After working in WB’s DC Superhero film universe for the last few years, Director Zack Snyder returns to R-rated splatter in Army of the Dead. Snyder’s signature slow motion/pop song stylistic quirks are ever present and there is a jarring disconnect between the gleefully outlandish gore and attempts at sentimentality. Also like almost every Snyder movie it’s probably too dang long. But the movie works great when it does gleefully messy stuff like using zombies as crash test dummies to break into a secure vault. It does enough different with the zombie genre to be unique and when things get chaotic it clicks.
The city of Las Vegas has been overrun by a zombie plague and walled off with Sin City about to experience destruction via nuclear blast. A special team of soldiers helped people escape years ago but now team leader, Scott (Dave Bautista) is broken and estranged from his daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell). A wealthy industrialist, Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada), says that Scott can have millions of dollars if he retrieves loot from the bottom of a Vegas casino vault. Overseen by Tanaka’s right-hand man, Martin (Garret Dillahunt), Scott assembles his team to break into Vegas but they find the zombies are smarter and more dangerous. There are twists involving betrayal, a rapidly ticking nuclear clock and an Alpha zombie (Richard Cetrone) who takes the team’s intervention personally.
The movie kicks off with a messy break out of the Alpha zombie and after a car accident, he unleashes a horde upon Vegas. What’s over the top ridiculous is when a car gets into an accident (for a rather crude reason) and crashes into the military transport truck that explodes in a fireball like it was loaded with TNT. This gloriously stupid vibe continues through the ridiculously awesome credits scene that shows the fall of Vegas and Scott’s team dealing with zombie hordes in Snyder’s lavish, slow-motion style set to “Viva Las Vegas”. The intro has Scott’s crew, Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), using a messy chainsaw type of gadget to hack zombies in half which is so great it’s kind of disappointing he doesn’t use it again the rest of the film.
The best stuff are unhinged action scenes like a crawl through hibernating zombies that gets intense. The zombies having an Alpha leader is interesting as usually zombies are faceless hordes. Cetrone’s performance is entirely wordless and oddly just with body language and growls he communicates more of a depth of emotion that most of the humans. Also, another great bit is a zombie tiger that eventually rips some poor sap apart rather graphically. A drawback is extremely long setup which is problem that plagued Snyder’s last few movies, especially his four-hour version of Justice League. Happily, the opening 15 minutes of Zombie chaos stashes up enough goodwill to trudge through about 40 more minutes of clichéd team assembly. There’s a lot of time devoted to the backstory of characters who are primarily there to get eaten by zombies. Nora Arnezeder as Lilly drops some exposition about how dangerous it all is but the character seems pointless.
Bautista and Purnell put in some decent emoting although it somewhat superfluous in a film where zombies being mushed into goo is a gag. The whole reason Kate gets dragged along into zombie infested Vegas is dopey and just there to make Kate kidnap bait. Bautista is good at being emotionally wounded and his final scene with Purnell is the most effective as it uses the zombie genre tropes to good dramatic effect. As the rich guy who sends them off on the mission, Sanada is appropriately nefarious and Dillahunt is easily despised.
Apparently, Army of the Dead is going to be a franchise for Netflix with several prequels already in production so there are lots of universe building teases. Some of it feels like unfulfilled promise, like when one character says that the zombie brains reanimate when it rains which seems like a cool promise for a climatic action scene that never happens (maybe that’ll be in a spin-off). The realization other teams have been sent in before seems like prequel bait teasing. Vanderohe comments on a pile of corpses wearing remarkably similar clothing that maybe they’re stuck in a time loop. This never happens but considering how ridiculous even this one movie is if they start throwing in time travelling zombies, hey, why not?
The first spin-off film to come is Army of Thieves which is centred on the team’s safe cracker, Dieter (Matthias Schweighofer), who is solid comic relief but it’s weird he’s going getting his own movie. Another source of comedic asides is Tig Notaro as a helicopter pilot. Notaro’s role was a post-production replacement of another actor but she is absolutely seamlessly integrated here. And she gets in some of the best cracks, like after seeing Alpha she asks astounded, “Was that zombie wearing a cape?”.
Army of the Dead is a distinct mash up of the heist and zombie genre. Although caring about the human characters is difficult, the great stuff is when it gets crazy. When the movie stops trying to get into the people’s heads and just focuses on zombie splatter, it’s fairly glorious.
Army of the Dead
Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Dave Bautista, Ella Purnell and Ana de la Reguera