2021 | R | starring Dave Bautista, Ella Purnell, Ana De La Reguera, Nora Arnezeder, Omari Hardwick, Garret Dillahunt, Tig Notaro, Hiroyuki Sanada | directed by Zack Snyder | 2 hrs 28 mins |
Riding high on a world of good will from his director’s cut of Justice League, Zack Snyder takes the helm of another zombie movie almost 15 years after his Dawn of the Dead remake turned Fast Zombies into a pop culture touchpoint (he and Danny Boyle can argue over that). Army of the Dead has it’s issues, the typical lack of attention to character and dialog you’d expect to see in a big budget summer action movie – but damn if it isn’t a lot of fun. A true-to-form zombie movie with just enough bizarre additions to the lore to make it pop out of a tired genre and Snyder approaching it all with his trademark visual gloss and crowd-pleasing bravado. I’m letting my zombie movie fandom show here, but I enjoyed this very, very flawed movie.
When a mysterious government experiment gets let loose in Las Vegas, Nevada, the town is immediately overrun by zombies, the military is overwhelmed and Sin City is walled off from the outside world to contain the zombie threat. A hero of the initial encounter, Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) is recruited from his burger-flipping job by a casino owner (Hiroyuki Sanada, Mortal Kombat) to assemble a team, infiltrate the city and retrieve millions left behind in a casino bank vault before the U.S. military drops a nuke on the whole thing. Escorted by The Coyote (Nora Arnezeder), a character from the quarantine camp just outside the wall who somehow knows everything about the zombie tribe inside, his love interest (Ana De La Reguera) and the estranged daughter (Ella Purnell) he can’t even keep out of the mission, plus Youtube celebrity zombie killers, a helicopter pilot (Tig Notaro) and the corporate goon brought to “oversee” the operation (Garret Dillahunt) they venture into zombie-torn Vegas only to learn that the shambling zombies are nothing compared to the Alpha Zombie society that has evolved inside and wages war on anyone who invades their territory.
Some of the details of the basic plot are so fuzzy or unexplained that I can’t even properly describe it. I’m not sure why there is an encampment just outside of the infected area taking people’s temperatures to see if they have the virus when by all indications the equally vague rules of this film suggest you get bitten and a few minutes later become a zombie. It seems like the wall and encampment is Snyder taking a swipe at some sort of immigration satire, but real life swerved around this one and now the walled off horde seems more analogous to a Marxist Seattle autonomous zone. The Las Vegas Zombie Autonomous Zone (Lvzaz). Where they grow segregated zombie and non-zombie gardens, sell zombie merchandise and watch George Romero movies about how oppressed they are. Speaking of, while this movie doesn’t seem to tie to any zombie franchise (even Snyder’s own Dawn of the Dead), it does feel like an inverted, ‘roided-up version of Land of the Dead, Romero’s painfully blunt xenophobia satire where the rich walled themselves off in a city and an army of tool-using, underwater-walking zombies stormed the gates.
Army of the Dead is complicated because for everything good about it there is an equal and opposite component that doesn’t work. It is Snyder, the director able to compose frames that look like comic book panels, conflicting with Snyder (and co-writers Shay Hatten and Joby Harold) the writer. The characters are thin as carboard and the dialog is terrible. This would be passable in another zombie or action movie that was quicker on it’s feet and more focused on action (Shay Hatten is credited with the John Wick 3 script, a perfect example of an action movie with thin characters that is so balanced toward action it doesn’t need them). The problem is that Snyder stops the movie dead far too often to focus on exactly those character conflicts. Most dragging is how central Snyder puts the story between Bautista and his daughter, which is a trope you’d see in every action movie starring The Rock, but Dwayne Johnson would lend a charm and personality to it that would make it all go down smooth. Here Bautista stands in the “we couldn’t afford The Rock” role.
The first act of the film is painfully Michael Bay-esque. The team is recruited in a quirky montage and military guys are given painfully improvised dialog. However, once the group gets into Vegas it starts to click. Where the movie falls flat on the character bits, it does work in the zombie bits. What really works, and her comes my Zombie movie fandom, is the absolutely bonkers spin on the zombie lore here. Snyder creates an army of super-intelligent tribal undead with kings, queens, pregnancies and a conversion processes where an armored zombie king rides a zombie horse into battle. It’s absolutely nuts and wonderfully twisted in the right ways. If this genre wasn’t so overused and tired, this kind of nonsense might not have worked, but right now, it’s essential.
The safe-cracking battle sequences in the 2nd and third act are a lot of schlocky, B-movie fun. I also appreciated that this was one zombie movie that took place in a real, recognizable place. Yes, it’s hotels (the Olympus an the Bly) are fake, but the Vegas landmarks and casino setting are used to create some interesting visuals. Keep in mind that the norm for this is zombies shambling through dingy back alleys, broken-down towns, dusty wastelands and non-descript warehouses. Snyder shoots the action clearly with a distinct style that tries to hide the movie’s budgetary limitations by blurring the background and making the characters pop in the foreground like a 3D comic. Yes, there are a lot of tropes here, you could say outright theft – the movie feels like a mashup of Michael Bay action, James Cameron marine-vs-corporation movies and clumsy Romero satire – but there is also some classic adventure film set pieces too like a ticking clock finale and a climactic helicopter chase.
For the most part, the slow-motion theatrics and hyper-macho stylings Zack Snyder has come to be known for disappear as he slips into the zombie genre, but a few of my usual annoyances still remain. Snyder has a nasty habit of on-the-nose musical cues and Army of the Dead trots them out with no shame. We get plenty of Elvis and Vegas standby’s and a final code set to The Cranberries’ – yep, you guessed it – “Zombie”. There is also a sequel set-up final scene that goes on forever and makes absolutely no sense. Like Justice League, Snyder is given an ending point on a silver platter and absolutely refuses to take it, indulging beyond the point of tolerance.
One of the biggest bright spots in the film is Tig Notaro, who lends her deadpan comic take to a helicopter pilot who couldn’t care less about anything zombies if she gets a check. The behind-the-scenes scuttlebutt is that Netflix spent millions from their bottomless pit of money to green-screen Notaro into the film after original actor Chris D’Elia got metoo-ed his way out of the picture. This movie is held together so flimsily that a version of it with Chris De’Elia in that role would probably be the final obnoxious push that would have sent the whole house of cards collapsing in on itself. It’s a small role, but with so much is going wrong elsewhere, that is how crucial Notaro is to keeping this thing from busting apart.
There is good stuff in here you have to leapfrog over trash to get to, to the point where despite the moments where it seems to downshift into park so characters can have an exposition talk, the film’s mammoth 2 1/2 hour running time still feels about right. Yes, the dialog goes on too long, but a lot of the action bits are also given time to breath. A set piece of “hibernating” zombies early on is the best, in which a minor character that would easily be picked off is allowed to fight for her life for a cliche-busting amount of time. At this point, the action has weight and the deaths mean something – until they don’t, the time starts running out and Snyder starts just picking people off in the 3rd act.
It’s a messy movie, but the parts I came for are the parts it does right. If you’re tired of zombie films and want to see something different enough in that niche space, this might be the movie for you, but anyone else will probably nit-pick the movie to death and be right to do so. I enjoyed it for what it was.