Case Study: Army of the Dead

Hi gang. Craig with you today. I needed something to post here, and this came to me after watching a specific movie. You all know how I like to study films, then break them down to see if I can learn something.

This is a new movie on Netflix, it’s called “Army of the Dead.” This is your obligatory spoiler warning. If this film is on your horizon, you might want to stop reading now.

Lisa Burton

I will go on record as not liking this film. There I said it. I checked comments around the Internet and it seems to be split as to how people felt about it. Most of them are either based upon their love or hate for the special effects. Some didn’t like the addition of the helicopter lady whose scenes were all spliced in due to Covid.

I could care less about these issues. I grew up in an era of Ray Harryhausen special effects, and you just kind of go with it.

This is a writing blog, and the topic should be writing based.

The premise of the film is that Las Vegas has been overrun by zombies, then walled in to prevent escape or entry. Inside is a gajillion dollars if anyone is brave enough to recover it. Also, the government is going to nuke the place in three days. Nice use of a ticking clock.

I’m calling Chapter One a scene that happened before the opening credits. Army personnel are transporting some unknown thing across the Nevada desert. There is an accident and some kind of super zombie breaks out. He’s fast, deadly, and spreads the virus to the soldiers. It gives us a glimpse of the real danger.

Chapter Two has to be the opening credits themselves. It involves the worst kind of lounge singer performing “Viva Las Vegas,” while zombie action tears up various casinos. Dumb kind of things happen under the musical score.

This spells dark comedy, and has me completely hooked. I love zombies and comedy.

In Chapter Three we start meeting characters and getting the setup. The characters are kookie enough. There’s a big reward offered for the recovery of the money. The main characters then proceed to recruit a team with ever smaller splits of the reward money. It’s humorous. Some of the characters are charming and entertaining. These are the kind of characters I want to know more about. Props to The Coyote, Dieter, and the helicopter lady.

In a traditional zombie film, we don’t expect everyone to survive. I’m pretty clear on that. I’m okay if they do, like in Zombieland. Although, I expect whatever happens to be part of that dark comedy that was promised.

Here we are, three chapters deep. We’ve got deadly fast zombies, a scheme to recover treasure, and humor. This is exactly like our books. We’ve drawn a line in the sand, and viewers/readers have a right to expect what was promised.

This is where it fell off the rails for me, and I think it’s an important lesson for all fictioneers. It did not deliver on the promise that was made. Every time someone appeared to be a fun character, they died. There was no dark humor involved in the process… none.

They returned to dark humor once, when they used zombies to trigger some traps. That far into the film it felt out of place.

I’m not opposed to straight up horror either. Promote a film that way, stick with it, and I’m there for the ride. The Walking Dead never tried to be a comedy, and I loved it.

Mashups are all the rage right now, and I might be guilty of some of that myself. Comedy and horror can mix well. However, there are basic promises an author has to fulfill. My personal opinion is Army of the Dead failed to deliver.

There is also a hokey bit about the hierarchy of zombies that I didn’t think added anything. It came across like a “darling” that everyone tells us to cut from our stories. I don’t think the overall film would have missed a beat without it.

At the end, the most boring and uninteresting character was the only survivor. I’m even okay with tragedy as a story type, but there was no meaning to what happened. No sacrifice for all mankind type of thing. Dave Bautista’s death had nowhere near the impact that Bruce Willis’ did in Armageddon.

There were some good things here, too. The ticking clock I already mentioned. I also liked a scene with what they called hibernating zombies. It was creepy and built a ton of tension. They also had a more accurate depiction of what machine-gun fire might look like in real life. This is probably because they were zombies and that’s easier to digest than shooting people. I’ve seen a lot of movies where nobody ever gets hit by machine-gun fire even though they unloaded the supersized box of ammo.

Here are my Story Empire type takeaways:

• People form expectations early on. You have to deliver on those expectations. You can do more, but there is a basic pact made early in your story.

• Consider that your blurb could be the time readers form those expectations. (Not quite the same as the film’s opening credits, but similar.)

• Tragedy should have meaning if you’re going to write it.

• Listen to your beta readers about killing your darlings. You don’t have to take everything as gospel, but really consider the feedback.

This was a fairly opinionated post, so feel free to disagree with me. The takeaways are solid even if you felt differently about the film.

Let me hear from you. Do you study everything you read or view? Am I crazy for not liking this film? (Crazy for other reasons is a different issue.)

54 thoughts on “Case Study: Army of the Dead

  1. I haven’t seen this movie, Craig, although I will watch zombie shows and movies but they have to be well done and usually someone will recommend it. Although I stopped watching Walking Dead when too many of my favorites died. I do have certain expections going into watching a movie like this and it sounds like many of them were broken. You made a good comparison from the movie to writing by what is promised in a blurb and the type of fiction it is. Tragedy alone has no meaning and is kind of depressing. It is important to listen to what beta readers bring up. I’ve made many cuts that have strengthened the story because of them. It’s hard not to watch a movie without bringing along the inner author. I might watch this movie out of curiosity now 🙂 Great post Craig!

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  3. I don’t like zombies or apocalyptic films/books, and I don’t watch tv at all these days, but honestly, I don’t believe that hurt me one bit in seeing exactly what you were trying to say in this lesson. I totally get it, and can see just how it applies to our writing. In fact, I think it’s one of the better posts I’ve ever read on things like unfulfilled expectations.

    I’m still such a newbie at writing, I have a LOT to learn, and I suspect most of us are learning new things about the craft every day. (Especially given that what was perfect for yesterday might not be perfect for tomorrow.) So, I really appreciated the way you laid this out, Craig, and will be referring back to it over time. THANKS!

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  4. This is such a great post in relation to writing and delivering on our promise to the readers. You are right. It starts with the blurb AND the cover. I sat in on a workshop once that was all about delivering on your initial promise to the readers and it did include the cover. As far as you being crazy for not liking the film, everyone is entitled to their opinion. I agree with you, that mashups sometimes work and sometimes don’t. In your stories that I’ve read, you did a great job with that. After taking my first screenwriting course, I never watched a movie the same way again. It’s hard not to analyze it. Great post, Craig!!

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  5. No spoilers for me, Craig, as I’d never watch the film anyway. Zombies are just not my thing. Well…if the film was a parody about D.C. craziness, I might watch it. I liked how you identified the strengths and weaknesses, the promises made and ignored. You made it a great learning experience for all of us! Thank you for waking me up. I’m sure there are a few creatures outside my door. If only they’d want to help me pack!! 😁

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  6. Haven’t seen the film and won’t so I have no way to disagree with you. I do like how you turned the film into a lesson in writing. I think an overpromise and underdeliver is the worst offense a writer can make. Good point on the blurb setting expectations too. Super post, Craig.

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  7. I avoid zombie movies if I can, but I did get hooked on Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I thought it did a decent job of mixing the horror of zombies with humor. And I agree. IF you start a story with a certain tone, that sets the mood for the entire thing. I enjoy your posts analyzing movies.

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  8. I study film constantly. I was going to watch Army of the Dead (despite the fact that zombies aren’t really my thing) because I wanted to see Dave Bautista in something non-MCU. Then I saw the Pitch Meeting for it. There were so many ridiculous problems with it, I didn’t bother. I knew it would drive me nuts. But you’re right; if you make a promise, you have to deliver.

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  9. I didn’t see the film, but I’m not a zombie fan so it wouldn’t draw me. For the most part, I watch tv or films to enjoy them, but if there is something that’s blatant-in-my-face-too-hard-to-overlook, then the critical eye does engage. I’m far worse with books. It’s harder for me to overlook mistakes in them.

    I’m in complete agreement with your statement about expectations and the need to deliver. And that DOES start with the blurb in the case of books. I’ve read a few that didn’t live up to what was promised. And one or two that didn’t convey something in the blurb that should have been conveyed.

    Loved your takeaways from the film, Craig!

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  10. Great post, Craig! The radio station I listen to went on and on about how horrible this movie was, and then they shared that it might be Amazon’s highest grossing movie. Crazy! I think all the bad hype makes some people want to see what it’s all about. Lol! Your analysis was great, and I agree with your tips. I haven’t watched the movie and don’t plan to. Zombies don’t really grab me (except I enjoyed Disney’s teen movie – can’t remember the name – and I loved World War Z, lol!). I agree that blurbs are like opening credits, or maybe even movie trailers. An author makes a promise and should deliver upon that promise. 🙂

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    • Thanks for weighing in. I’m old enough to have witnessed bad publicity driving a film into a legend. The Rocky Horror film had the same thing happen. Now it’s a cult classic. Zombies are on the verge of being overdone, but I’ve written them, too. Some of the stories are quite good.

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  11. I haven’t seen the movie as it isn’t the type I’m interested in. Even so, the word COVID is enough to drive me away. We’ve lived through that mess, why do writers “think” the need to write about in fiction?

    Anyway, the points you make are good ones. Writers should take note.

    To answer your question, I tend to read with a more critical eye these days. Watching TV and movies isn’t something I often do but I think the quality of what Hollywood produces these days has diminished greatly.

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  14. I must confess to usually just relaxing and watcing, because by the time the TV goes on, it’s late at night. But then stuff does stick with me, the good and the bad.
    You make some excellent points. I always love how you relate this stuff so well to writing. Thanks for sharing, Craig 🙂

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  15. I wonder about the expectations one. It’s tough to hit those when the audience isn’t part of the creation process. An author could think that the work is more serious than comedic throughout the whole thing, but a reader believes the comedy vanishes halfway through. Never saw the movie, so I don’t know what happened. A coworker said it was funny all the way through, but I’ve heard the opposite too.

    This kind of reminds me if when I published the first Bedlam story. I aimed it comedy right away. Yet, some people took it very seriously due to the dystopian setting and complained about the jokes. Just can’t win sometimes.

    I heard the helicopter lady was always spliced in last minute to replace an actor who had some really bad sexual abuse accusations come out. Think they decided to experiment with actor replacement on this movie.

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    • Helicopter lady was great, and I knew she was spliced in before watching. They did a good job with that. After letting it sink in for a while, if they’d have taken the opening credits a different direction, it might not have set those expectations as high.


      • Funny thing is that the movie isn’t listed as a comedy. It’s being called a zombie heist movie. I wonder if the Oceans movies were an inspiration where they’re considered heist movies, but there’s some comedy in there. Hard balancing act to pull off.

        Just want to add that ‘heist’ breaks the ‘i before e except after c’ rule. Hate that rule.

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      • It is a hard act. I never saw any promotion, other than a piece on Google News. My take was from the first three “chapters.” Because of that, I believe there is a lesson for authors. I think they could have solidly followed a horror or comedy path and made it work. It was almost like a script by committee.

        That’s a dumb rule, there are all kinds of words that don’t follow that so called rule.


      • I noticed a lot of social media promotions. It pushed the heist and action side, so I didn’t realize there was a comedic element. Guess it shows an author can aim for one genre, but promotions and audience interpretations can put it in another category. Like writing an action adventure fantasy series with vampires as the main characters, but people keep still call it horror. 😁

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      • There has to be a lesson there, too. Honest promo, plus early scenes, etc. I see no reason why vampires can’t fit into an action adventure story. If they can be romance characters, they can fit almost anywhere.


      • It stems from pre-existing perspectives. People skim blurbs and promos for keywords then build from there. This causes a reader to be surprised when it’s a twist on their predicted theme. It isn’t always accepted in a positive light.

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  16. I had seen a really bad movie previous night and I had thought nothing could overtake that movie and then I saw Army of dead. It is such bad movie . In terms of studying something from what I read or view the answer is mostly yes. I do ponder over best moments and lines and then it becomes part of life to some extent. Army of the dead doesn’t feature on that list

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