Long live 'trash' cinema

Zack Snyder is an auteur, actually

In this edition of Scene & Heard, a weekly newsletter where a guest writer reflects on just one scene from a recent Netflix release, film critic Samuel Harris pens an ode to all things blood, guts, and shlock — AKA the holy trifecta of Army of the Dead, streaming now on Netflix.
Scene & Heard is part of Netflix Pause, a publication that’s all about hitting pause to reflect on the latest film and TV. Subscribe now to get three free newsletters in your inbox every week diving into screen culture.

SCENE

Halfway through Army of the Dead, Vanderohe and Guzman, two trigger-happy crewmembers part of a $200 million heist, escort Dieter, German safe-cracker extraordinaire, towards the vault room. Moving through the hallway, Dieter notices a group of skeletons laying up against the wall.

Realising they’re dressed eerily similar to their heist crew — each donning an item of clothing identical to that of their comrades — Vanderohe tempts the others with the notion of a time loop. “Think about it,” he provokes. “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.”

Perhaps they’re all pawns, he suggests, in a larger, perverse play, destined to repeat their failures. The scene is brief, ending with a blast that gets them face-to-face with the vault, and the notion of time loops is never mentioned again. No mind-blowing reveal ever eventuates; there’s no second version of themselves waiting to surprise them around the corner.

Rather, the film continues to follow its central rag-tag band of mercenaries — chief among them, former wrestler turned capital-A Actor Dave Bautista — in their attempt to pull off the Vegas heist of a lifetime – or two lifetimes, given the zombie army standing directly in their path. Beyond the horde of undead lies their wad of cash, buried deep in a casino vault.


HEARD

Director Zack Snyder is — if you’ve seen even a single interview with him — a total dork, a real chuck-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks kind of filmmaker, in love with toying with the ironies of the genre. He wants to have his cake and to blow it up too.

And this is where we align: I too, love ‘trash’ cinema: movies of Transformers and Fast & Furious ilk which are unapologetically corny, tropey, and maximalist. I, too, am at the point where my movies need a still-buff ex-WWE superstar; a constant, deafening flurry of gunfire; a gratuitous use of slow-mo; and/or a slew of on-the-nose soundtrack choices. Luckily, Army of the Dead has these in spades, down to the exact Cranberries song you’re thinking of.

Tucked among all of its big, bombastic signifiers lies the scene at hand.

No doubt the aforementioned time loop theory will play out to eyerolls and “okay bitch… and?”s, or taken as a potential easter egg and mined in long YouTube videos with gaudy thumbnails.

But I like to think it hints at things beyond the narrative, which is where the real treasure of trash movies lie: rabbit-holing deeper and deeper into what everything could mean. It’s a rabbit hole that I’ve clearly fallen into, and I can’t stop thinking about not just the time loop in the scene, but the repeating cycles in himbo king Zack Snyder’s broader filmography. 

First of all, the time loops in the zombie genre: for Snyder, the zombie genre is literally a zombie, one he’s brought back to life, time and time again. His debut, breakout picture was an early aughts remake of George A. Romero’s iconic Dawn of the Dead, breathing new life into a storied classic in the most early aughts way possible. And now, with Army of the Dead, he continues the cycle: reviving the genre yet again by infusing it with new, hyper-intelligent zombies that move at light-speed (and a zombie tiger).

Going deeper (and this is the point where I’m gonna need your full trust): the Snydercut of Justice League — his grandiose 4-hour epic to end all epics, released earlier this year — is its own time loop too, reviving a film many considered beyond recovery. After a saga which saw a compromised version of Justice League completed and released in 2017, then finally reworked  to match the original vision, the Snydercut feels like coming full circle.

There’s a level of brain-worming that these films encourage — taking superfluous details and finding meaning in them — that gives them life beyond the screen. They possess an over-the-top energy that can only be matched by an over-the-top approach to the material. 

Finally, on a more ~ metaphorical ~ level, what even is a zombie if not someone stuck in their own personal time loop, forced to live again through their failures, as Vanderohe implies? I rest my case.

At the end of day, it’s why I’m so fond of this kind of maximalist genre film: there’s a playfulness to the scene that’s exciting to dig into. It turns the film inside out for just a brief second, prompting you to look at it — and Snyder’s entire oeuvre — with your head slightly tilted. There’s a level of brain-worming that these films encourage — taking superfluous details and finding meaning in them — that gives them life beyond the screen. They possess an over-the-top energy that can only be matched by an over-the-top approach to the material. 

Within the zombie genre, the end result is nearly always the same — friends become zombies, zombies become blood and guts, much is learned. The cycle repeats. But — full cornball mode, as Snyder would want — it’s about the journey, and all the twists and turns and hidden clues along the way, that make each venture so damn fun.


Samuel Harris is a Media PhD candidate, editor at Rough Cut, and hoarder of Blu-ray discs.
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