#REVIEW: Army of the Dead

I have a weird relationship with Zack Snyder. Typically, if I don’t like a director, it’s because I’ve seen several of their movies and decided, for whatever reason, that their movies aren’t for me. Sometimes it’s because of the way they direct, like, say, Michael Bay, and sometimes it’s because they consistently pick stories that don’t work out for me. Like that one dude, who made that one movie whose name I won’t say any more.

Zack Snyder is the only director I can think of who I am, effectively, boycotting. I haven’t disliked his movies so much as judged them illegitimate from the start. I have had a chip on my shoulder about DC’s film output for, oh, nearly my entire life; look at the reviews that will no doubt crop up in links below for additional details if you like. If you’ve been around here for any length of time, you already know the gist; this man does not understand or care about the superheroes he makes movies about in any way and I refuse to spend money to find out I was right about something sucking.

That said: while I haven’t rewatched it in probably fifteen years, I enjoyed his remake of Dawn of the Dead, from way back in 2004 or so, which was before I knew who Zack Snyder even was, and my wife really wanted to watch Army of the Dead, and even a shitty zombie movie is still a zombie movie, and if you’d shown me the trailer without the words “Zack Snyder” appearing on them I’d have shrugged and handed over my no money, because this was showing up on Netflix and I pay for Netflix (actually, my wife does, so this isn’t even my no money) anyway.

So yeah tl;dr this is a really shitty movie. And I mean that it’s a shitty movie when judged on a “zombie movies” scale, and it’s shitty in a way that can be laid directly at the feet of the director, and it honestly kind of makes me mad that I disliked it as much as I did.

Spoilers an’ shit.

That said, let’s start with what I liked, which is the first 20 minutes or so: this movie starts off in a hurry, and gets the initial setup out of the way quickly– there’s a zombie outbreak in Las Vegas, triggered by some Military Thing that isn’t explored because it really doesn’t have to be, and several of the characters get brief introductory vignettes as they’re killing zombies and rescuing people and seeing family members or friends killed, and by the end of the credits (which are playing over the introduction) Vegas is surrounded by a wall made of shipping crates, which sounds like it shouldn’t be all that secure but whatever, and the government is discussing simply nuking the place. Then there’s another 20 minutes or so of setting up the big heist that’s central to the plot and putting the team together and everyone’s stake in the mission being for progressively smaller amounts of money (which is understated and honestly kind of hilarious) and we’re off to the races.

There’s a zombie tiger and a zombie horse, but apparently there were no other nonhuman mammals anywhere in Vegas during the zombie apocalypse. The zombie tiger is kinda cool. And most of the time when shooting zombies is happening, it’s pretty cool.

That’s … about it, as far as stuff that I liked.

My first problem, and this one can be laid directly at Snyder’s feet: this entire damn movie looks like it was shot on an iPhone with portrait mode turned on. At any given time half of the screen is wildly out of focus– not just at a “look at this part of the screen” sort of way, but wildly and ridiculously out of focus, and Snyder is constantly trying to raise tension by keeping even the thing the camera is pointed at blurry as shit until he wants to reveal it. It’s obnoxious as hell and it never stops. There’s basically a bokeh effect laid over the entire damn movie, and it sucks. It absolutely sucks. So right away Snyder is guilty of making directorial choices that come very close to making every frame of the film annoying.

One of the more unique details about the way this movie handles its zombies is that it breaks them into, basically, two separate races. The king zombie (whose name is apparently, I shit thee not, Zeus, a word that is never spoken in the film, which is good because it’s dumb) is presented as practically invulnerable in the initial parts of the film (and will later don a metal, completely bulletproof helmet) (and more on this later) and is fast and reasonably smart, although he can’t talk. He has a queen zombie. Any zombies he creates personally are also faster and smarter although they appear to die just as easily as anyone else, and it’s implied that any zombies those zombies, called Alphas, create is your typical undead shambler.

Queen Zombie gets her head cut off partway through the movie and her death is used as a motivation for King Zombie, as is the death of her– wait for it– unborn zombie child, who he actually claws out of her womb. Let that one roll around in your head a bit. When you toss in the fact that Dave Bautista’s character is also motivated by having had to kill his zombified wife this means that two different women got fridged to motivate the men.

So, yeah, long story short: Dave Bautista is the emotional center of the film.

Dave fucking Bautista is the emotional center of the film.

Just, again, let that roll around.

(Wait. Shit. This happens three times, because there is a scene toward the end where one of the women members of the team Declares her Love for Dave Bautista, and When We Get Out of This Let’s Make Babies, and then immediately afterwards King Zombie shows up and breaks her neck. Immediately afterwards. So there are three women in this movie who are killed as character development for the men.)

(Wait! No! It’s even worse than that! Later, two other women will basically kill themselves— one right after the other— so that Dave Bautista can live. So that’s five. Holy shit, movie!)

There was apparently a controversy where one of the actors in the movie was revealed to be a rapey dickhead, and he was basically edited out of the movie and digitally replaced by a whole different actress? And my wife told me about this going in, so I’m not sure how distracting this would have been or if I’d have noticed it if I hadn’t known that, but once you realize that there are no other actors in probably 90% of the shots with the replacement actress in them, it becomes hilarious very quickly.

There’s this whole subplot where there are zombie refugee camps, which are … something about quarantine, and lots of temperature checks, but any time anybody turns it happens immediately, so this is kind of incoherent– but anyway, this woman leaves her kids behind to go … explore the ruins of Vegas, to try and steal shit, and she gets led in by someone they honest-to-God call a Coyote, and then abandoned in there? And Dave Bautista’s estranged daughter insists on going in there to find her, because Dave Bautista’s daughter is so unable to face the idea of having to either abandon or raise this woman’s apparently really shitty kids that she insists on risking her own life to find her. She actually emotionally blackmails her dad into bringing her (untrained, useless) ass along so that she can risk everyone else’s lives by insisting on finding this one person in this entire enormous city full of hotels so that she doesn’t have to deal with her kids.

At the end of the movie, they find the woman alive, because of course they do, and Bautista and his daughter and this woman board a helicopter to evacuate the city before the nuke hits, and other than two brief shots of her looking out of the window this lady is never mentioned again and never gets a word of dialogue. The helicopter crashes, because that’s what happens when you detonate a nuke near a helicopter, and apparently she dies in the crash, because Bautista’s daughter is utterly unconcerned about finding her afterwards and we never see a body. It’s as if the screenwriters completely forgot about her.

This also means that the daughter’s insane rescue plan (“I’ll make my dad take me into the super dangerous place to find the needle in the haystack, then run away, and then we’ll all die!”) was not only for nothing, because this woman died, which would have happened anyway, but the movie didn’t think it was important enough to make it explicit what happened to her, or ever mention her apparently-terrible kids again.

King Zombie is invulnerable at the beginning of the film, shrugging off an awful lot of close-range machine-gunnery. At the end of the film, when it is necessary for him to die so the movie can end, he is dispatched with a single pistol shot.

You find out there’s a double-cross at the end of the movie, and instead of wanting 200 million dollars the Mysterious Rich Benefactor actually wanted this other thing, but the problem with that is there wasn’t any need to lie about it. If you think you can make unlimited money from This Thing and you’re a Mysterious Rich Benefactor, then just offer a million bucks per Thing You Want and set the team loose, maybe also pointing out that hey, there’s $200 million in this vault if you want to try and get that too, and then it’s the same movie but it’s less dumb.

And I can hear some of y’all, and your point that hey, it’s a zombie movie, it doesn’t have to be smart is heard and understood, but you also don’t have to make movies deliberately stupid! Sometimes I reflect on how much movies cost and how many people are needed to work on them, and the fact that we still have movies this stupid is kind of amazing. Most of the time, making a movie smart instead of stupid isn’t even more expensive! Just, like, think about your plot for a second during the early stages, and … like, adjust things, to be less dumb.

I promise this is possible. I promise it. But making a stupid movie is a choice– no movie is accidentally stupid– and that choice means I get to criticize you for it, especially when being less stupid wouldn’t have been harder.

(EDIT: Well, that’s hilarious. WordPress’ link robots appear to have decided this post is about feminism.)

Days Gone #Review addendum

It turns out that the game has three of what I’m going to call “epilogue” missions; the interweb is fond of calling them secret endings but they just give them to you as regular missions if you keep playing, so it’s not like you can miss them so long as you don’t quit after the credits. (Which I wouldn’t blame you for, for the record.) Two of them are just nice character bits, but the third was 1) unexpected enough and 2) genuinely jarring and scary enough that I’m awarding the entire game an extra (and meaningless) half point to its score.

Then again, if you wait until after the credits for your most original and disturbing moment, maybe that’s a sign that the game really is the perfect 7.0 game, because a fair number of even the folks who finish the game won’t see this.

At any rate, the scene I’m talking about begins just after the 3:00 mark on this video. It probably won’t have the impact it should if you haven’t played through the game but still. Even if you don’t know what’s happened in the game, if nothing else you’ll get a good idea of why I praised the facial animation by watching this.

#REVIEW: Days Gone (PS4)

After spending a couple of months playing almost nothing but Sekiro, and hitting yet another boss– the very last one I have to beat– and getting stuck for several days again, I decided that I needed to take a break and go back for the last few achievements later. Enter Days Gone, a game I’d been aware of for months and months but which poor reviews (and, well, Sekiro) had kept me from picking up. I found it $20 off and off to the races.

And, well. I beat it last night– or at least the credits rolled, although there’s still some stuff to do– so I might as well talk about it a little bit. As it turns out, Days Gone is damn near the Platonic ideal of the 7/10 game– a game that has enough good things about it that I beat it, but enough obnoxious things about it that I’m complaining about something almost the entire time I’m playing it.

Interestingly, this means I have more to say about it than I might have had I really enjoyed it, because the ways this game fails are as fascinating as they are ridiculous. So I may rattle on for a bit. We’ll see.

Let’s start with the good stuff– the game’s basic feedback loop (go here, shoot something, rinse, repeat) is fun. There’s a decent variety of weapons and craftable items, and the game does a pretty good job of making everything useful in some scenario or another. Toward the end of the game, where you’re taking on huge hordes of what the game calls Freaks and everyone else on Earth calls zombies, there’s a great frenetic poetry to the way you have to set traps, use the environment to your advantage, and know when to best use everything in your inventory. The largest hordes have 450+ zombies in them. Taking them all out is awesome.

Okay, so, it’s a zombie game, right? What else is it? Well, really, not much, except for the inevitable post-apocalyptic Maybe The Humans Are The Real Problem shit. You shoot an equal number of people as you do zombies, if not more, although you don’t see the hordes and people tend to shoot back rather than just chase you forever. You play as the rather extravagantly named Deacon St. John, a biker. Now that you know he is a biker and that he is the protagonist of a video game you know his entire personality. At the very beginning of the game, you see St. John put his injured wife onto a helicopter, give her a ring, and tell her that he wants it back. The game then jumps ahead two years; the apocalypse has apocalypsed and Deacon never found his wife. Insofar as the game has a plot, it’s “Deacon tries to find his wife.” It’s one of those games where you know from the jump that there’s no way they won’t be reunited by the end; it doesn’t even count as a spoiler to me because it’s so obvious from literally the first few minutes of the game.

An interesting thing: the zombies may as well be aliens. There’s constant talk about a virus, but at no point during the game do any of the characters display even the slightest concern about becoming a zombie or contracting the virus. There’s no concern about blood, or being eaten, or being bitten, or really anything at all, and you never come close to that zombie apocalypse trope where you tearfully shoot someone in the head to keep them from turning. There are a couple of points where people burn bodies to “keep the freaks from getting them,” but there’s not a moment of concern about anyone catching the virus, ever. It’s weird. There’s a brief scene near the end where (this also will not surprise you) Deacon’s wife figures out that her company had something to do with the apocalypse starting, but it’s so underwritten that it’s barely worth taking seriously. How Everything Started gets barely any attention at all.

The game also has a major problem with Idiot Plot, where characters keep secrets from each other for no particular reason other than that the writers thought they should, and it never makes any damn sense. For example, this is a decent look at Deacon’s neck:

He has his wife’s name, Sarah, on one side of his neck, and the word Forever on the other side of his neck. Late in the game there will be a scene where Deacon joins a militia camp where he believes he might find his wife. He gets into a conversation with a character about his previous life and they discuss his wife. The other character asks him her name.

“Beth,” he says, after transparently thinking about it for a moment.

Dude you have the phrase “Sarah Forever” tattooed on your fucking neck.

Not only will no one ever mention this to him, once he finds Sarah, neither of them tell anyone they’re married, he continues the “Beth” thing, and the fact that her first name is Sarah and they are conspicuously associating a lot never comes up. Plus, the guy he’s talking to in the first conversation is wearing the ring that he gave Sarah, a fact that he does mention to him once but which does not receive anywhere near the follow-up that you think it might.

A compliment: the game has amazing facial animation, and watching Deacon and Sarah in particular have conversations is incredible. The voice acting is pretty good except when it isn’t– I’ll get to this in a bit– and while the load screens before the copious cutscenes are obnoxious the direction, for lack of a better word, is generally pretty compelling. The score and the sound effects are quite well-done as well. Again, I’m complaining, but I did put 30+ hours into this thing before I beat it, and chances are there’s still gonna be a few more hours before I get tired of killing hordes.

(Also, and I’ve never said this about a video game before, and I wouldn’t even mention it had the game not commented on it, but … Sarah has an amazing ass. Like, there are a couple of cutscenes where you have to walk behind her for a while. They put some work into animating this woman’s posterior. Forgive me; it needed to be said.)

Let’s see, what else? I mentioned the voice acting. If anything, the game’s biggest gameplay weakness is that damn near every mission boils down to “Go here, and kill everything that moves.” Every mission. Sometimes you’re killing Freaks and sometimes you’re killing people, but it’s every mission. Now, I play lots of video games, and I’m used to the notion that the main character in every game is going to have killed thousands of people by the time the game is over. Days Gone does this thing with Deacon, though, where by about the 1/3 point of the game I really felt like someone ought to have sat him down and had him retire to gardening for the rest of his life.

Deacon is really really angry, guys, and he really likes murder. The shit that he mutters to himself while he clears out an ambush camp or a Ripper enclave is fucking creepy, and I’ve never played a game where I so fervently felt like the main character needed serious psychological intervention. He talks about murder so much, while murdering, that it just keeps driving it home to you that, most of the time, these are people he’s killing, and it creates this weird sort of guilt about all the killing you’re doing. Yeah, yeah, I know, just a video game, but … man, this guy really likes murder. And not in a fun slapsticky sort of way.

(I spend five minutes trying to find an appropriate YouTube video, and fail, but check this out.)

Also, you spend far too much time having to listen to far-right political nut job bullshit than I want to have to do in something I paid for. Way, way too much time.

Anyway. I can’t give this an unqualified recommendation, but once it’s down to $19.99? Grab it if you’ve got a hole in your gaming schedule you want to fill.

#REVIEW: THE HUNGER, by Alma Katsu

For whatever reason, I’m reading a lot more this year than I did last year. I set last year’s goal at 100 books and only barely got past that at 106; I decided to dial it back a little bit this year and set my goal to 75, and I just finished the 70th book of the year last night, so I’ll finish my yearly reading goal before the year is halfway done.

Given that I’ve been on a book-every-day-or-two pace for most of June, the fact that it’s still notable how fast I devoured — pun intended — Alma Katsu’s The Hunger is pretty impressive. I couldn’t put this book down; it’s nearly 400 pages long and I finished it in less than a day. Even more impressively, The Hunger is a horror novel, and I tend to be kinda rough on horror novels. The scariest book I ever read was a nonfiction book about the Dust Bowl (I am not remotely kidding) and on the rare occasions that I find a horror novel that actually scares me I tend to promote them heavily.

You might imagine, given all of that, that a historical fiction about the Donner Party that tosses some supernatural complications into the story might be right up my alley, and man, you’d be all sorts of right. Don’t get me wrong; I think Katsu probably could have played this book perfectly straight and still written a hell of a novel if she’d wanted to, but taking what was already a nightmare hellscape of a setting and tossing in what isn’t quite a zombie story but is still certainly in the neighborhood ended up creating one hell of an engrossing story. Katsu bounces back and forth between half-a-dozen or so narrators from the caravan (which was, at the beginning, nearly 100 people strong) and from my brief research into the actual events of the time, does a decent job of keeping at least the important parts of her narrative close to what actually happened.

(I mean, monsters. She adds monsters. I’m pretty sure the monsters weren’t there originally. But it’s still decent historical fiction nonetheless, I think.)

So, yeah: this book is about terrible things happening to regular people, and some of the terrible things are kind of their own damn fault but most of them are because frontier-era America was legitimately dangerous as hell, and Katsu keeps the tension so thick for most of the book that you want to wipe it off your fingers when you’re done reading. She’s got a genuine gift for setting a scene and a hell of a talent for just keeping everything creepy; this book isn’t a jump-scare sort of thing, but the type of book that’s gonna worm its way into your head while you’re reading and stay there a while. There’s a good chance of seeing this one on my Best of 2019 list at the end of the year. Check it out.

I see movies


You like movies, right?  Everybody likes movies.  You may have noticed that they made another movie about that Spider-Man dude recently.

Quick!  Guess if I saw it.

Of course I did.  And I’m pleased to report that I liked it quite a damn lot; I continue to be amazed that Marvel has cranked out something like ten thousand of these movies and I haven’t seen one I disliked yet.  It’s not the best superhero movie of the year– that title belongs to Wonder Woman still, but it’s a solid effort, especially when you consider that there have been like seventeen movies just about Spider-Man in the last fifteen years or so.

Highlights: Tom Holland, Tom Holland, Tom Holland, and Tom Holland.  Also Michael Keaton.  Actually, hell, let’s be honest here: I like the entire damn cast.  There’s just enough Robert Downey Jr– I didn’t want this to have as much Iron Man in it as, say, Civil War did– and he’s got enough screen time that it’s more than a cameo but not a lot more than a cameo, if you know what I mean.  Putting Peter Parker back in high school was the right move, and Tom Holland plays young more than well enough.  Michael Keaton as the Vulture (who, note, is never actually referred to by that name) is the best villain Marvel’s put on-screen since Loki, and I actually really like how low-stakes the film is for most of its runtime; it fits Spider-Man’s role as a street-level hero.  This movie gets the character’s soul completely right, and that’s really important.

One minor gripe: this guy?


The character’s name is supposedly Ned?  And maybe he’s supposed to be Ned Leeds, although they don’t ever use his last name, and shouldn’t Ned Leeds be a lot older than Peter anyway?  And: nah.  Fuck that.  This isn’t Ned.  This is Ganke, dammit, and I want Miles Morales in a Marvel movie.  Donald Glover plays his uncle Aaron!  He’s out there, dammit!  Quit giving me his friends under weird pseudonyms and his relatives and give me Miles Morales!  


I also saw this, finally.  You may remember my review of the book of The Girl With All the Gifts: I loved the hell out of it, and it ended up being my second favorite book of 2016.  I actually first heard of the book when I saw the trailer for the movie and it blew me away, and then I waited a year and a goddamn half and the damn movie either never came out in the States at all (I’ve been unable to get a solid answer on this, and believe me, I’ve looked) or got such a limited release that I was never anywhere near a theater that showed it.

Well, good news: Apple to the rescue!  I was able to rent the movie for 24 hours for just 99 cents, and if anything it’s even a bit creepier than the book was– and, remember, I loved the book.  You won’t be able to find this in theaters anywhere, but it’s absolutely worth hunting down if you have any way to stream it.  Read the book, too, while you’re at it.