Army of the Dead, 2021.
Directed by Zack Snyder.
Starring Dave Bautista, Ana de la Reguera, Omari Hardwick, Matthias Schweighöfer, Tig Notaro, Nora Arnezeder, Ella Purnell, Huma Qureshi, Raúl Castillo, Samantha Win, Theo Rossi, Richard Cetrone, Hiroyuki Sanada, Garret Dillahunt, Michael Cassidy, Lyon Beckwith, Sarah Minnich, Richard Cetrone, Athena Perample, Chelsea Edmundson, Lora Martinez-Cunningham, and V Nixie.
Following a zombie outbreak in Las Vegas, a group of mercenaries take the ultimate gamble, venturing into the quarantine zone to pull off the greatest heist ever attempted.
In 2004, Zack Snyder accomplished the trifecta of releasing one of the strongest directorial debuts, one of the best remakes, and one of the best zombie movies ever made with Dawn of the Dead. Maybe that’s a controversial statement (he also continues to be one of the most polarizing filmmakers of modern times), but given the fondness that career-launching film has, it’s enough to question what more can be accomplished and wonder if lightning can strike twice. Since then, he has also evolved as a director, showing an infatuation with philosophy, mythology, Gods among men, and repeatedly is unabashedly determined to find humanity and art within stories something childlike or silly on paper.
So, if anything, it shouldn’t be surprising that the long-gestating follow-up Army of the Dead is not a direct sequel or another adaptation of George Romero’s legendary work, but a sprawling, ambitious, 150-minute zombie epic. It’s definitely not the best zombie movie ever made, nor does it even top its predecessor. Still, ironically, this is the most Zack Snyder movie ever made, not his recent four-hour cut of Justice League. Army of the Dead sees a filmmaker going back to his roots, creating an amalgamation of everything he’s dared to touch since then; it might not fully come together, but damn, is it easy to admire.
Rather than follow characters adapting to the plague or pick up where Dawn of the Dead left off, Zack Snyder (writing alongside John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum co-writer Shay Hatten and Joby Harold), Army of the Dead centers around an outbreak contained to Las Vegas that no one gets in or out of, save for quarantine sites. Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada, currently in Mortal Kombat) is a rich businessman that wants the $200,000,000 back from his casino, enlisting the service of former soldier turned burger flipper Scott Ward (the underappreciated Dave Bautista giving his strongest performance yet) to put together a team, find a way back into Las Vegas, and collect the money from a state-of-the-art protected vault before ascending to the roof and escaping in a helicopter.
A clever prologue/brilliant opening credits set to a cover of Viva Las Vegas teases the carnage that awaits while introducing some of the team. Two of them are former squadmates of Scott (Omari Hardwick and Ana de la Reguera) that are aware the mission is a death sentence but onboard anyway, searching for a combination of catharsis and what they feel rightfully owed considering they are no longer useful to and overlooked by the government. In what feels like Zack Snyder on the right track yet possibly overstuffing the world-building, there’s a nuclear bomb sent to destroy all of Las Vegas. At the same time, activists oppose as many people are still alive and have not yet reached one of the quarantine settlements. At least, that’s what I think is going on; either way, it’s an attempt at political commentary with the film showing its health crisis delay since the unnamed president sure does give immature and brash Donald Trump resembling statements.
It also doesn’t really matter as the impending bomb is an excuse to give the team a ticking clock. Scott also employs online zombie-killing sensation Mikey Guzman (Raúl Castillo) and his friend (Samantha Win, who also has possibly the most awesome battle against the undead), German safecracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer), quirky helicopter pirate Peters (Tig Notaro), and some additional help such as rapey/abusive quarantine site guard (Michael Cassidy), a navigational guide of sorts that goes by the nickname Coyote (an impressively badass Nora Arnezeder), and the unwanted babysitting of Bly’s right-hand man Martin (Garret Dillahunt). That’s not all, as Scott’s estranged quarantine site volunteer daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) is also looking for a way into Las Vegas, determined to rescue a friend and reunite her with her young children. The former actually turns into a moving, emotional journey, whereas the latter feels like an excuse to keep father and daughter together reconnecting.
They don’t just have to contend with the zombies, as Zack Snyder utilizes a concept of a king and queen (appropriately adorned in jewelry adding to their specialty) capable of creating Alpha zombies. Like something out of a videogame, they boast enough superstrength to give Dave Bautista a run for his money, acrobatic dodging maneuvers, and perhaps most terrifying of all, some level of sentience. Whether Zack Snyder is knowingly taking a page out of Dead Rising 2 or not (the game also took place inside a casino), there is also a ferocious and hungry tiger roaming around, albeit here the beast is also a zombie.
Somehow, Army of the Dead feels both bloated yet lacking in characterization. The secondary characters are mostly there to crack jokes (anything from offbeat personalities to women zinging back against the few toxic men), and the attempt at fleshing out original zombie lore feels cut short and better suited for a TV show (from what I understand, one is also in the works). It also doesn’t help that, frequently, scenes of endangerment or death are drawn out to the point of annoyance and the mind wandering away from the film itself. That’s not to be mistaken with the actual zombie action, where everyone is a crack shot (including the guy that has next to no experience using firearms) and is allowed their own thrilling moment to shine. Wisely, Dave Bautista has his own money sequence that plays off of his statuesque physicality alongside marksmanship; it’s another one of the most exciting scenes Army of the Dead offers.
Emotionally, Army of the Dead works when it’s focusing on processing the pain, hashing out how individuals really feel about each other (there are at least two scenes where Scott is clueless as to what people close to him are really feeling), and fighting for a more hopeful future. The final scenes between Dave Bautista and Ella Purnell are genuinely touching, that combined with Zack Snyder’s stellar action direction (he’s also the cinematographer here), is enough to keep this ambitious extravaganza from busting like a game of blackjack. If Zack Snyder refines what works and what doesn’t, it’s very well possible he will have another classic of the genre in his oeuvre. It may not be great, but it’s also an inspired and enthusiastically thrilling work from an oversaturated genre that’s usually just as lifeless as the zombies themselves. There’s also more optimism, less angsty edge, and multiple women kicking ass that also suggests Army of the Dead, while not Zack Snyder’s best film, is a gauge for his continual positive growth and evolution.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com