Army of the Dead (2021)
Always Bet on Dead
It’s been a hell of a year for writer-director Zack Snyder. In March, Snyder got the chance to release his ‘director’s cut’ version of Justice League, which was praised by both fans and critics for being the epic superhero team-up Warner Bros. failed to deliver back in 2017. Now, Snyder returns to the realm of the undead with Netflix’s Army of the Dead, the genre that kickstarted his career — his directorial debut was 2004’s remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Snyder’s first zombie pic in almost two decades, Army of the Dead is an immensely entertaining, brawly, big-budget, 148-minute heist thriller set in the sizzling Las Vegas that doubles as a father-daughter drama. It’s also his first original flick since 2011’s Sucker Punch, his other films — 300 (2006), Watchmen (2009), Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (2010), and Man of Steel (2013) — have all been based on pre-existing material, Snyder having spent the better part of his career working on comic book movies.
An original story by Snyder — the script is credited to Snyder, Shay Hatten, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019), and Joby Harold, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) — Army of the Dead proves that Zack works best when he’s not limited by studios or having to follow established works or lore. Not surprisingly, the movie is at its most thrilling when we’re in the thick of the zombie badlands, with CGI gore and violence dialed up to eleven. It falters slightly when it comes to its characters, which tends to be Snyder’s weakness — most are thinly written and very one-dimensional. Either way, if you dig Snyder’s distinctive filmmaking style, you’ll have a bloody good time in this Vegas wasteland.
The film opens on a desert highway, where a US military caravan is hauling some kind of secret cargo. Suddenly, a married couple drives into the convoy, and the payload is hurled into the air, a zombie making its way out of the freight. However, this isn’t any kind of zombie, it’s an ‘alpha,’ which means it’s a smarter monster who’s able to organize shit and create more walking dead by biting other humans. The ghoul then heads into Las Vegas, and we’re hit with a superb music video type opening sequence set to a haunting rendition of ‘Viva Las Vegas,’ performed by Richard Cheese and Allison Crowe. We’re treated to a grizzly, gory, slow-mo montage where we see an undead horde taking over Sin City, with monstrous showgirls attacking sleazy partiers, slot machine addicts getting pawed, and an onslaught of gung-ho military goons and mercenaries coming in to obliterate the rotting swarm. Here, Snyder establishes a few of the film’s ‘heroes’ as they viciously tear into the zombies assaulting the streets and rescue helpless survivors. Unfortunately, humankind loses the day and the living dead are pushed into Vegas and walled off by a stack of shipping containers. The walking corpses are forced to live inside the now devastated city, creating a sort of apocalyptic kingdom.
We then cut to Dave Bautista’s broad-shouldered Scott Ward, a soldier who fought in the zombie war but is now flipping burgers for a living. He’s also suffering from PTSD after having to stab his zombified wife through the head when she turned. He has since become alienated from his daughter Kate (Ella Purnell), who’s now working at a quarantine camp helping refugees living in tents outside the Vegas border. Ward is eventually summoned by billionaire casino magnate Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) with an offer he can’t refuse: Sneak into the zombie-ridden Las Vegas to recover twenty million dollars hidden in a vault under the strip within 32 hours, before the military drops a tactical nuke on the whole city.
Naturally, Scott needs a squad, so he rounds up some of his former teammates, comprising of trusted 2IC Maria Cruz (Ana de la Reguera), his buzzsaw-carrying buddy Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), and dry-witted aviator-wearing helicopter pilot Marianne Peters (a scene-stealing Tig Notaro). He enlists the aid of eager German locksmith Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer), who wants to prove his worth as a zombie killer; Latino YouTube zombie-slaying sensation Mikey Guzman (Raúl Castillo), and his gal pal Chambers (Samantha Win). They’re joined by Tanaka’s inside man Martin (Garret Dillahunt), who tags along to keep the troupe in check. They’ll also need aid from Scott’s daughter Kate, who demands she go on the mission to rescue some friends who are lost inside. Kate points them to coyote Lily (Nora Arnezeder), a smuggler that helps get folks in and out of the walled region, who recruits sleazy security guard Burt Cummings (Theo Rossi) to accompany them too. Now, as the clock ticks, Scott and his company have a handful of hours to pull off the most dangerous heist in history — without getting blown to smitheries or zombified — with Ward using the expedition as a way to patch things up with his estranged kid.
Of course, everything that can go wrong does, and Snyder and his crew have a great time creating some tense, bloody moments throughout whilst gleefully homaging flicks such as John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981), Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven (2001), and World War Z (2013). During the adventure, Marianne’s helicopter falls apart, we discover that Tanaka’s man Martin is up to no good, Kate goes missing, and the government moves their nuclear bomb drop forward by 24 hours. On top of all this, Mike’s team must contend with an army of ‘improved’ zombies, which Snyder adds a few new flourishes to. See, these monsters have divided themselves into two classes, the Shamblers, your typical braindead type of undead ghoul, and the Alphas, faster, more intelligent, organized zombies. Their king is ‘patient zero,’ or Zeus (Richard Cetrone), who rides around on an undead horse and shows affection for his rotting queen (Athena Perample), the pair having made the Olympus Hotel their twisted stronghold. For those who’ve been missing last year’s Tiger King, we’ve also got a one-eyed zombie tiger (who features in the flick’s goriest kill), and we learn that [these] zombies sleep while standing.
There’s also some interesting subtext floating around in the film, mainly about the way we treat refugees or those who are different and how Vegas is designed to suck people dry and turn them into mindless zombies. Less effective is the reconciliation plot and emotional conflict between Bautista’s Ward and Purnell’s Kate — both performers do a solid job with the script and material they’re given. Still, they never truly connect or feel like a genuine father and daughter.
Snyder’s first film as a cinematographer, Army of the Dead looks relatively good. Snyder, however, does make some odd choices, such as using a Canon 50mm f/0.95 lens, which gives the film a blurry, smudged, or out-of-focus look that sometimes distracts from the action. Moreover, there’s an annoying dead pixel in one of the cameras that again distracts. With that said, the craftsmanship on display is top-notch, particularly the post-production insertion of Tig Notaro, who was digitally added into the movie to replace Chris D’Elia after he was accused of serious sexual misconduct allegations in June 2020. Replaced once principal photography was finished, Tig shot all her scenes on green screens, having only met co-star Reguera who returned for a couple of shots. And thank heavens for that, as Notaro’s dry, almost self-deprecating humor makes her the show’s MVP.
Given that Netflix is planning to release a prequel later this year, Army of Thieves, which is directed by Matthias Schweighöfer and is based around his character, along with an animated show titled Army of the Dead: Lost Vegas, it’s clear that the streaming giant is hoping the series has plenty of bite left in it. Either way, this one’s a no-brainer as Snyder’s Army of the Dead is a rollicking gory good time.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Dan Cachia (Mr. Movie)