In Army of the Dead, a Zombie Outbreak Becomes an Excuse for a Public Health Power Grab

In Zack Snyder's latest, zombies are a public health issue, much like COVID-19.


If you think about it, zombies are a public health issue, much like COVID-19.

Like the coronavirus, zombieism is spread virally, with transmission via the mouth. The vector is biting rather than breathing, so a mask probably won't help you avoid catching the big Z—but a certain sort of extreme social distancing might. Either way, the main trick to avoiding infection is to stay sufficiently far away from people, or former people, who already carry the virus.

In the event of a zombie outbreak, then, there's little doubt that various government agencies would want to get in on the action, building border walls and enforcing quarantines under the guise of promoting public health—while actually seeking political control. And that's exactly what happens in Army of the Dead, in which a localized zombie outbreak turns into an excuse for a public health power grab.

The movie, which debuts on Netflix this weekend, begins when a mysterious specimen escapes after a military convoy crashes just outside of Las Vegas. The escapee is a hulking, inhuman brute who bites people, transforming the caravan of soldiers into undead menaces who go on to bite others, who go on to bite more people, and so on and so forth. Eventually, one presumes, an epidemiologist somewhere takes notice and starts to produce worrying-looking charts and graphs. Time for the lockdowns to begin!

They're zombies, in other words. If you're even vaguely familiar with the last 50 years or so of horror movies, you're probably familiar with how this concept works. But an outbreak of zombies is, of course, a viral outbreak not unrelated to the kind we've become all-too-familiar with over the last year and a half.

No, the initial convoy escape isn't quite a lab-leak scenario. But given that the patient zero appears to be an abnormally enhanced military secret, it's reasonable to suspect that there was some gain-of-function research going on. There isn't quite as much discussion of reproduction rates or daily new cases or the other stats and figures that have become routinized during our real-world pandemic. But based on the carnage we see on screen, you can assume that the infection fatality rate is pretty high.

Inevitably, the government steps in, sending in troops and then walling off a now-destroyed and zombie-infested Las Vegas, with a plan to nuke the entire city—on July 4th, no less—in order to end the menace once and for all. In politics, if nowhere else, walls and bombs are always viable solutions.

Meanwhile, just outside the city's barrier, the authorities have set up a mandatory quarantine zone for people who escaped Las Vegas and might have been exposed to the zombie virus. Ostensibly, the camp is a public health measure, defended—in an accurately annoying cable news debate between Sean Spicer and Donna Brazille—on the grounds that it's simply too risky to let even an unlikely exposure out into the wild. Even in a zombie outbreak, everyone's got a take. 

In reality, as the movie makes clear, the quarantine zone is a holding camp for political undesirables. The zombie outbreak has become a pretext for meting out politized punishments—none of which are actually related to public health—in the name of stopping the spread.

Director and co-writer Zack Snyder shot most of the film before COVID-19 hit the country, and he seems to have intended this as a kind of immigration metaphor, with the quarantine zone made to look like a long-term holding area for undocumented crossers. But in the aftermath of a pandemic that saw people confined to their homes, scenes in which camp guards wielding temperature guns threaten detainees who are obviously not infected take on a new metaphorical meaning.

"The first sign of infection is belligerence," one particularly odious guard tells a woman as she resists his sexual advances. He checks her temperature, then waits a tense moment before clearing her to go—making certain she knows her life is in his hands.

In the past, zombie movies have metaphorically commented everything from the soullessness of consumerism to race relations to international politics. This picture gives us a public health security state, with armed agents of the government acting in abusive ways for personal gain. Give security forces a slew of arbitrary and unsound rules to enforce, the movie seems to say, and the inevitable result will be abuses of that power. The movie's zombies, of course, present a very real and genuinely deadly threat. But the response at both the political and individual levels is to use that threat to gain power and lord it over others.

Somewhat frustratingly, the movie does little to develop these ideas after the first 40 minutes or so, preferring instead to dwell on an awkwardly paced plot to steal a mountain of cash from an underground safe before Vegas is nuked. There's an understandable but underdeveloped father-daughter subplot or two, and there's a lot of the visually striking, speed-ramped, slow-mo action that Snyder is known for. But beyond the energetically gory opening credits sequence, there's not much else to recommend in this overlong, underwhelming film. The movie just isn't as much fun as it thinks it is.

Army of the Dead starts with some genuinely interesting notions about how a localized, mostly contained undead outbreak might change America's politics, but it quickly devolves into a grimly zombified retread of both Ocean's 11 and Aliens that's neither as fun as the former nor as tense as the latter. What should be infectious fun turns out to be a grim and sickly drag.