hope), Zack Snyder's Justice League resurrects hope in the flesh to find it now mutated, wrong. The film itself works as a protracted eulogy, all rescued time to give the space to mourn and dwell and ache, but the resurrection of Superman is a disaster. The flashforward to zombie Superman confirms him as a Tulpa: the fundamentally entropic manifestation of a people's unwillingness to let go. Freud's famous essay on the uncanny runs through major critiques of postmodernity, whether or not the authors admit it, because it concerns the desire for and of the resurrected flesh. Freud partly attributes the phenomena of the walking dead to our unsurmounted belief in anastasis, and claims that the uncanniness of zombies captures the eternal impasse of pleasure (the desire to repeat) and shame (wish-fulfilment). This is no doubt what Fisher has in mind when he condemns the collective death drive of late capitalism, that every wish can be fulfilled provided every wish is the desire to resurrect and repeat. We eternally consume the zombie, and the zombie eternally consumes us. We are the same. What is spoken about less in Freud (and interests me far more) is the connection he draws between anastasis and undeath where the physical body is concerned. For Freud any notion of eternity is radically undermined by our understanding of physical decay, such that the resurrected can only ever become undead. Judgement Day is Day of the Dead, all those rotting bodies. The resurrected Lazarus stunk. What sounds profane is the cosmic dimension of Romero and Fulci, both raised Catholic, and both with a severe eschatological locus to the zombie genre. Army of the Dead is more personal. Life is gone, and all that's living is undeath.

So what is the 21st century zombie film that zombifies what is already undead? It is long and bloated, it exists in a perpetual draft form, it uses cameras that barely work, it hybridises zombies with cyborgs (did you see the ones with blue eyes that glitch when they die?) and a fantasy Other (zombie tribes with crowns!), it streams on Netflix (the other home of undead media), it exists in and houses a timeloop where nothing can change but, unbearably, everything should. Give me death. Bautista is the face of this movie that you think will be big and say funny things because he is the guy who is big and says funny things, but Bautista just ambles around crying. The film steals colour palettes from Fortnite and team builds from Left 4 Dead (melee, sniper, dual-wield, assault) and then lurches toward eternity. Snyder's cameras (and operator) malfunction and every scene is assembled from a staggering surplus of coverage that produces something so loose, so blurred, it makes Spring Breakers and Knight of Cups seem inhibited by comparison. The rolling shallow focus only confirms what the footage can't which is that in all that searching, in all that eternity that has been made available, there is still nothing but lost time.

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