Army of the Dead: Nihilism and the End of the World
A movie about everything being fucked. Truly, who can relate.
Massive spoilers for Army of the Dead.
What I like about Army of the Dead is that everything is absolutely fucked. This is not something I would usually say about an artistic work. I don’t tend to like nihilism or endless cynicism and cruelty for the sake of it, I usually find it manipulative at best and utterly repulsive at worst (with some obvious exceptions). Yet, watching Zack Snyder’s latest film Army of the Dead, I felt a strong connection to the major theme of the film, no matter what sacrifices you make or how many obstacles you overcome, you are fucked and so is everyone else. There is nothing you can do to stop the inevitable, you can try and save someone’s life by crawling across a town infested by zombies, and they’ll die in a helicopter crash as you try to escape with them. You can express a moment of true affection with a loved one, and then watch them die in front of you, without having the reaction time or emotional capability to stop it. You can give your life to a cause only for it to not mean anything in the slightest, whether that’s dying to ensure that a nuclear bomb goes off, or sacrificing your life for someone who was already infected and whose destiny is to spread the disease further, making it all absolutely fucking pointless. All of these people are dead before the film even starts, it’s inevitable that they’re going to die, that the world is not finished with its capacity for true evil, and everyone involved knows it. You can resist it as long as you want, but the survivors either become what they once hated or they’re destined to watch the remains of the world disintegrate. There is nothing but sorrow, pain and violence to be found within the film’s walls, it holds nothing back, not even a zombie overlord gets to be happy with a loved one without true suffering facing them. It is the bleakest movie I’ve seen since the pandemic started because it proposes a world where individual action is just not enough, where you can’t play the hero because death’s waiting around the corner.
Snyder has made bleak films before, his ending of the Dawn of the Dead remake has never sat right with me as much as I respect the intent because of how fundamentally it shatters any semblance of hope in this world, but most of his work is embedded with some cosmic hope that fantasy or heroism can make a difference. Even at the end of Batman vs Superman, where a god has been extinguished and the remaining hero is a scarred torturer with a fractured code of ethics, there is still a presence of spiritualism and potential for the future to be brighter. In Army of the Dead, the future will be worse than it is now, an idea that I have constantly thought about in the last year. There is no question of “can things get worse?” there is only the reality of “when will things get worse?” There may be sequels to this where similar narratives repeat, actions and narratives built around those who want to make a difference, who quickly release that power has slipped out of their hands and are doomed to rotting purgatory, but I don’t think there should be. It should exist as its own entity, a film where machine guns, money and malicious intent can provide entertainment but no consolation in the apocalypse, where we don’t get to see the doomed future that’s just over the horizon. There would be something in me that would maybe reject this if my year had been better, if I hadn’t felt so personally how it feels to be powerless in a world that’s collapsing in front of my eyes, in a mental place where there is always the possibility of future tragedy, grief and suffering in spite of anything I try to do. It used to hurt to confront the realities of the world, but now pain is so commonplace and constant that it’s just another thing to add to the pile, more anguish to compartmentalise so I can function with my daily routine, anger and frustration that will inevitably unleash when I’m at the end of my tether. At this moment in time, I needed a filmmaker I love to make a movie where nothing really matters, suffering is inevitable, the world is fucked and there’s absolutely jackshit anyone can do about that, but we can have a good time and embrace those little moments of beauty before the world devours us alive.
That’s the distinction between this and the ending of Dawn of the Dead to me. Back in 2005, Zack Snyder wasn’t who he is now, as a man and as an artist. In Dawn, I see a creative trying to replicate Romero with the sudden pivot towards traumatic bleakness even when it seems like light is at the end of the tunnel, but he lacked the fundamental understanding of what it meant to go down that direction, what you had to do in order to make it work. It is the potential for a movie about zombies and about people in the midst of the apocalypse that isn’t quite realised, that has all the pieces and assembles most of them well, but never becomes a complete picture at the end of the day. With Army of the Dead, he understands how to utilise nihilism and hopelessness. He contextualises each of his characters perfectly, showcases why they’re willing to embark on a suicide mission for the cash, shows their distinct relationships with each other (whether pre-existing or spontaneously created) but never deceives the audience. There is never a sense of hope throughout the whole film, even in moments of celebration, there is never the lie of a promised land or things somehow being okay. It opens with powerlessness and ends with it, and throughout the rest of the runtime, it’s centred on people initially denying but eventually accepting their role in it. The most power anyone expresses in the entirety of the film is choosing to die for someone else, whether or not it means anything in the long run is almost irrelevant, they get to create their own destiny by sacrificing themselves. Sacrifices might not lead to anything tomorrow, but for a few moments, they mean everything, for the saviour, for the saved, for the final connection that they get to make before it all disappears. Above all else, that’s what makes Army’s nihilism work, the fact that these moments of pointless human connection are actually the most important things in the world. The cinematography has conflicted many, since he has seemed to reject the concept of “focus” but I love the feeling he immediately creates of this disillusioning, lawless wasteland of a town, there is nothing to ground you to any location or any interior/exterior, all you can grasp onto are the people on screen and the blood that pours from their veins.
Something I don’t think anyone can deny about Zack Snyder, whether you love him or hate him, is that he is painfully sincere. He believes in everything he’s doing, whether it’s a needledrop of Zombie by the Cranberries in his zombie movie that’s intended to be genuinely emotional, or doing something with a zombie tiger because he thinks it’s fucking cool, he has a vested interest and sincere love of everything that he creates. There is not an inch of irony in the man’s filmmaking. So when he makes a movie about everything falling apart and wants you to believe that the most important thing in the entire apocalypse is a father and daughter’s final moments together, then you know it means something sincere to him, and I just feel that connection between author and reader. The little gestures of tragedy are so special and so bleak, from the German safecracker Dieter sacrificing his life for his potential boyfriend Vanderohe, to the final gestures Dave Bautista’s Scott and Ana de la Reguera’s Maria get to have with each other before her death. It’s present throughout the movie, from the tragedy in the opening credits where a mother and daughter die together, to the final minutes where Scott tells his daughter he loves her as he sits dying in the desert. These little moments will be forgotten by history, lost to the sands of time as soon as all of their participants are dead, and will be completely overtaken as the tragedies spread and affect everyone in the world. Yet, for Snyder, they are as important as their destinies, because it doesn’t matter if the world falls apart if there’s no one in it to care for. He is benefited greatly by the power of his cast, especially Bautista who is arguably the most sensitive actor in the world right now and conveys so much devastation just through the reluctance in his body language, let alone the way he cries. They all work in synthesis to embed so much life and texture to these beings, everyone gets exactly what they need to convey, whether it’s tragedy, cruelty, comedy or just being fucking awesome until your blood runs cold. It is a deeply bleak movie about losing everything you love and having nothing to show for it, but it is also the most comforted I’ve felt in a long time, since it makes me grateful for all the little moments I’ve been able to get, even though the flames feel like they’re seconds away from scorching me too. I hope that there was catharsis for Zack in writing a movie where even at the end of the world, where everyone else has stared Death in the eyes, a father’s daughter gets to live, at least to see the next day.