For devotees of maximalist blockbuster merchant Zack Snyder, you’d think 2021 had already yielded quite enough excitement. The result of what online fan armies can achieve through sheer vocal persistence, the director’s four-hour cut of his botched 2017 superhero pileup Justice League – out on DVD on Monday – was released on Sky Cinema and Now TV in March, though its colossal swelling of essentially generic material probably won few converts to the Snyder cult.
Yet two months later, another great big slab of Snyder has landed on Netflix, and this one’s more fun. Weighing in at a comparatively modest 148 minutes, his Las Vegas-set zombie heist romp Army of the Dead is a cheerful hodgepodge of genres that largely dispenses with the murky self-importance of his superhero efforts to focus on B-movie priorities: chiefly, amped-up, crowd-pleasing action and grand sloshes of gore. Having some time ago been colonised by the undead and quarantined with a containing wall, Sin City is about to be nuked by the government – though $200m lies within, and a casino boss enlists former zombie fighter Dave Bautista to break into the zombie colony and retrieve the dough.
What can possibly go wrong? Well, we’ve got more than two hours to fill, but the ensuing chaos is good-natured, buoyed up by Bautista’s rough charisma and perhaps the most straightforwardly enjoyable Snyder effort since, well, his last zombie film. His 2004 debut, Dawn of the Dead (on Amazon), was a surprisingly effective remake of George Romero’s sly 1978 blend of grisly thrills and chilly anti-consumerist satire. (You can find Romero’s film on Chili for comparison.) Snyder could probably take some tips on economy from his leaner, meaner debut, but it’s good to see him back in a genre that fits him.
It’s interesting what a constant the zombie film has been in cinema, preceding and outlasting any number of other horror offshoots. As we gradually emerge from a global pandemic, I can only guess at how many topically allegorical variations of the formula we’re going to see. But the fear of being alive yet not alive, of having your body subsumed by another species, is clearly an enduring one. The bones of the genre, so to speak, haven’t dramatically changed shape since the film widely credited with launching it, the 1932 Bela Lugosi vehicle White Zombie (on Mubi). A tale of amour fou that turns to zombie enslavement in Haiti, it also announced the zombie film’s capacity for political subtext straight off the bat.
Two essential zombie classics are free to stream on BBC iPlayer: Jacques Tourneur’s 1943 I Walked With a Zombie builds on White Zombie’s social context in rather poetic, elegiac fashion, while to return to Romero, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead modernised the genre for the civil rights era, taking it to a more violent, visceral place in the process. Scarcely a zombie film made since isn’t standing on some part of its foundation, whether it’s David Cronenberg’s vividly nasty, sensual body-horror landmarks Shivers (1976; on iTunes) and Rabid (1977; on Amazon Prime), Stuart Gordon’s daftly eccentric, form-busting Re-Animator (1985; Prime again), or Peter Jackson’s wholly, gleefully gross Braindead (1992; on Amazon), a tasty reminder of what he could do without squillion-dollar budgets. Even the 1993 cult item Dellamore Dellamorte (on the BFI Player), which situates Rupert Everett on very much its own planet of baroque strange, philosophical undead activity, has a strand of that same brain-eating DNA.
The 21st century, meanwhile, has seen the zombie film fan out into a wider assortment of tonal and stylistic approaches. Danny Boyle gave it the grainy, urban-thriller treatment in 28 Days Later (2002; on Microsoft Play), to still-unnerving effect. Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Zombieland (2009; both on Netflix) made the jaunty zomcom a fixture, while the delightful stop-motion animation ParaNorman (2012; Google Play) proved the genre can even be family-friendly. On the international front, while everyone knows the deliriously heady, all-action chaos of 2016’s Train to Busan (on Amazon), far fewer have seen Ojuju (2014; on the Black-owned streaming service KweliTV), a tight, resourceful and zingy Nollywood spin, in which a Lagos township is turned undead by contaminated drinking water. It’s many miles, in all senses, from Snyder’s Las Vegas extravaganza: the zombie army, after all, welcomes everyone.
Also new on streaming and DVD
The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet
(Curzon Home Cinema)
Shot over several years but reduced to just 73 pristine minutes, Argentinian director Ana Katz’s extraordinary fusion of granular everyday observation and wild science fiction is one of the year’s most bracingly original visions. Following a gentle thirtysomething everyman through years of domestic and cosmic upheaval, it’s best seen with as little advance knowledge as possible – but do see it.
The Ukrainian film-maker Sergei Loznitsa’s documentary work continues to unlock archival vaults to astounding effect. Constructed entirely from footage shot across the Soviet Union in the wake of Joseph Stalin’s 1953 death, the film balances official funereal formalities with the mass mourning of the general public, capturing a nation still in nervous thrall to its own oppression.
A Blu-ray debut for an underseen milestone of Irish cinema: Pat Murphy and John Davies’s 1981 film brought a rare feminist perspective to the raging mass of stories to emerge from the Troubles, probing a progressive young woman’s sense of alienation and discontent upon her return to Belfast after studying in London. It’s punchy, hard-bitten realism, but with an eerie, slippery sense of time passing.
The Auschwitz Escape
It’s a shame this taut, moving Slovakian Holocaust drama – the country’s chosen Oscar submission last year – is being released in the UK under a generically exploitative title, though in essence it’s accurate. Peter Bebjak’s film tells the true story of how two Slovak Jews managed to flee the infamous death camp in 1944, but with urgent restraint rather than gung-ho cliche.
The Woman in the Window
The signs were bad: Joe Wright’s all-star adaptation of AJ Finn’s junky bestseller was delayed due to poor test screenings, shunted to Netflix, and finally released without advance press screeners. The film’s unsurprisingly addled, if not quite a riotous trainwreck: Wright tries to bring aggressive stylistic sizzle to this Hitchcock-aping agoraphobe thriller, but the serviette-thin story hardly sustains his efforts.