Given the weight of his previous projects, Army of the Dead is a fitting palate-cleanser for director Zack Snyder. After spending the better part of a decade working the world of DC superheroes and getting mixed results, Snyder has gone back to where he started – a high-energy zombie-action movie. The high concept idea is a good one – a group of mercenaries plot a heist on a Las Vegas casino during a zombie outbreak. That’s fun! Does it deliver? Yes! I’ll put plenty of enthusiasm behind that answer, as Army of the Dead seems to be swimming in excess, yet it has the feel of a big movie shepherded by a filmmaker who knows how to, at least, make big budget visuals interesting. Plus, an eclectic cast of characters rob a casino and fight off zombies – there’s plenty to like.
While I’ve appreciated many of Snyder’s efforts in the past, particularly his comic book adaptations of Frank Miller’s 300 and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, I haven’t ever been more jazzed by one of his films than I was when I saw his 2004 debut, a remake of the classic George A. Romero film, Dawn of the Dead. Written by James Gunn, Snyder brought plenty of visual input, fun casting choices, and a huge shot of adrenaline to make that film into its own thing. It won me over way more than I was expecting, considering how the original is a favorite of mine. Given what he’s done for Netflix, I guess I’m just instantly down for Snyder’s ‘of the Dead’ movies.
While not connected to his first film, Army of the Dead once again relies on zombies as a backdrop. This time they are contained to Las Vegas, and as we soon learn, the government plans to nuke the city to eradicate them all. With a ticking clock on when this will occur, a billionaire (Hiroyuki Sanada) enlists a grieving mercenary, Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), to put together a team that can make their way into the undead-infested city and pull out millions of dollars still sitting inside a protected vault. With almost nothing to lose, Scott assembles this team and goes for the gold.
There’s already a fun concept in place to give these characters more drive that extends beyond survival. However, the best zombie movies use the undead as a metaphor or at least an inevitable element, while the bulk of the film can focus on the characters. Army of the Dead lands somewhere below that level of dedication, but the “big dumb fun” aspect of an ultra-cool squad gunnin’ down zombies and stealing a bunch of money is balanced by some notable performers making the most of their shared screentime with the others.
At nearly 150 minutes (with credits), one would certainly think there’s plenty of time to get to know these people, but I know I got to a point where I was identifying this crew based on personality over their actual names. Still, some standouts included Omari Hardwick and Matthias Schweighöfer. These two guys are about as one-dimensional as it gets, yet their pairing (gruff soldier and non-violent safecracker) was not only a fun dynamic but one that finds meaning as the film goes on.
Good work comes from the rest of the cast, even if they are playing archetypes, as that’s really what’s required for this kind of pulp. Some certainly get that as far as the objectives of their characters. Garret Dillahunt, in particular, revels in the slipperiness of his role. Meanwhile, many of the other performers occupy a multicultural space, with the story offering sympathy toward marginalized characters, serving as another point buried within this film, which is certainly not unfamiliar for a horror film. Some deserved praise also goes to Tig Notaro, who replaced a previous comedic performer through a clever combination of reshoots and digital compositing. Not only can one not tell this was the case, but the character is very entertaining.
Still, much of the weight of this film is put on the back of Bautista, who has emerged as a solid performer over the years. He and Ella Purnell, as his estranged daughter Kate, make up the heart of this story. If anyone is looking to an allusion for what this film means to Snyder or what kind of metaphors and themes are buried within it, I’m relatively sure it revolves around these characters. Regardless, while Bautista’s time to shine seems to be heavily delayed in favor of the other characters until much later in the film, he does bring the necessary gravitas to a feature that can use his physicality, as well as his inner qualities to reflect on the history shared between him and his daughter.
Okay, so with that out of the way, there’s also all the zombie stuff. This is not a film that skimps on the threat of the undead. A cold open establishes their brutality, and a terrific opening credits sequences further capitalizes on just how dangerous they are in hordes. Fortunately, Snyder and writers Shay Hatten and Joby Harold have brought something new (or at least refreshingly different) to the world of zombie films – intelligence. While they may not be speaking poetically as a lovelorn vampire from Transylvania, there’s more of a structured system for these zombies, complete with a tribal leader and ways of understanding their process. Army of the Dead may not be delivering an anthropology lesson on these ghouls, but it adds a few wrinkles to this story.
It’s all well and good because the film does a lot to balance its tone and action. Again, this is a long movie, but while there are plenty of action sequences, there’s a good period of setup to get to Vegas, let alone building up the tension as we watch this crew make their way through a city swimming with danger. It all looks great too. Serving as his own cinematographer, Snyder is working with digital cameras on an entire feature for the first time and seems set on proving that he knows how to make his choices interesting. Lots of uses of shallow focus, slow motion, intense close-ups, and more. If this transition from 35 mm was a chance for him to experiment, it has paid off quite well (and I can only imagine how great a big screen presentation would be).
Any faults in this film come down to certain writing choices, bridging the gap between dark humor and emotional rollercoaster, and the length, which is excessive, but not in a punishing manner for anyone in on this wild premise. Honestly, as one who has an intense dislike for Vegas, the very idea of a group of mercenaries raiding part of it before it gets nuked was an idea primed to make me happy, regardless of the results for the characters involved. With that in mind, Snyder has set up his own little universe with this film, as a prequel film and an animated spin-off are on their way as well. Whether or not this is the last we see of Vegas, there’s certainly a push to get more of this world out there.
Is more needed? Army of the Dead is a wild ride of a film. It’s the best I’ve seen from Snyder since Watchmen. Free from a superhero universe where every choice means dealing with some form of criticism wrapped in comic book history and expectation, there’s clear joy coming out of this film as far as the no-holds-barred approach to zombie-based mayhem. It’s as much in line with the Left 4 Dead games as it is with the John Carpenter/Walter Hill-inspired minimalism in some instances. And really, as a move forward in a different direction for Snyder, Army of the Dead is a good time at the movies.