After almost a decade making divisive superhero blockbusters, Zack Snyder (Justice League) returns to the scene of his Hollywood breakthrough with another zombie action movie. However, unlike his surprisingly good Dawn of the Dead (2004) remake, Army of the Dead doesn’t benefit from a clever screenplay by James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2). Snyder’s latest effort splices together a handful of concepts, mixes a few genres, and recycles archetypes from many better films, to create an elevator pitch that convinced Netflix to rescue this from development hell.
When a rampaging zombie is accidentally unleashed on Las Vegas and starts infecting the population, the government quarantine the city with a makeshift wall of shipping containers, dooming the poor folk trapped inside to become flesh-eating monsters. Whatever happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas? Some time later, billionaire Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) asks former mercenary Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) to go back into Sin City and steal $200M from a casino vault before the place is obliterated by a tactical nuke on the Fourth of July. Currently flipping burgers after the catastrophe claimed his wife’s life, Ward agrees and recruits a team to pull off this daring heist: his estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell), philosophical soldier Venderhoe (Omari Hardwick), Mexican mechanic Maria (Ana de la Reguera), German safecracker Ludwig (Matthias Schweighöfer), tough Frenchwoman ‘Coyote’ (Nora Arnezeder), sharp-shooter (Mikey Raúl Castillo), and helicopter pilot Marianne (Tig Notaro).
Army of the Dead mixes a Land of the Dead (2005)-style zombie apocalypse with a story borrowing from Aliens (1987). There’s even a bandana-wearing Vasquez type kicking ass. One might also recognise elements of Escape From New York (1981) with its walled off city, the athletic zombies evoke the creatures from I Am Legend (2007), and there’s obviously a loose Ocean’s Eleven (2001)-style heist of a casino at its core. (Although that seemingly integral part of the story is overtaken by the shoot-’em-up narrative.) The problem is that Army of the Dead is a lukewarm version of its many influences, although its zombie mythology does have a few nice touches—like a hierarchical structure with a King and Queen of the so-called ‘Alpha’ breed, and how the lower-class zombies hibernate when not feasting on human flesh.
What could have saved this movie is having a gang you like and find interesting to see go through this tense nightmare, like the outmatched mercenaries from Predator (1987), but they’re all variations of dull stock characters. The only actor doing something mildly engaging is comedian Tig Notaro, playing against type as a bad-ass, which is strange considering she wasn’t even on-set with anyone else. Her part was originally played by Chris D’Elia, who was digitally erased from scenes after sexual misconduct charges were made against him after filming wrapped. So all credit to Notaro for delivering a performance that stands out despite this enormous obstacle to overcome, and to the VFX teams for seamlessly integrating her into scenes. It’s just a shame her character’s mostly absent in the middle, tinkering with a broken chopper on the roof of a casino.
Dave Bautista is fine in the lead role, but his character never takes the story by the scruff of the neck, despite being handed the most backstory in order to make Ward a sympathetic hero. Omari Hardwick makes for a memorably muscled presence (wielding a massive chainsaw), and Matthias Schweighöfer chews scenery as a quirky safecracker, but the many other characters don’t leave an impression beyond who’s playing them. It’s always fun to see Hiroyuki Sanada (Mortal Kombat) and Garret Dillahunt (Deadwood) in anything, for instance, but they’re not being stretched by this material.
Of course, all many people want from a movie titled Army of the Dead is wanton machismo, gruesome SFX, lashings of violence, and a story that’s easy to follow and emotionally resonant. Opinions will vary on how successful Snyder is at pulling all those key components together, but the zombie make-up is certainly a highlight and the devastated Las Vegas seems convincing enough. But despite costing a whopping $90M, these Netflix films have an unfailing tendency to look much cheaper than they are. It’s like the money goes on securing the cast and crew, so it can be marketed on the strength of who’s involved, but you miss all the extravagant action set-pieces this premise teases in your mind. Indeed, the most visually impressive moments are in the opening credits, which introduce some of the main characters amidst dramatising the zombie plague overwhelming Las Vegas. Snyder has a gift for marrying glossy pop-art visuals to mournful songs, which anyone who saw Watchmen (2009) can attest, and he once again peaks early with Army of the Dead’s beautiful credits.
As Netflix Originals go, Army of the Dead at least feels like a movie one can imagine seeing on the big screen. But the disappointment would be magnified in a cinema given the added effort and cost to experience it there, as this lacks everything needed to take such a fun concept to the next level: memorable characters with good dialogue, genuinely funny jokes, and a story with clever twists and turns. It’s instead a by-the-numbers action horror movie, almost like it hopes the strength of the premise, those athletic zombies, and occasionally extreme gore will make you overlook the lack of excitement and attachment to anything and anyone. There’s no edge-of-your-seat thrills or heartrending moments, try as it might to deliver them.
There is some fun to be had with Army of the Dead (like a Revenant-copying zombie white tiger attack) and the diverse cast are giving it their best, but a better movie exists in your imagination. The standout moments were all in the trailer, and it’s far too long considering the anaemic story being told… but at least this is the definitive ‘Snyder Cut’. Although a sequel is threatened…
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USA | 2021 | 148 MINUTES | 1.78:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Zack Snyder.
writers: Zack Snyder, Shay Hatten & Joby Harold (story by Zack Snyder).
starring: Dave Bautista, Ella Purnell, Omari Hardwick, Ana de la Reguera, Theo Rossi, Matthias Schweighöfer, Nora Arnezeder, Hiroyuki Sanada, Tig Notaro, Raúl Castillo, Huma Qureshi & Garret Dillahunt.