“BRAAAAAINS!” You won’t find any undead in writer/director Zack Snyder’s long-awaited return to the zombie genre hissing out that stereotypical B-movie craving for some cerebellum, but that’s exactly what I was asking for while watching Army of the Dead. Now more known for his work on bombastic/bloated (you can choose) DC Comics superhero blockbusters, Snyder actually made his feature film debut on Dawn of the Dead, the surprisingly effective 2004 remake of zombie maestro George Romero’s undead classic. While Snyder’s version contained the flashy filmmaking proto-stylings we would soon come to identify with the filmmaker, it was a rather straightforward genre offering which is what made it work.
Army of the Dead is something else entirely. To say that the Netflix action film has taken a kitchen sink approach is an understatement as Snyder smashes together genres along with some unconventional zombie lore worldbuilding. It’s a gory zombie horror that’s also a flashy ensemble heist movie that’s also a Hallmarky-y father-daughter drama that’s also a bonkers sci-fi B-film. But with all mish-mashing that Snyder and co-writers Shay Hatten and Joby Harold do, they leave several really dumb plot holes, large enough for an undead horde to shamble through slowly.
To detail all these plot chasms would not only head deep into spoiler territory but would take an entire article on its own. Everything from characters making utterly nonsensical decisions getting people killed, to horses somehow breaking the laws of space and time as they run faster across town than a helicopter pop up here. Let’s just summarize by saying that if at any point during Army of the Dead’s overlong 2.5-hour runtime you decide to ponder on any single action being taken on-screen by any particular character, chances are the entire cinematic endeavour will splatter apart in spectacular fashion.
So exactly what is this story you’re not supposed to think about? Following a zombie outbreak in Las Vegas, the US government has cut their losses, walling in the undead horde and the bloody chaos they caused. After several failed attempts to address the issue, the US President has decided to just nuke the entire place. Enter wealthy casino owner Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) who approaches gruff former mercenary Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) with a proposal: Before Las Vegas is disintegrated with a tactical nuclear bomb in a few days time, Ward must assemble a team, enter the overrun city, break into the underground vault in Tanaka’s casino containing over $200 million of untraceable money which the businessman has already been paid out for by his insurance, and get back out again with the dosh before it all goes boom. Although initially reluctant, Ward sees his split of the $50 million reward Tanaka is offering as a way to ensure the future of his humanitarian aid worker daughter Kate (Ella Purnell), estranged since a traumatic family incident at the start of the zombie outbreak.
And so Ward puts together a crew consisting of former friends/colleagues like mechanic Maria (Ana de la Reguera), buzzsaw-wielding soldier Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick, and helicopter pilot Peters (Tig Notaro, who got digitally spliced into scenes in post-production in sheer miraculous fashion after original actor Chris D’Elia was removed from the film following sexual assault allegations on another production). Newcomers include viral zombie-slaying internet stars Guzman (Raul Castillo) and Chambers (Samantha Win), knowledgable guide Lily aka the Coyote (Nora Arnezeder), and – most importantly – quirky German safecracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer) who is key to cracking the massively complex lock mechanism of the vault. The vault, that is, which is owned by Tanaka, containing his money, in his casino… which he somehow doesn’t know have the combination to. Huh.
Yes, I know I said I wouldn’t be listing plot holes but that one was a headslapper of note. And it’s by far not the most egregious of the lot as Snyder and co throw every single idea they have about zombies into a single movie. You want slow zombies, aka Shamblers? You got that here. Fast zombies? Check. Want intelligent zombie leaders known as Alphas? No problem. Hell, you want zombies who do capoeira or topless showgirl zombies or zombie tigers or zombies dried out in the desert sun almost to the point of petrification who – as we’re explicitly told – can be revived when in contact with water but then this plot point never gets mentioned again despite that very in-your-face setup? Sure!
Everything goes here. This includes Snyder’s tradition of idiosyncratic music choices, shallow depth-of-field blurriness, and slow-mo action shots. Surprisingly there aren’t as many of the latter as you may expect as most of the action beats take the form of intense run-and-gun battles. Given his more grandiose filmmaking history, Snyder seems almost a tad reserved here, leaving me slightly disappointed that the film’s action design never really gets turned up to 11. In fact, as much as the film’s trailers try to sell you on this crazily over-the-top affair, a lot of the gonzo zombie weirdness is played with an unexpectedly straight face. That’s when that face doesn’t get rather long as the action takes a back seat to some paint-by-numbers family drama scripting, dragging down the pacing of its rotund middle severely.
Most of this drama is set between Bautista and Purnell’s Wade and Kate, respectively, and credit is due to the two actors for doing as well as they do with these scenes. Special mention has to be made of Bautista, who handles the muscular action as superbly as expected but then also lends Ward, the merc with the heart of gold, the type of solidly dramatic pathos that turns him into a leading man you want to root for. In fact, the entire cast is superbly likable, even the slimy ones like Garret Dillahunt’s Martin, Tanaka’s right-hand man, sent along on the mission to ensure Ward and his crew don’t just abscond with the money.
But as good as the cast is, possibly the breakout star of Army of the Dead is Zeus (Richard Cetrone), the Alpha leader of the zombie horde who gets some surprising character development. The film’s opening moments – it’s best overall in my opinion – shows how Zeus ends up in Las Vegas, kick-starting this undead-apalooza, while he is also central to some significant swerves to what you expect from zombie mythology. Much like Zeus’ true origins, most of these (including a few reveals that will have you screaming out “WTF?!” while the characters don’t even acknowledge them at all for some reason) remain a mystery though. And it’s all because of two words: Cinematic universe.
There is already both a live-action prequel film (directed by and starring Matthias Schweighöfer as Dieter again) and an animated series on the way that will be fleshing out this world. It appears that at least one of these will also be telling the origin story of where Zeus came from and just what he is, which is honestly the most intriguing aspect of Army of the Dead for me. That’s on top of the sequel that the final closing moments of this film appear to be setting up. Maybe in that sequel we’ll also learn the fate of certain characters whose roles have a huge impact on events but who Snyder just happily forgets to even show on-screen in the end.
Ah, damn it. There I went thinking again and not listening to my own advice.
All in all, Army of the Dead is a Zack Snyder production through and through, for better or worse. It boasts his keen eye for splash-page visuals as much as his deficiencies with storytelling. While it can be thrilling, it’s also too long and too muddled up about what it wants to be. Like the zombies of this film, it shambles as much as it runs and leaps and everything in between. But thanks to a great cast and Snyder and co breathing some new life into the undead mythology, if you can keep your grey matter at bay as much as possible then there’s at least some zombie action fun to be had here.
Last Updated: May 25, 2021