There’s no practical reason on God’s green earth why a zombie-heist thriller would hold anyone’s attention for two-and-a-half hours, but apparently no one told Zack Snyder. For Snyder, his latest magnum opus, Army of the Dead, serves as both a long-awaited return to his horror roots and a spiritual sequel to the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake that introduced moviegoers to the talented filmmaker. Snyder’s first film also helped to launch his career as the central adapter of DC’s comic-book characters over the last two decades, from the panel-to-screen transcription of Frank Miller’s 300, through Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons deconstruction of comic-book heroes in Watchmen, to Snyder’s superhero trilogy (Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Zack Snyder’s Justice League).
The opening sequence, an over-extended prologue, sets the stage for the excess to come. Borrowing a page or three from Return of the Living Dead, Army of the Dead briefly focuses on a U.S. Army convoy traveling through the Nevada desert. Before a newlywed couple driving in the opposite lane can properly celebrate their nuptials, an error in judgment leaves the convoy stopped in the middle of the road. Their cargo, a zombie of unknown origin but with unusual ferocity, power, and intelligence, is now freed to dismember, kill, and/or zombify anyone who crosses his path, up to and including the nearby city of Las Vegas—the living, breathing embodiment of crass, commercial capitalism. (Insert obvious sociopolitical commentary here if you’re so inclined.)
In Army of the Dead, however, the federal government’s super-fast, surprisingly efficient response saves the world from the expected zombie apocalypse. Those on the wrong side of the hastily constructed, shipping container Vegas wall don’t fare quite as well. The government, however, forces Vegas refugees into quarantine camps with little or no plan for their future (i.e., out of sight/out of mind), but for the outside world, little has changed. It’s not exactly or particularly deep commentary, but Snyder, for all of his strengths as a visual stylist, has never been a profoundly deep thinker either. Surface-deep ideas have always been enough for him. Anything else would get in the way of the love for spectacle that’s defined his career.
A jump forward in time finally introduces us to the Army of the Dead’s main players, beginning with Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), a decorated ex-Army vet who helped contain the Vegas outbreak, but somehow ended up slinging burgers at an off-road diner. Down, but definitely not out, Scott has spent the last three years mourning the loss of comrades and his wife, and concerned with his strained relationship with his twenty-something daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell), a WHO worker who’s dedicated herself to the forgotten refugees in the quarantine camps.
Then a not-quite trustworthy billionaire, Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada), shows up at the diner, making Scott an offer he can’t refuse. He will pay Scott $50 million if he can sneak into Vegas and retrieve the cool $200M Tanaka left in a hotel’s ultra-secure, underground vault—all before the U.S. government, finally moved to do something to obliterate the zombie threat, nukes Vegas in several days. That, in turn, cues up a less than energetic, loosely paced get-the-team together sequence as Scott meets up with his ex-comrades-in-arms Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), Maria Cruz (Ana de la Reguera), and Marianne Peters (Tig Notaro, replacing Chris D’Elia), new recruits Mikey Guzman (Raúl Castillo) and Chambers (Samantha Win), and German safecracker/comic relief—and Bly’s right-hand man/head of security— Martin (Garret Dillahunt).
Before they can enter Vegas with the help of a “coyote,” Lilly (Nora Arnezeder), Kate joins the party—ostensibly so she can rescue a friend and refugee who snuck into Vegas the previous day. It’s mostly an excuse, though, for Scott and Kate to work out their differences, bond over their shared losses, and reconcile between periodic encounters with marauding zombies—here broken down into old-school, Romero-style “shamblers,” and a new/breed of parkour-loving, super-smart “Alphas” led by Zeus/Patient Zero/Big Boss (Richard Cetrone)—and the vault heist proper. As always, though, a clean headshot will permanently dispatch zombies, shamblers and Alphas alike.
Snyder spends little time on the heist itself. He’s obviously less interested in the mechanics or the procedural aspects of the robbery itself than in the attempt to break into a supposedly impregnable vault in a zombie-infested city. That, in turn, necessitates Scott and his crew taking out errant zombies who periodically wander into their paths. Given the increasingly rote, diminishing returns nature of dispatching zombies via CGI-aided headshots, we’re left with duplicitous, greedy humans with hidden and not-so-hidden agendas, as the X-factor to keep Army of the Dead engaging on a surface level and moving forward story-wise.
Credit, though, where credit’s due. Adapting the principle of Chekhov’s gun, Snyder introduces a scene-stealing zombie tiger early in the proceedings. It’s only a matter of time, of course, before the zombie tiger decides to circle back to Scott and his crew for a meal or two. It’s both predictable (foreshadowing and all) and satisfying, though for a director prone to excess, self-indulgence, and over-indulgence like Snyder, it’s surprising he didn’t include zombified animals of every shape, kind, or type. That idea alone was (and is) an idea worth the price of a monthly streaming service.
Army of the Dead fumbles when it temporarily sets the zombies (and zombie tiger) aside for faux-poignant chats between Scott and Kate. Their estrangement and (spoiler alert) eventual reconciliation gives the film an emotional through-line it never really earns. Snyder just assumes viewers will care because they’re expected to care. That says less about Bautista or Purnell, both of whom deliver sub-functional dialogue with maximum commitment and conviction, and Snyder’s disinterest in genuine human emotion or characters with any dimensionality.
Still, for all of Army of the Dead’s occasionally stitched-together, clumsy feel, individual scenes and sequences deliver Snyder’s trademark spectacle with metronymic regularity. For some, that might be more than enough. For others, probably not so much.
Army of the Dead premieres in select theatres and on Netflix today.