Army of the Dead and all the images you see in this review are owned by Netflix
Directed by Zack Snyder
Considering everything that the guy has gone through in the last few years, I wouldn’t have been surprised if he took several years off instead of going back to making movies. Still, it does seem to be his passion as Zack Snyder certainly makes film with an enthusiasm and gusto you don’t often see from big budget filmmakers, an d what better way to get back into the swing of things than to go back to his roots and make another zombie flick? I’m certainly rooting for him, but is this the triumphant return that we’ve all been waiting for, or is he still a bit rusty from working on tent pole superhero movies for so long? Let’s find out!!
Following a botched military transport, the ZOMBIE VIRUS infects the city of Las Vegas AND NOWHERE ELSE which is convenient because it means the US government can just build a giant wall around the city and leave the zombies to their own devices while also ensuring all the survivors are free from the zombie virus. The state of things is tenuous at best however as the survivors are kept in camps near the city run by NOT-ICE-AGENTS, and since we’re living in a Capitalists hellscape even in our fantastical zombie films, people are sneaking in and out to try and scrounge up a bit of cash from the many casinos to perhaps make their lives better. Because of this the US government has decided to nuke the city to kill off all the zombies which means it’s the PERFECT time to pull off the biggest heist of them all as a casino owner (Hiroyuki Sanada) hires a group of mercenaries, many of whom were part of the efforts to save survivors, to go into the city and take ALL the money from his vault mere days before the nuke is launched; money that would have probably would just burn to ashes anyway so it’s practically there BEGGING to be collected! Our heroes are the ultimate Dad Guy named Scott (Dave Bautista), his friends Maria and Vanderohe (Ana de la Reguera and Omari Hardwick), a safe cracker named Ludwig (Matthias Schweighöfer), some dude who posts zombie shooting videos on YouTube as well as one of his cohorts (Raúl Castillo and Samantha Win), a pilot to get them out of there (Tig Notaro), and a Coyote who helps people get in and out of the city (Nora Arnezeder). On top of that, Scott’s daughter (Ella Purnell) finds a way to tag along as she is searching for someone who got lost in the city during one of those casino runs, and there’s one dude hired by the casino owner (Garret Dillahunt) to keep an eye on things and perhaps has an agenda of his own. With this rag tag group of bad asses and scumbags, can they pull off the ultimate heist without getting bit by a zombie or getting a face full of nuclear fallout? Is this plan as straightforward as they were led to believe, and what have the zombies themselves been up to since being locked up in the city? Do trained mercenaries just not watch movies, or do they assume that this is the ONE plan that won’t go wrong?
Now I still haven’t seen Dawn of the Dead which seems like the most apt film to compare this one against, but I’ve seen the rest of Snyder’s filmography and this definitely feels like the best he’s been since the Owl movie; or if you’re being extra generous, the better parts of Sucker Punch. It’s pretty refreshing to not just see him do something noticeably different from anything else he’s done in his career, but to do it so well as his take on the zombie genre here works better than almost any zombie or post-apocalyptic movie I’ve seen in a long time! As much as I was a fan of the guy’s earlier films (Watchmen is a masterpiece as far as I’m concerned) getting caught up in the DCEU and carrying that on his shoulders for a decade seemed to have pushed him to his limits as a filmmaker and as it went along he started circling more and more back to what’s comfortable for him. To me, that just led to stagnation and regression as his movies became more and more indulgent the more money Warner Bros kept throwing at him and I’ve been holding out hope that he would break from that cycle and deliver on the promise of his earlier work. This isn’t exactly a full blown comeback for the man, but it’s a pretty solid first step if nothing else!
Refreshing is the word of the day as almost everything that bugged me or made me roll my eyes in his Snyder’s more recent superhero movies is simply absent here and replaced with genuinely good writing and world building. You can almost feel how relaxed he is to be working on something that doesn’t have a century of continuity, legions of unpleasable fans, and billions of dollars at stake as the film keeps things pretty lighthearted despite the constant sense of dread and horror that is hanging over every scene of the movie. It has its own unique take on zombie mythology (kinda sorta similar to what Stephen King was going for in Cell) but it also doesn’t sweat the details or overburden the film with blunt symbolism and hot takes. Oh sure, they’re THERE if you want to look for them as the Alpha Zombies have some interesting dynamics and Snyder shoots them with his usual gusto, but there’s not this pressure that every frame on screen has to justify an immense cost and can just BE there to be enjoyed. The comedic side of this movie can’t be understated and it managed to elicit quite few chuckles from me throughout, but even with its decidedly comedic slant it doesn’t hold back when it needs to get scary, tragic, or outright gruesome with the juxtapositions between them complementing each other and creating a coherent story that feels like it has genuine stakes. All of this is more than I can say about any of his DCEU movies, and I’m still baffled by how much better it feels to watch this movie, where people get horrifically murdered by shambling corpses, than it was to watch any of the three Superman movies he did. Seriously, where was the Zack Snyder writing this movie when he had access to some of the most iconic comic book characters and hundreds of millions of dollars to spend!?
What certainly helps to carry the disparate parts of this movie into a coherent narrative are the characters and the excellent performances from everyone involved. The opening montage which is very reminiscent of what Snyder did in Watchmen does a great job of establishing the tone (one of humor juxtaposed with tragedy) while also introducing us to the cast in a way that simply spouting their backstory couldn’t accomplish. We don’t know their names, their backstories, or even what kind of person they are, but you understand what they’ve been through and how that informs the actions they take throughout the rest of the movie. Without the montage, I would have been skeptical about any of these people taking on such an obviously risky job and the film would have had to work twice as hard to convince me in the scenes that follow which instead get to focus more on performances and character building. With a cast this big there are a few people who get lost in the shuffle, but for the most part the cast is strong with a lot of unique characters who are given enough time to have their moments to shine. Dave Bautista is obviously the star here with his quiet and awkward dad shtick and he’s still one of the most endearing character actors working today, but Nora Arnezeder is great as the Coyote with probably the most interesting arc in the entire movie, Omari Hardwick has some standout moments including an end sequence that gives the movie the last twist of the knife it needed, and of course Matthias Schweighöfer as the comedy relief German guy who’s REALLY good with locks but not much else. It’s not a particularly complex or all that original of a story with all the twists and turns you’d expect to see, but it makes time for some bizarre indulgences that only endeared me further to the characters. Perhaps my favorite part of the entire movie was when three of the guys were trying to figure out how to get to the safe and then how to open it once they get there. It goes on far longer than it really needs to, but they went with it because the sequence is so much fun and I appreciate the film willing to let a scene like that play out in such a bizarre way! Stuff like that made it hard to get bored because you never know what’s around the corner and where the movie will find some strange path to take you down before returning to the story at hand.
Now as much as I have praised this movie for everything it does right, there are a few things that felt a bit lacking. I do like the fact that the movie can be a comedy and also a horror film and also an action film without feeling incongruous from scene to scene, but this DOES throw the pace off a tad. The second act in particular never quite feels like it’s moving at the right speed as there are moments where we spend SEVERAL minutes indulging on gory slapstick that bring the momentum down before we ratchet it back up for an action scene and then go back down to a much slower boil. I wouldn’t want to drop anything in particular, but it does feel like the middle of this movie was constructed in the editing room as scenes are cobbled together in whatever order felt the most cohesive. The third act suffers a bit from this as well as A LOT happens in a ten to fifteen minute window when things start to fall apart, but then things kinda slow down into a more monotonous pace as the surviving characters’ escape feels a bit dragged out. None of this is enough to ruin the ending and I DID enjoy a good chunk of the action there, but I think they could have shaved a good ten or so minutes off the end of this and have a much tighter movie overall.
As a genre, I’ve just been kinda done with zombies for a while now, but Snyder’s surprisingly deft hand at characterization coupled with an engaging narrative and an OUTSTANDING cast makes it all feel somewhat new again and I found myself enjoying this movie far more than I expected to. I definitely recommend seeing this movie if you have any affinity for Zack Snyder’s unique style of filmmaking; especially if you’ve felt burned by him since he started making the DCEU films. While having a consistent hand behind the wheel of a franchise can keep it from spiraling out of control, it does make it harder for those creatives to stretch their muscles and expand the scope of their oeuvre which sadly seems to have been the case with Snyder if he was truly capable of making a movie like THIS the whole time. Hopefully he moves even further away from franchise films and spends some time working on smaller stuff with less at stake and therefore more room for it to be a creative process instead of a strict business project. Perhaps it’s time for him to finally get started on that adaptation of The Fountainhead he’s been working on for so long. As much as that sounds like a Monkey’s Paw situation, it still can’t be worse than Batman v Superman!