Admittedly, I’ve never been much of a Zack Snyder fan. Perhaps we got off on the wrong foot. After all, his feature film debut was a remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, one of my favorite movies and a film I consider to among the greatest ever made. While I didn’t love Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead, it wasn’t anywhere near the sacrilegious disaster I had feared. Having spent the last 15 years making practically nothing but comic book adaptations, Snyder returns to his zombie origins with Army of the Dead, his best film since his Dawn remake. Army of the Dead is a cynical, brutally violent zombie epic with some really cool moments balanced out by really dumb moments.
Army of the Dead opens on the road outside of Las Vegas. Going in one direction is a military caravan with a mysterious cargo. Going in the other direction is a newlywed couple, with the bride about to engage in a bit of vehicular fellatio. The two vehicles collide, killing the newlyweds instantly. As the dazed soldiers take stock of the damage, their mysterious cargo emerges from the cracked vault in the middle of the highway. It’s a zombie that quickly lays waste to the solider, quickly turning them into its minions of the undead. This newly formed troop of zombies make their way toward the flickering lights of Sin City.
The opening credits roll to a version of “Viva Las Vegas” by Richard Cheese and Allison Crowe, slowly morphing from a crooner version of the iconic song to a more downtempo, somber version. As the song plays, we’re witness to an array of violent deaths along the Vegas Strip in extreme slow motion. It’s obvious that Snyder is reveling in capturing these chaotic scenes as the credits roll in a style similar to Snyder’s own opening credits to his Watchmen adaptation. For all the bloody mayhem, it’s another clear example of Snyder’s stylistic excesses hampering the whole. It’s establishing the fall of Las Vegas to the legions of the undead but it just keeps going on, even going as far as to introduce us to some of the main characters as well as peripheral characters that don’t even make it all the way to the director’s credit.
In the years since Vegas fell to the zombies, it has been completely walled off. The president plans to exterminate the remaining zombies with a nuclear bomb set to strike Sin City on the Fourth of July. Once a hero who saved the Secretary of Defense as Vegas fell, Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) works as a cook in a dingy little grease pit. The Japanese businessman Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) enters with an offer for Scott – gather a team and break into a casino vault containing $200 million, allowing the heroic cook to walk away with $50 million of his own. I must admit that this is a rather ingenious premise for a zombie movie. There have always been in zombie movies characters that obsess over cold, hard cash and I’m always screaming at the screen “Society has collapsed! That money is worthless!” With Vegas walled off and the world going on, that not a problem in Army of the Dead.
Scott accepts the deal and begins to assemble his team which will include Tanaka’s head of security Martin (Garret Dillahunt). There are the old friends Maria (Ana de la Reguera) and Vanderhoe (Omari Hardwick), both of whom he fought alongside as they made their frantic escape from Vegas. Then there’s the helicopter pilot Marianne (Tig Notaro); the safe expert Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer); the sharpshooter Mikey Guzman (Raúl Castillo) and his close friend Chambers (Samathan Win). They’ll have a day to gather the money before the bomb drops on what was once America’s gambling capitol.
Before risking his life for an incredible payday, Scott must make peace with his estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell), who is a volunteer at a refugee camp outside of Vegas where thousands are caged out of fear that they may have been exposed to illness that causes the zombie outbreaks. It’s at this camp that Scott is able to meet Lilly (Nora Arnezeder), a coyote who smuggle people in and out of Vegas on dangerous journeys to plunder the riches abandoned within the casino mecca. Lilly will lead the team into the city. However, some of Kate’s friends at the camp snuck into the city and have not returned so she demands to join the mission. At Lilly’s insistence, they also add the sadistic guard Burt (Theo Rossi) to their ragtag team of zombie-killers.
Army of the Dead works best when it’s focused on its most basic premise – a brazen heist amidst the zombie apocalypse. The script by Snyder, Shay Hatten, and Joby Harold crafts a great roster of characters and is really able to give each of them a surprising level of depth in a short amount of time. The central problem with Army of the Dead is that its tasty, meaty center is sandwiched between a lot of glossy, unnecessary filler. The prologue and epilogue of Army of the Dead features plenty of intriguing ideas but they’re not fully formed nor are they absolutely vital to the film’s main story. The end result is a two and half hour movie that is mostly entertaining instead of an hour and forty-five minute movie that rips from start to finish.
The zombies of Army of the Dead fall into two categories – Alphas and Shamblers. Alphas are fast zombies. Shamblers are the more traditional slower zombies. If a human is bitten by the first zombie Zeus (Richard Creton), they become an Alpha. If a human is bitten by an Alpha or a Shambler, they simply become a mindless zombie. It’s an interesting wrinkle to the zombie lore that Snyder has injected into Army of the Dead. As the film progresses, it adds even more to its unique take on zombie lore though I must be clear that there’s plenty of stuff that doesn’t work as intended.
I don’t consider Army of the Dead to be horror film despite its ample gore and zombified content. It’s an action movie. Don’t get me wrong, the action is some of the best that Zack Snyder has ever directed (and shot as he’s his own cinematographer on this film) and he’s able to mine plenty of tension even if the film never really delivers big scares. But there are moments where the film is a bit too obvious about what’s to come, and that undermines some of the attempts to shock the audience. This really comes through in a number of the film’s big story beats which are lifted straight out of James Cameron’s script for Aliens.
And yet, despite its bloated nature and certain grating stylistic tics, Army of the Dead is mostly enjoyable. A big part of that is the killer cast that Zack Snyder has assembled. Dave Bautista blends his physically imposing stature with an earnest emotional core that really comes through in the film’s varied relationships. Even all these years after really breaking out in Guardians of the Galaxy, Bautista continues to find new ways to impress. Among the supporting cast, Matthias Schweighöfer steals every scene he’s in as the quirky safe-cracking Dieter. (Thankfully, an Army of the Dead prequel will star and be directed by Schweighöfer.) The last addition to the cast, comedian Tig Notaro, is the film’s other major scene stealer from the supporting cast, wryly infusing every scene with perfectly timed line delivery. It’s amazing how a well-assembled cast of charismatic actors having fun can elevate material.
The dead walk. The bullets fly. The gore gushes. There are plenty of aspects to the film that fall flat, but the good outweighs the bad here. I am not suddenly a convert to the cult of Zack Snyder, though. Snyder, in my eyes, is a lot like Michael Bay – an incredible visual talent whose instincts can lead their stories astray. Army of the Dead is Zack Snyder’s best film in 15 years but its still weighed down by Snyder’s questionable instincts and stylistic excesses. If this film were tightened up, it would’ve been absolutely great. As it stands, Army of the Dead is merely good.
Army of the Dead
Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead has its share of issues, most notably its bloat, but for the most part its an entertaining heist movie set within a zombie apocalypse that is buoyed by its charming, talented ensemble cast.