"Movies are so rarely great art," Pauline Kael wrote in 1969, "that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them." I do not agree with much of what Kael had to say over the years, and in fact I do not even agree with large swaths of what she had to say in this particular Harper's essay, "Trash, Art, and the Movies" (like a lot of people who make declarative statements about the nature of capital-A Art, she never gets around to explaining what the hell that word means to her, and this makes her defense of capital-T Trash feel a bit too amorphous, her definition of "trash" much too expansive). But I do agree with that particular quote, in what I think to be its spirit. And while I do not know if I would consider Zack Snyder a director of "great" trash, he's about as good as anybody we have out there right now; and if his new zombie epic, the Netflix-produced Army of the Dead, is decidedly not his greatest film, there is, I believe, an extremely good chance that it is his trashiest.

Notwithstanding its title, Army of the Dead has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with 2004's Dawn of the Dead, Snyder's feature debut as a director, and after 17 years and eight more movies, still the best thing he's made. This is a complete standalone - for now; it has multiple obvious sequel hooks, with a prequel and a spin-off animated series already in development. It presents the old chestnut of an apocalyptic outbreak of zombification in an unusual new package: unlike most films about the zombie apocalypse, which suggest that the entire world is on the brink of collapse if not past it, Army of the Dead proposes that its zombies were able to be successfully contained to the abandoned city of Las Vegas, Nevada, which has been surrounded by a wall and left as an open air prison for the cannibalistic undead. Meanwhile, the rest of the world it takes all of thi continues on, though the threat of the disease escaping the city is strong enough that the craven President of the United States - never seen, but quoted on the news in bratty dialogue that Snyder and his co-writer Shay Hatten undoubtedly believe to be sharp-tongued satire that instead falls to the ground with a heavy clunk - has leaned on Congress to authorise a nuclear attack on the city. This leads a former casino owner, Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) to hire a mercenary named Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) to lead a team, culled from a camp of quarantined refugees, into Vegas to retrieve $200 million from his abandoned vault, before the city has been covered in radioactive hell.

That's a sky-high concept if ever I heard one: Ocean's Eleven meets Escape from New York with zombies. Army of the Dead manages both to make too little of this concept and take it much too far at the same time, which is more than anything a sign of the sheer volume of stuff Snyder has on his mind, and the childish eagerness with which he pursues all of that stuff all of the time. "Too little", in that there's really not anything done with the Las Vegas setting besides motivating a couple of song cues - this has, in general, some of the most obvious, on-the-nose song cues in Snyder's career as a director, presented with a fearless ebullience as though he honestly believes that he is doing something extraordinarily cool and creative by including them (including the humdinger of a Big Choice in putting "Zombie" by the Cranberries in at the end) - and motivating the inclusion of a zombie white tiger. And this is an extraordinary thing to have put into a movie, which gets us to the "too far", though of course we could just as easily say that no amount of far is too far. For what we have here is almost a grand mythological epic about zombies, the kind of film that would with great enthusiasm present an image of a zombie warrior-king wearing a flowing cape as he rides slowly out of the desert rubble on a zombie horse, as his zombie tiger paces beside him; it is as stately and self-consciously iconic in anything in any of Snyder's movies about how Superman is basically God but cooler, equal parts comic book splash page and cover of one of the most exciting pulp novels in the used book store. And this is only somewhat damaged by how obnoxiously terrible the CGI tiger looks.

It's probably the single finest idea the director has on tap, which already tells us whether we are the kind of person apt to extract any pleasure from Army of the Dead or not. For that is its mode, for all of its 148 minutes. Oh, right, that's another thing: this is two hours and twenty-eight minutes long. The only zombie film to have ever been longer is George A. Romero's genre-defining Dawn of the Dead itself, and even then only in the form of a German cut that nobody involved in the creation of the film ever approved. That sounds too long for a grungy genre picture, and having seen the film, I can with much confidence state: oh yes, much too long. To get to that point, Army of the Dead has no fewer than three first acts, two final acts, and a middle act whose rising action speeds up so gradually that you almost mightn't notice it. I am torn; this is the kind of movie whose heart lives in all of the undisciplined dross that would be where the merciless carving starts, so a "better" cut of the film that tightened things down would surely be worse. At the very least, it would believe less in itself, and since the film's greatest strength, by a lot, is how much it believes in the gravity of everything it's doing. It takes itself very seriously, almost solemnly, in the sense of a kid who wants to make sure we're all following the rules, not necessarily in the sense that it is a po-faced, humorless slog; there are jokes, in fact, and by and large they are some of the worst parts of the movie.

But the film does have an appropriate sense of enthusiasm about itself: it's very obvious from how lovingly he frames everything in cinematography he's handling all by himself that Snyder has poured his heart into every frame of the movie, believing in the goofy pulp coolness of the most grandiose, magnificently dumb ideas like that zombie tiger; in the fumbling social satire at the ineffective government response to the zombies, the exercise of pointlessly cruel, petty power by the cam guards, the sheer venality of the rich tyrants who view the apocalypse as just a chance for a profit; in the big, thickly underlined emotions that are ostensibly what drives the human drama, as Scott and his estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) reconnect in the middle of a zombie hell, though not in the way people typically do in films of this sort. It's lunkhead poetry, clumsy and obvious but entirely heartfelt, and we just don't get that without it being a sloppy, lumbering mess, I don't think.

Anyway, the film has very little within it that I'd say is bad: quite a lot that is frivolous or empty, including much of the plot, and most of the characterisations: Omari Hardwick and Matthias Schweighöfer are giving the only genuinely strong performances in the movie, as an odd-couple "soldier & nerd" pairing who become best friends while fighting zombies; Tig Notaro, who was digitally inserted after the film was already shot, stands out literally because she doesn't always look like she's physically present, and she's obviously having a hard time calibrating line deliveries without anybody to deliver them against, but in her mildly psychotic deadpan,she also is responsible for pretty much all of the jokes that actually work. Really, though, the film's main sin as a narrative is that it shamelessly wastes our time. Its biggest sin, period, is that it looks like shit: Snyder is serving as his own cinematographer, I've said, and he's simply not good at it: the film is perpetually underlit in any moment that isn't outdoors in direct sunlight, and his attempt to soften the digital crispness of the images through shadows and lens choices have gone seriously far awry. He also stages damn near every shot in astonishingly shallow focus, giving the film an extremely monotonous aesthetic of constant blurry backgrounds. I don't always enjoy or admire the look of Snyder's films, but they always at least feel like they've executed their dubious aesthetic choices with  aplomb; Army of the Dead is his first film that's just plain poorly-shot.

Granting that, it's still a fairly well-directed bit of "ohymygosh you guys, that was cool" self-conscious genre playing. The opening sequence, explaining how the zombie apocalypse was the result of a preposterously ill-timed bout of oral sex, is as good as anything in Snyder's career, swinging big and going for exactly as much grand scale action as feels right to open a story like this, neither hurrying nor dragging things out on the way to an opening credits sequence that summarises the zombie outbreak underneath a double-length slowed-down cover of "Viva Las Vegas", and which does drag things out, but if there's one thing Snyder has always been very good at, it's grandly setting the table with his opening credits. And all the way on the other side of the movie's heavy bloat, it ends with 15 or 20 minutes of steadily escalating tension and violence that sends things off on a high note. And hey, a good beginning and a good ending: what else does a film really need to be satisfying? As ponderous as it can be, as heinously ugly as it is always, Army of the Dead is a film that holds nothing back, trying to sock it to us non-stop for 148 minutes. That experience is certainly as exhausting and irritating as it is fun, but any movie that loves stupid zombie shit as innocently and fully as this does could never truly end up on my bad side.