A few spoiler-y thoughts on Zack Snyder’s latest movie, Army Of The Dead, and what’s bubbling beneath it.

Spoilers lie ahead for Army Of The Dead.

In George A Romero’s films, zombies were never just zombies. Though his pioneering works, Night Of The Living Dead (1968) and Dawn Of The Dead (1978), positively brimmed with gore and glistening internal organs, they also had more on their minds than boundary-pushing violence. Night Of The Living Dead felt keyed into a turbulent era of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. Dawn Of The Dead, with its mayhem among the escalators and mannequins of a typical American mall, was recognisably a blood-soaked comment on mindless consumerism.

So what to make of Army Of The Dead, director Zack Snyder’s new horror film on Netflix? Does that have something more on its mind than gore? Or are the zombies merely zombies?

Although it isn’t officially a part of Romero’s Dead series, which continued right up to 2007’s Diary Of The Dead, Army Of The Dead at least has more than a hint of the late maestro’s sly humour. In essence, Army Of The Dead’s plot is the follow-up to the events laid out in its extended opening credits sequence. A muscle-bound zombie escapes from an army convoy meandering through the Nevada desert, heads to Las Vegas, and quickly turns the place into a battle zone. Dave Bautista’s Scott Shaw is among a group of soldiers who fight to keep the zombie outbreak confined within the Sin City, and the crisis is finally put on pause when Vegas is walled off by stacks of hastily-arranged cargo containers.

Years later, a broke and embittered Shaw is flipping burgers as a short order cook, his sacrifice for the war effort seemingly forgotten by the US government. Little wonder, then, that when shady businessman Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) walks into the diner with a mission that could end Shaw’s money problems for good, he soon agrees.

The mission is this: sneak back into the now zombie-infested Vegas, break into a vault in the bowels of a casino, and retrieve the $200 million lying inside. Tanaka says he’s already been reimbursed for the money in the safe by his insurers, since the entire city is days away from being turned into a crater by the US military’s planned nuclear strike. So why not break in, take the money, and get even richer?

It’s here that a noteworthy series of deals take place: Tanaka offers Shaw $50 million to divide up among his crew. Rather than split it up equally, Shaw goes for $15 million for himself, $15 million each to fellow veterans, Maria Cruz (Ana de la Reguera) and Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), and then progressively less to the other people he recruits as his team mates. By the time he’s hired sharp-shooting social media sensation Mikey Guzman (Raul Castillo), Shaw’s offer has decreased to $500,000 – a sum Guzman further divides up among the compatriots he hires for his own sub-team. Safe cracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer) perhaps the most important member of the whole squad, is hired by Shaw for a snip at $250,000.

If all this sounds a tiny bit like a pyramid scheme, consider this: there’s a brief shot early in the film of Tanaka standing with a bunch of high-up military types in full uniform. We later learn that Tanaka doesn’t want the cash in the safe at all, but rather a sample of Alpha zombie blood that the military can use to create an army of super-soldiers, or something similarly hare-brained. This implies that the military were happy to offer Tanaka far more than the money stashed in the safe, making him yet another middle-man in the pyramid scheme, where each member of the pyramid offers slightly less to the member below for doing their dirty work.

Army Of The Dead therefore establishes a hierarchy without actively drawing attention to it. At the top there are the billionaires like Tanaka and his military cohorts, safe in their gleaming mansions and condominiums. In the middle there are ordinary mortals like Shaw and his crew, who crave the sort of financial status that Tanaka has – the kind of money that keeps them far away from the jaws of the undead.

So what are the zombies in Army Of The Dead? The faceless masses – an underclass who have no chance of ever getting near a private jet or an air-conditioned mansion.

What Shaw’s team members don’t like to think too much about is how close they are to being zombies themselves: they’re one bite or scratch from becoming a member of the nameless underclass they gun down. Instead, note how they quickly arrange themselves into their own hierarchy: eccentric chopper pilot Marianne (Tig Notaro, digitally comped in to superb effect) openly talks about who’s valuable and who’s expendable cannon fodder.

Whether they consciously realise it or not, they’re all cannon fodder: Tanaka doesn’t care who lives or dies, who gets the money or who doesn’t – if he gets his zombie sample, then mission accomplished.

Army Of The Dead‘s choice of setting can’t be a coincidence, either. Las Vegas is a dreamer’s paradise: a playground that dangles the possibility of vast wealth, or at least a chance for visitors to pretend they’re wealthy for a week or two. In reality, the only people in Vegas who really get rich are the casino owners.

Snyder’s film could therefore be read as a distinctly 21st century zombie film: one that takes aim at winner-takes-all late capitalism. In Army Of The Dead, as in reality, much of the wealth and security is concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority. In the hope of getting a piece of that wealth, the protagonists are asked to risk life and limb, only dimly realising just how minimal their chances of garnering that wealth actually are. Then in the background, there are the zombies. They too have a hierarchy – like the creatures in Richard Matheson’s seminal novel, I Am Legend, they aren’t mindless beasts: they have the makings of a society. Not that anyone who isn’t a zombie cares: they’re too busy hustling for their share of the wealth to think too deeply about the makeshift community that’s growing up around Vegas’s shattered remains.

Amid the quips, the slo-mo, the fountains of claret and the zombie tiger, Army Of The Dead has a subtext as bleak as any of Snyder’s grim-dark superhero flicks. It paints a gaudy picture of a polarised 21st century akin to a shady casino: there are those with nothing, the elites at the top, and those in the middle, thinking they can win a game whose rules were rigged against them from the very beginning.

Ironically, Army Of The Dead was bankrolled by the billion-dollar entity, Netflix. But still: a glimmer of Romero’s incisive spirit haunts this blackly comic portrait of a system that brutalises everyone who gets swept up in it.

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