You all keep talking about the city like it’s their prison. It’s not. It’s their kingdom.
2021 feels like a bit of a victory lap year for Zack Snyder. Between the positive reception of Zack Snyder’s Justice League and the lengths Netflix is going to in order to show Army of the Dead, he has definitely received a cultural reappraisal. Army of the Dead certainly puts Snyder on full display to be weighed and measured as is seen fit: kinda silly, kinda fun, overlong, and reaching for poignancy. You can have a lot of fun with the zombie genre and the heist genre, so a zombie heist film seems like a no-brainer (no pun intended). Army of the Dead is absolutely fun and weird, but it also manages to mine some legitimate pathos out of the concept, even if it can be clunky at times.
The opening of the film is arguably the best part. There’s a pre-credit sequence with a military convoy coming from Area 51 (complete with suspicious UFO’s in the sky) that crashes thanks to a bout of post-nuptial road head. This segment quickly segues into the actual credits. It works great as a short film, showing the destruction of Las Vegas and the military response, with literal slices of life. It’s also scored by Richard Cheese, whose cover of “Down With the Sickness” was a standout in Snyder’s previous zombie entry, Dawn of the Dead (2004). It feels like a throwback, like a short film and a nostalgic song as a palette cleanser so we can forget about his superhero films and focus on the action.
Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) is a short-order cook in some greasy spoon, which is admittedly very funny. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief for zombies, but jacked Bautista serving up eggs and hashbrowns is pushing it too far. He’s given an offer by Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada): the military is going to nuke Las Vegas; if Scott and his team can go in and grab $200 million from Tanaka’s casino vault, then they can divvy up $50 million amongst themselves. It’s a real meat-and-potatoes concept for a zombie heist, and the fact that the outbreak is contained to Vegas answers the question everyone had when they saw the trailer: who gives a shit about money during a zombie apocalypse?
Bautista is a fantastic lead. He’s the rare wrestler-turned-actor who seems to care more about the craft of acting than the image he’s presenting. He stole the show in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and made a huge impression with limited screen time in Blade Runner 2049 (2017), and he’s equally engaging in Army of the Dead. Whether he’s blowing away zombies or trying to have some one-on-one time with his estranged daughter, he’s intriguing to watch. His size and muscles don’t seem incongruous to the character (except when he’s flipping burgers) because he does a good enough job seeming like a normal dude. You’d think that would be easy, but I never bought Arnold Schwarzenegger as a mattress salesman in Jingle All the Way (1996).
Once Scott and his crew get back into Las Vegas, things play out pretty much as you’d expect, with a few weird tangents. One of Siegfried & Roy’s tigers is a zombie, which is a fun touch. Also, there are Alpha zombies, who seem to have intelligence and a king and queen. They’re different from the shamblers, your run-of-the-mill zombie movie zombies. A missed opportunity is the dried out husk zombies the crew sees on their way inside. The Coyote (Nora Arnezeder) says they will come back to life when it rains, but we never see that happen. A gross pile of intertwined, weed zombies would have been awesome.
There are a few standout action scenes (one character gets to go John Wick on some hibernating shamblers), but my biggest takeaway from the middle section of the film was the relationship between Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer) and Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick). The nerdy safecracker and the badass mercenary becoming friends wasn’t something I expected, but the actors and the character work sold it so well. Tig Notaro as Marianne Peters, the helicopter pilot, also stood out. Partially because of the backstory behind her casting.
The action is swift and brutal, and the production design is perfect. It’s a great depiction of Vegas after the fall. Snyder was his own director of photography for this film, and he decided to use a really shallow depth of field for most shots, which may seem off-putting to some, but I thought it created a nice atmosphere. Within the context of the film it added an extra layer of suspense; anything the crew wasn’t specifically focused on could easily jump out and bite them in the ass.
The runtime is absolutely excessive. It was excusable for Zack Snyder’s Justice League, a movie whose entire existence is an indulgence, but it does drag a bit here. There’s a large chunk in the middle that could have been trimmed a bit so it didn’t seem like the gang were hanging out casually before the ticking clock of the third act happened. There are also some intriguing oddities (the time loop? The robot zombies?) that may have worked better if they’d been expanded on, or just dropped completely. Overall, Army of the Dead was a success.
While not as good as Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead, it’s a big, dumb, muscly zombie film and a worthy follow-up to Snyder’s previous horror entry. At the very least, it’s worth watching until the end of the opening credits for a couple of great shorts. It seems like putting tiny glasses on Dave Bautista is the secret to a good movie, so more of that please. The character work takes a backseat to the spectacle, which is to be expected, but the fact that the film is dedicated to Snyder’s late daughter makes the scenes between Scott and his estranged daughter hit extra hard. This movie feels like the perfect Vegas experience: it makes sense that people would flock there, but once it’s done, I totally get why you’d feel tired and nauseous.
Army of the Dead
- Director: Zack Snyder
- Writers: Zack Snyder, Shay Hatten, Joby Harold
- Stars: Dave Bautista, Ella Purnell, Omari Hardwick, Ana de la Reguera, Matthias Schweighöfer, Tig Notaro, Nora Arnezeder, Garret Dillahunt, Raúl Castillo, Hiroyuki Sanada