An article by Denver Grenell
This past weekend saw the release of Zack Snyder’s two and half hour zombie epic Army of the Dead on Netflix. Like many of his more recent films, it has proved to be extremely divisive among film fans, with no apparent middle ground. Social media was awash with defenders saying, “it’s just a lot of harmless fun,” while others (this writer included) bemoaned the awkward balancing of epic zombie action with a less convincing emotional sub-plot, bland characters and huge leaps in logic.
But there was another very noticeable issue with the film (we’ll leave the dead pixels issue alone): AOD’s mishandling of ‘references’ to older films, in particular James Cameron’s iconic Aliens. Homages to older films are nothing new, and filmmakers have been dropping references to their favourite films for decades. Quentin Tarantino is arguably a master at this, using character names, dialogue, musical cues and even titles from older works. But the difference is that Tarantino recontextualises his influences into something new and fresh instead of stale regurgitation.
Snyder and his co-writers, Shay Hatten and Joby Harold, fail to offer anything new with their ‘nods’, instead lifting major scenes and beats from Aliens, confusing homage with outright plagiarism. While there is bound to be a large amount of younger viewers who haven’t seen Aliens and thus oblivious to the similarities, for the older or more astute viewer, these nods stick out like a sore (decomposing) thumb.
The first notable reference is the character of Chambers (Samantha Win), who is clearly modelled after Jenette Goldstein’s classic character Vasquez in Aliens. Chambers sports a similar headband and look with the same demeanour of the strong, badass type. Chambers also meets a similar fate as her forebear – being blown up while being overrun by rampaging zombies.
This would be fine in isolation, but then the structure of the film seems to be based closely on Aliens, with the first act ending when the team enters Vegas and encounters the zombies for the first time, much like the Marine’s entering the compound on LV-426 have their first run-in with the xenomorph colony.
Next is the character of Martin (Garrett Dillahunt), an untrustworthy stooge of Tanaka, the businessman who commissions the heist. Martin is a thinly veiled Carter Burke, with his ulterior motives and ultimate betrayal of the team. Burke wanted to take the Aliens back to Earth, just as Martin is really there to take the head of an Alpha zombie, in this case, the Zombie Queen, back to Tanaka. His locking of the door and sneaking away from the team only to fall victim to the zombie tiger cements the comparison. Again though, apart from his bloody death in the jaws of the undead tiger, Snyder and the writers don’t do anything with the character’s arc that hasn’t been done before (and better).
Another scene steals a memorable line where Lilly the Vegas guide says “you don’t see them fucking each other over,” which comes straight from Ripley’s mouth in Aliens when she tells Burke, “you don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.”
The biggest and most frustrating steal comes towards the end, when team leader Scott (Dave Bautista) tells helicopter pilot Peters (Tig Notaro) not to take off while he goes and rescues his daughter Kate. Of course, they return to find the chopper missing ala Bishop in the dropship at the end of Aliens, who had to depart the unstable platform.
The film’s beginning pulls the same trick when it references a scene from An American Werewolf in London where David trips over before Jack is savaged by the werewolf. The two soldiers who have escaped the zombie outbreak find themselves in exactly the same situation. Still, it doesn’t make sense that they would be laughing about it, having just witnessed a horrific road accident and the rampage of the alpha zombie. In Werewolf, it made sense because David and Jack had no idea what was out there and laughed at themselves for being so spooked. Snyder and co are elbowing the viewer and saying, “Remember this? Aren’t we clever?” without questioning whether it makes sense for the characters and the scene.
A good homage used well, will bring a smile to the viewer’s face, and can be used to surprise by undermining expectations. Bad homages, as found here, can take you out of the movie and probably make you want to watch the movie being referenced instead.
Denver Grenell is a horror aficionado and an emerging author whose short fiction can be found in various anthologies including Bitter Chills by Blood Rites Horror as well as Shallow Waters by Crystal Lake Publishing.