Triple Feature

Curses    June 9, 2021 
  

On Army of the DeadThe Dry, and Undine

I

n Zack Snyder’s last zombie movie — a 2004 remake, or “reimagining,” of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) — one notable change from its predecessor

was that the flesh-starved zombies were now suddenly fast-moving, hyper-aggressive, and surprisingly strategic. (Romero’s ghouls were comparative slugs.) You might even call them smart — something you’d never expect to say about beings that are quite literally brain-dead. In Army of the Dead, Snyder’s latest foray into the horror subgenre, the pace and wits of the zombies have evolved further — bad for the civilians who have to fend them off, intriguing for the viewer. Some of the undead our ensemble encounters have good enough coordination to engage in outright hand-to-hand combat; many are unexpectedly quite adept at throwing well-timed punches and dodging potentially damaging blows to the head. There is even a zombie king and queen able to command certain zombs “living” in the

area our cast prowls for most of the movie; they can somehow control when their acolytes should attack a human intruder. (The queen has a ferocious clarion call to signal for backup; I love that being bitten by a living corpse can give your lungs the ability to do that.) 

 

Both of Snyder’s zombie movies share a ridiculousness that vacillates from fun to grating. They also share an aversion to what made the original Dawn of the Dead and director Romero’s other zombie works indelible. Snyder’s zombies are purely combatants; in Romero’s films (particularly Dawn of the Dead) they more pointedly feel like ghoulish embodiments of mindless consumerism — entities who force those who “subvert” their cause to give in to a status quo where one’s worth comes not from individuality but what they consume and conform to. A true nightmare taken allegorically or literally.

 

Snyder’s action-first approach was intermittently inspired in his take on Dawn of the Dead — mostly when it came to scattered scenes of zombie-versus-human melee — but the movie was mostly empty. (It was in some ways redeemed by its boldly bleak ending.) More time was spent with human characters and their ever-shifting interpersonal dynamics, yet the film, oddly, never meaningfully explored any of their inner worlds. Some members of the ensemble remained so thinly written that you knew their faces better than you did their names or histories. There wasn’t enough action, and the characters weren’t well-drawn enough to make up for that.

 

Army of the Dead remains action-first, but is much better than Dawn of the Dead. It never loses sight of what it is and, for the most part, the expectations associated with its genre. Silliness is leaned into more readily; it finds a better balance between action and interpersonal drama. It is too long, though — two hours and 28 minutes, somehow a relatively short length in Snyder’s bloat-obsessed filmography — and its action sequences aren’t so much innovative as they are slickly competent. Though the opening credits — a slow-motion carousel through a zombie meltdown in downtown Sin City backed by a sexier, slowed-down version of “Viva Las Vegas” — are artful enough to stand alone as a really good short film. (It has a real rhythm; I couldn’t help but laugh when a building explodes right when the song’s singer says “ka-pow!”) But I wasn’t ever bored watching Army of the Dead. I stayed pretty happy with what critic Stephanie Zacharek has christened “perfectly acceptable turn-your-brain-off entertainment.”

 

Zombie takeover has not yet become fully apocalyptic in Army of the Dead. The outbreak has been contained to Las Vegas, where, at the beginning of the film, a zombie-like being some military vans are transporting from Area 51 (for reasons explained later) breaks loose, heads into the city, and promptly kickstarts an epidemic there. Just like Manhattan Island in John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981), which has effectively been transformed into a huge free-for-all prison, the federal government of Army of the Dead has managed to seal the city off from the outside world before any stragglers could spread their disease elsewhere.

 

Shortly into the movie, we learn the city is slated for a nuclear-bomb drop in the next few days (on the Fourth of July, to be exact), ridding the world of such monstrosities as the undead and gaudy architecture like the Luxor. It’s a contentious decision opposed by humanitarians; it even prompts a march on the Capitol. (The movie, accidentally germane, was shot way before Jan. 6.) This is about as political as Army of the Dead gets, which is still more so than Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead. One might snort at the throwaway line that zombified Las Vegas, now detached from the U.S., gives new meaning to the idea of a “free country.” (There’s a moment, which I loved for its on-the-noseness, where Snyder zooms in on a zombie standing atop Las Vegas’ duplicate Statue of Liberty — this is the land of the free and the brains-hungry.)

 

Naturally, not everybody who had invested their lives into Las Vegas was there when it began its out-of-nowhere quarantine; one such person is the immediately untrustworthy casino owner Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada), who still has $200 million left sitting in his hotel’s vault. He’d like to recover it before it turns to radioactive powder — what a waste! He doesn’t want to die trying to get it, though, so he approaches Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), a pugilistic fry cook who, many moons ago, was awarded a Medal of Freedom for his efforts evacuating Las Vegas survivors before the seal was officially set. Would he be interested in going back in for a share of $15 million? Scott doesn’t exactly want to. He has PTSD, and is weighed down by a recent estrangement from his daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell), who now works as a volunteer at a Vegas refugee camp. But who is he to say no to $15 million? Like others he collaborated with in Las Vegas a while back, he could use the extra dough, given that they’ve gotten back into thankless blue-collar work.

 

Scott enlists team members played by actors I have mostly never heard of but who I grew to like. (Shouts out especially to Ana de la Reguera and Nora Arnezeder.) In an inspired bit of casting, the most famous is played by the stand-up comedian Tig Notaro, who portrays a smarty-pants helicopter pilot and mechanic. (Notaro was added to the film, mostly through CGI, at the last minute after the original person in her part, Chris D’Elia, was accused of sexual misconduct by several underage girls. Sometimes Notaro's line delivery is totally incongruous with the scene at hand, which is surprisingly more disjointedly charming than a disservice to the film.)

 

Like in Dawn of the Dead, none of these characters are very developed in the course of the movie. But we don’t mind this insubstantialness as much in Army of the Dead, since it’s way more action-heavy. We know enough to determine who we want to live and who we want to die, which here is enough. I wish there was a little more flaunting of Las Vegas as its own character, though. You sometimes forget that this once glittery, famously seedy please-seeking oasis is the setting and not some other metropolis reduced to rubble. (There is a lot of running through colorless, darkly lit hallways— why not a bloody run-through the ersatz streets of the Hotel Paris, a splash in the Caesar’s Palace fountain now tainted with gloopy bodily fluid?)

 

Army of the Dead’s storyline, of course, won’t be as streamlined as what Tanaka promises; what would a heist movie be if everything went according to plan? (The pile-on of requisite “complications” is almost a joke in itself for the genre.) Predictably, Tanaka has ulterior motives. But Snyder, writing with Shay Hatten and Joby Harold, also throws in a rescue plot (one of Kate’s friends from the camp foolishly braves the city hoping to gamble herself a fortune before it’s too late), a revenge story (a character really pisses off the zombie king by messing with his queen), and the unfortunate problem mid-heist of the military deciding impatiently to drop the bomb ahead of schedule. The rescheduling abbreviates the job’s timeframe from several hours to about an hour and a half. 

 

The movie is at its weakest when it tries to be emotional. These characters, particularly Scott and Kate, love having drawn-out heart-to-hearts at moments so inopportune that it’s almost impossible to be affected by them — all you can think about is that this is no time to be saying “I love you” and reiterating past regrets. But I also can’t say I minded these decidedly corny beats too much, however, if only because they complement the movie’s overall over-the-top chintiziness. Must tearjerks genuinely move us in a film where there exists a zombified Elvis impersonator, tiger, and baby apparently conceived post-zombie transformation among the players? (“That’s crossing a line,” one character says of the zombie tiger — of course it is!) Army of the Dead is doing a lot; none of it feels especially new or novel. But its muchness doesn’t feel half-hearted; you can sense Snyder’s zeal, and depending on your receptiveness to the movie it can be infectious. His revival of an old genre doesn’t freshen it up — it’s but another reanimation of something that has felt dead for a while —  but it does remind you how fun a zombie movie can be on a visceral level when it’s made with gusto.

The cast of Army of the Dead.

A

t the beginning of The Dry, Robert Connolly’s unsentimental mystery thriller, its principal character, the unsmiling Aaron Falk (Eric Bana), goes home. It’s been years since he’s visited the town from which he

hails — a near-hamlet in middle-of-nowhere Australia called Kiewarra — and he’d rather not go back. When he was a teenager, Aaron and his best friend at the time, Luke (Sam Corlett), were suspects in the mysterious drowning death of Aaron’s then-girlfriend, Ellie (BeBe Bettencourt). Although both were cleared by police, there seems to live no one in Kiewarra — the kind of small farming town where not a member of the population doesn’t know another’s business — who doesn’t think that at least Aaron was a murderer who got away with the crime. The whispers grew so loud back then that Aaron and his father quietly departed for the big city before Ellie’s funeral, never to look back. 

 

A tense situation to return to, to be sure. It’s hardly eased by the impetus for the return: a murder-suicide inflicted ostensibly by Luke that resulted in the deaths of not just himself but wife and son. (Only his newborn baby was spared.) Aaron understandably plans only to stay for the funeral; he would likely have not even come if not for the postcard an anonymous resident sent him imploring him to attend. (“Luke lied. You lied. Be there,” it reads.) But while most of the townsfolk would similarly rather the visit remain short — he’s more often met with death stares than warm greetings — Aaron, who has made a name for himself in Melbourne as a talented federal investigator, is pressured by Luke’s mother, Mrs. Hadler (Julia Blake), to put his expertise to use and take a closer look at the killings. She thinks there might be more than meets the eye; she can’t imagine Luke was suffering intensely enough to commit multiple murders. Aaron is dubious at first. He's uncertain around the professional optics; it’s hardly unusual for a mother to have a hard time accepting that their child has done something heinous. But once Aaron does some poking around, Kiewarra’s more-inexperienced sergeant (Keir O’Donnell) more than willing to help, it does seem like Mrs. Hadler could be on to something.

 

While appropriately surprising, the outcome isn’t necessarily the most interesting thing about The Dry, which, while using the procedural form to a satisfying degree, is more fascinated by how grief and despair have suffused its main setting. Given its size, and the uncomfortable closeness of the residents, Ellie’s premature death still patently has an effect on the town. And now with a shocking murder-suicide, not to mention a nearly-year-long drought that has rendered Kiewarra’s Earth beige and cracked and the water supply scanty (Aaron’s shower shoots trickles of mud in one scene), there seems not a place you can go in this town where you can escape its ubiquitous misery. The days of Aaron’s youth — when the natural environment was still splashed in green and where you could decamp to the nearby swimming hole to beat the heat — seem like a faraway fantasia, dirtied by the present’s relentless gloom.

 

Connolly ably captures the heat and general unfriendliness of the primary setting. This is a rare mystery film where the storyline is prioritized fairly equally alongside milieu and character. Finding out whether what happened to Luke and his family was what it seems — a line of questioning that also applies to Ellie’s murder, whose circumstances and aftermath are dramatized in emotionally and visually effective flashbacks — is just one line of interest in a multipronged movie. (Watching the film put me in mind of the recent HBO Max miniseries Mare of Easttown. That show also explores trauma, small-town claustrophobia, and how the two clash with a murder investigation conducted by someone many community members look at with contempt.)

 

Bana does terrific work as Aaron, a character who, although taciturn, is someone on whom you can detect acute resentment, self-doubt, and sadness. Bana doesn’t have to say much to help us infer what this reluctant investigator is thinking and feeling, and this palpable sense of Aaron’s mindset lends The Dry further resonance. Bana has solid support in Genevieve O’Reilly and Bettencourt, who are, respectively, excellent as an old friend of Aaron’s and profoundly affecting as a radiant young woman gone too soon. (Bettencourt’s lucid work, which has a dimension that never makes Ellie feel like a conglomeration of other peoples’ projections, gives the flashbacks a real gravity. She makes it easy to understand how the people in her town could continue mourning her as if her death were only recent.)

 

One could see The Dry, a big hit in Australia, functioning well if protracted into a TV series. The format would beckon further exploration of the town’s history and the generally hostile dynamics between characters. But the film is plenty efficient as is — a refreshingly frank thriller where solving a murder only generates one form of closure. In a town like Kiewarra, the ghosts of the past never leave, and you can feel them wherever you go. 

T

he meet-cute that sets off the central romance in Undine, Christian Petzold’s modern-day take on a classic mythological story, is surely unprecedented in not just the movies but in real life. As a man is asking a

woman out at a café, the aquarium in the background of the interaction seems to spontaneously shatter. The pair is knocked over — forced down by an explosion of saltwater, dead fish, and bits of glass and decorative rock. Knotted together in a protective embrace on the floor, these two fall immediately in love. This all might feel more out of place — a tad silly — if it wasn’t made clear, later in the movie, that the woman, named Undine (Paula Beer), is apparently a water spirit of some kind, and that the man — get this — is a professional diver named Christoph (Franz Rogowski). This is perfect for them. Coming in the wake of a spate of much-fawned-over critical successes for Petzold, beginning with 2012’s BarbaraUndine could be deemed, and has been deemed by some critics, a bit comparatively minor: this understated romance is made idiosyncratic and memorable because of its folklorish background more than anything else. 

 

Although there never comes a point in the movie where Undine clarifies to anyone that she is, in fact, a mermaid, anyone who is even vaguely acquainted with the legend behind her knows things will probably not end well. (According to classic lore, if Undine’s current lover cheats on her, she will be banished back to the sea after she vengefully murders him.) The movie opens with Undine’s breakup from a guy with perfectly coiffed hair named Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) — he’s doing the dumping — and Undine threatens him with death. Both Johannes and I’m sure many viewers hear this and understandably scoff. Later in the movie, we’ll regret not taking this unusual woman seriously. 

 

Undine never entirely coheres; the conjoining of modern life with a story of the past is even awkwardly complemented by the fact that Undine, by day, works as a tour guide who talks to tourists about Berlin’s architectural history. It also disappointingly doesn’t significantly explore the inner lives, or really very many romantic nuances, of its primary couple. But you can’t entirely shake this odd movie off, either. Beer and Rogowski perform a believable devotion almost from the start; everything is photographed so beautifully by cinematographer Hans Fromm — the movie’s greens and golds have a baroque-painting richness — that it can put you in a bit of a hypnotized lull.

 

There are some other lovely touches: Christoph begging his beloved to perform the following day’s tour monologue for him one romantic evening since he’ll be at work when it happens; a scuba session between the two that concludes with this unpredictable water spirit performing something of an aquatic striptease for her oblivious-to-her-background companion. Neither person will understand how much they had with each other until it’s no longer within reach. Though much of Undine can feel shallow, that poignancy runs deep.

Army of the Dead: B+

The Dry: B+

Undine: B