Gabrielle’s review published on Letterboxd:
Yeah this shit was FIRE. Most inventive zombie movie since Resident Evil: Retribution. Action-horror might just be my favorite genre, and if a big budget zombie movie can pull off being a mix of Aliens, Predator, Escape From New York and Ocean's Eleven in a well stream-lined event film with a highly charismatic ensemble cast, awesome set pieces, sharp socio-political commentary and a surprising emotional punch, all while dripping with style... It's a 5/5 in my book. Army of the Dead feels like an elevation of 80's and 90's genre cinema. It's bonkers, over-the-top, violent, funny, and it's got that unique sense of universe iconography in its world-building that very much lacks in lots of films of the genre today that aren't based on some existing property.
From the awesome prologue to the mesmerizing opening credits sequence it perfectly lays the foundations of this rich new world we are now entering, and throughout the film it develops many of those ramifications according to what serves the plot at hand and it feels fresh. Not once does it feel bloated; Zack Snyder is not shooting at all directions here, he knows he doesn't need to explain every single aspect of this world right now and everything presented here is exactly what this story needs to go forward in an organic manner. Think about Predator, and how that first movie obviously suggested a rich background for its titular creature but didn't at all bother go into that territory because it knew it didn't need to. AOTD gives us enough to get interested in this world and its rules, and the questions that are intentionally left unanswered make the film feel intriguing, but never incomplete, because of its commitment to this story and these characters.
Let's talk about them characters. I loved them. Snyder obviously loves his genre tropes and it shows just how much fun he's having writing, directing and shooting them. I don't care about what anyone says of Zack's writing, I absolutely loved it here. He gives this ensemble very distinct characterizations, meaningful relationships and soulful dialogue, all of which are realized flawlessly by the perfectly picked cast. Dave Bautista gets the action hero lead role he so deserves, but more than that he gets the opportunity to truly shine in his dramatic range in what is definitely his best performance to date. He's got palpable chemistry with all of his cast mates, but the relationship of Bautista's Scott with his daughter Kate, played beautifully by Ella Purnell, is the heart of the whole film. The arc of the estranged father reconnecting with his daughter in the midst of bloody chaos was beautifully handled, and culminated in one of my favorite emotional climaxes of recent memory.
The way the film treats its characters is also reminiscent of that brazen audacity seen in the likes of Aliens and Predator. There is no such thing as plot armor with Snyder, and it does not matter that Netflix is launching an entire franchise off this movie... Anyone is subject to die, the stakes are real and by the time I got to the climax I found myself fearing for all my favorite characters' lives. It's an intoxicating feeling that again, is missing from so many films in this genre today because a lot of them are conservative in fear of hurting franchise prospects.
To pair up with that comes that poignant commentary with a slick sense of humor that's very Carpenter-esque. There's a very interesting framing to America's approach to the zombie infection, such as the using of the situation as a pretext to get rid of political prisoners, the priorities within the plot itself, a great exchange about the "free country"... The ending in particular reminded me of the Escape films, which is the biggest form of praise I can give to any genre movie's ending since those, especially Escape From L.A, have some of my all-time favorite endings. It's a hilariously cataclysmic send off on the wake of a character quoting Joseph Campbell - how could it be more perfect?
All of that is executed to bliss by Zack's ever evolved style. His films always stand out by their visuals and Army of the Dead does so even further, as the difference that it makes for Zack to be his own cinematographer is clear all throughout. The use of the razor-thin focal distance in that magic lens of his is splendid and unique, especially when fast focus shifts fuel the scene with a sense of adrenaline also heightened by the editing - and the use of such lens to build the film's aesthetics also give AOTD a distinct feel of indie cinema even though it's such a big event movie; ironically, this is Zack's most tropiest blockbuster, which also looks like his most art house. Speaking of speed, this is definitely one of Zack Snyder's fastest looking movies, as the application of his signature slow-motion shots comes off very differently, and considerably more balanced when by his own hand.
That visual craft contributes to amazing set pieces that vary from the claustrophobic and tense to the exciting, but nevertheless despair-inducing high octane. One particular scene evolving a corridor and Ella Purnell's character was a huge standout for me, as well as the kitchen scene with Samantha Win. Snyder combines tension and action to create a phenomenal action-horror experience, and the casting of actors who are actually experienced in physical performance and stuntwork such as Bautista and Win rather than simply going for star power pays off on screen splendidly. Of course the brutal, gory violence also helps, with movie providing some insanely gruesome kills in a glorious bloodfest - and oh that zombie tiger gets some.
As always, the music is also a big highlight. Junkie XL is clearly having a lot of fun going crazy with electronic music and it's so refreshing to see a movie this big without his insistent "epic drums", but Snyder's fine selection of needle drops is magnificent, my personal favorite being the last one before the film ends - it's so good that I'm compelled not to reveal it to you.
All in all... Army of the Dead is exactly the type of original, fresh auteur blockbuster delight that's usually doomed to immediate failure and to be rediscovered as a cult classic years later (possibly with the reveal of a director's cut), but thanks to Zack's ever growing popularity and Netflix's sheer confidence in his vision, this is getting the treatment it deserves right off the bat, no director's cut needed. It's big, bold, awesome, fun, soulful, emotional, rich and exciting. Everything I wanted from it, and I couldn't possibly get enough from this universe.