Two Zack Snyder movies in one year? I don’t know who wished for that but that’s what the year, 2021, offers the filmgoing public. Stepping away from his cinematic retribution that was the new and slightly, slightly improved JUSTICE LEAGUE, Snyder takes a victory lap in the genre that put him on the map: the zombie film. In ARMY OF THE DEAD, a 2-and-a-half hour long account of jacked and attractive people doing cool shit in a zombified Las Vegas, Snyder once more offers his fair share of striking visuals mixed with a whole lot of Snyder-isms that this writer has come to cool on.
But hey, look! Another entertaining intro montage that sets up the events the film in which we see a zombie escaping from Area 51 to go on and infect the hell out of Sin City, shot in Snyder’s noticeable slow-mo carnage backed by a tongue-in-cheek needle drop (in this case, a cover of “Viva Las Vegas”). From there, Snyder (who wrote the screenplay with Shay Hatten and Joby Harold) focuses on the aftermath of what is dubbed “The Zombie Wars” to focus on one of the first responders to the outbreak in Vegas: the hulking Scott Ward (played by the hulking Dave Bautista). Once a hero of the zombie outbreak, Scott now passes time as a line cook at some hole in the wall, with a dead wife and estranged daughter (Ella Purnell) occupying his mind. However, since mulling on the strains of a zombie apocalypse on the human psyche isn’t awesome enough, multi-millionaire Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) walks into Scott’s place of work to recruit him for a deadly mission: to retrieve Tanaka’s vast amount of money locked below the now walled-off streets of Las Vegas before it gets nuked to high heaven. Accepting the job faster than you can say “bad idea”, Scott gathers the likes of his under-developed romantic interest (Ana de la Reguera), his daughter, his jacked best friend (Omari Hardwick), a German safecracker (Matthias Schweighofer), a human smuggler (Nora Arnezeder), a pilot who used to be Chris D’elia (Tig Notaro), some zombie-content curating influencers (Raul Castillo and Samantha Win), and an obvious heel (Garrett Dillahunt) to team up and rob a casino smack dab in a literal city of the undead.
As per usual with a lot of Zack Snyder products, that’s a pretty dope idea for a movie and what better way for the filmmaker to take advantage of his strengths than tell the over-the-top tale of robbers and zombies facing off? Sadly, as per usual with a lot of Zack Snyder’s works of late, the filmmaker also doubles down on a lot of unnecessary fat within the frame of the story, opting to take a somewhat more serious route filled with trauma, strained father-daughter relationships, zombies who love each other, and the occasional moment of unwieldy political humor. To his credit, the world of ARMY OF THE DEAD holds a lot of promise — as it should, as the powers that be at Netflix have apparently decided to make this film the start of another cinematic universe, with an animated and live action prequel already in production— as Snyder creates an intriguing world full of smart and evolving zombies, undead tigers, and apparently even hints at aliens and robots (?!). Hardly none of it makes sense in the moment, but in a ludicrous horror film kind of way, it’s always cool to see a filmmaker say “screw it” and throw new, if random ideas, into the zombie genre. It makes for a bloated and uneven movie but damn if it doesn’t get this writer wondering about the possible appearance of aliens down the line in future films…
However, most of those interesting/weird teases at world building are diffused by the film’s overall lacking execution whether that be in its cookie cutter characters or in the disappointing use of its setting that is an apocalyptic Las Vegas. While the costume and character designers actually put in pretty gnarly work at creating interesting looking protagonists, the humans under those costumes are about as lifeless as the zombies they bash to a pulp despite the efforts of the Mr. Hardwick and Mr. Shweighofer, who try their best to add some giddiness to the zombie carnage (indeed, I would love to have seen a movie centered on that odd pair bumbling around zombies). Bautista, a surprisingly solid dramatic actor in an action hero’s body, simply ambles from one set-piece to another before Snyder and the writers try to have him be human for a moment with hackneyed father-daughter moments shared with Purnell, who is sadly saddled with a character full of dumb decisions. Truly, there is hardly any sort of “relationship” that feels authentic in this film as even outside of the lacking father-daughter angle, Scott hardly shows any camaraderie with any of his supposed love interests or best friends, leaving the viewer with a group of cool looking but cold characters. The writing overall is pretty pedestrian with many of the attempts at humor failing as Snyder struggles to let the jokes develop properly outside of just having a character curse a lot or make some dumb comment. I’m sure there are plot holes here and there in a movie this ridiculous but hey, it’s a zombie film so I give it leeway there; the main issue with the plot is that it’s never as exciting as it should be.
With a setting like Las Vegas, it’s a shame that Snyder drenches a vibrant city in dreary greys, even when the action moves into a casino or hotel (and even then, Snyder decides to place most of that action in those buildings’ grey and drab basements). Taking full reign on the look of the film himself as the director of photography, Snyder makes the strange choice to film with a lens that puts much of the surrounding action in a blurred state, which can occasionally lead to a pretty striking image but when used as much as it is in this film, creates a film that constantly tries to call attention to its less than stellar cinematography and framing. But if there’s one thing Zack Snyder can do well, it’s deliver some show-stopping moments whether that’s in the aforementioned beginning credits montage or in a shootout in a casino hall that has Bautista jumping across poker tables and firing at hordes of zombies. Moments like those where Snyder doesn’t get bogged down by the less than adequate “drama” of his story and instead relishes in its craziness shows the potential of a film like this.
And there once more lies the problem with ARMY OF THE DEAD. It’s an awesome idea for a film that overcomplicates matters as its creator struggles to inject a bit more seriousness into a stupid/cool idea. For every image of a zombie tiger ripping apart a dude’s face, there’s two more moments of blank characters crying about their problems that the audience hardly gives a shit about. There’s a lot you’d want to take home after this trip to a ruined Vegas but there’s also a ton more of stuff you’d be content with leaving behind.