‘Army of the Dead’ Review: Vegas Lights and Zombie Bites
By Daniel Rester
Army of the Dead finds blockbuster director Zack Snyder returning to his zombie roots. His first film, Dawn of the Dead (2004), is a rare horror remake that actually works really well. Since his debut, he has mostly been crafting superhero epics. It’s nice to see Snyder return to the zombie subgenre and have fun with it again. This time around he has a bigger budget and fills the roles of director, co-writer, producer, and cinematographer instead of just director like he did with Dawn of the Dead.
The brawny and likable Dave Bautista takes the lead in Army of the Dead. He plays Scott Ward, a former mercenary who now lives a quiet life as a restaurant cook. A casino owner comes to Ward with a proposition: to enter the walled-off, zombie-infested Las Vegas and collect $200 million from a vault. Ward accepts and gathers a team to help him pull off the tricky heist.
Snyder’s undead epic is overlong and uneven at 2 hours and 28 minutes. A lot of its story beats are predictable and some of the heist details are just illogical (how do they plan on fitting a dozen people and all that money into one escape helicopter?). The emotional moments between Ward and his daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) mostly don’t work either even though Kate is supposed to be the heart of the film. The whole subplot involving her wanting to rescue some friends lost inside of Las Vegas feels like needless filler. Snyder as cinematographer also tends to use shallow focus far too much with his medium shots and on a gore level he uses CGI blood too much.
Issues aside, Army of the Dead is a highly entertaining zombie ride. Beginning with the zombies themselves, Snyder and team actually come up with a few new tricks for the zombies that are awesome. There are the usual slow zombies, but then there are also ones that hibernate and others known as “alphas” that are smart and can even negotiate. A few zombie animals make appearances too and stand out, but I won’t spoil what kinds they are.
The diverse cast helps keep the film engaging even as it sags a bit (the setup takes too long as we don’t enter Vegas until around 50 minutes in). Bautista is a solid lead and he’s surrounded by game character actors playing colorful criminal characters. Matthias Schweighöfer steals scenes as a comical German safecracker named Ludwig. Omari Hardwick and Nora Arnezeder have great moments too, with the former playing a soldier with a buzzsaw and the latter a Frenchwoman who escorts people into Vegas. Only Purnell and Ana de la Reguera (as a love interest to Ward) lack a bit on the acting front.
Snyder is the real star here though, clearly enjoying his return to the horror genre. He uses Vegas as a wild playground full of crazy set pieces set to interesting song cover choices. The opening credits — which detail the zombie outbreak — are especially dazzling. He relies on slo-mo self-sacrifice moments a bit too much with his character deaths, but much of the action and carnage surrounding the characters is exciting. Snyder finds time for amusing nods to horror classics like An American Werewolf in London (1981) and Aliens (1986) too. Those who know his Dawn of the Dead well will also pick up on a few references to that film.
There are touches of allegory and satire here, but not too much. That’s probably a wise decision on Snyder’s part because he’s no George A. Romero. You get flashes of things like using power in sexual assault situations, coyotes not really caring about the people they bring across borders, etc. But for the most part Army of the Dead just wants to be unpretentious entertainment and relies on Snyder’s strengths in staging action.
I’m fine with the film not wanting to tackle anything really deep, but the picture could have used a few more scares as it is a zombie flick. There’s much more spectacle than suspense here. The doses of humor, however, work quite well. A vault scene involving zombies setting off security systems is especially funny.
Last year we got Peninsula (2020), a similar zombie heist film that also operated as a standalone sequel to the superior Train to Busan (2016). Army of the Dead does the genre mashup better than Peninsula does though, though that film is fun too. Come to think of it, Army of the Dead might actually be my favorite zombie flick since Train to Busan, though it isn’t as masterful as that Korean film. Hopefully Snyder doesn’t take seventeen years to return to the horror genre again as his zombie films are really cool.
My Grade: 8/10 (letter grade equivalent: B+)
Running Time: 2h 28min