Movie review: ‘Army of the Dead’ delivers engaging action, fails to subvert tired zombie tropes
(Courtesy of Clay Enos)
"Army of the Dead"
Directed by Zack Snyder
By Sam Connon
May 20, 2021 5:37 p.m.
Though not quite back from the dead, the mainstream zombie subgenre definitely has new life now that Zack Snyder is back in the game.
Snyder’s newest film “Army of the Dead” is set to come out on Netflix on Friday and is currently playing in select theaters, including the newly renovated Landmark Westwood. Whoever is ready to return to cinemas should make an effort to see this one on the big screen, since its cartoonishly indulgent visuals, crowd-pleasing gory moments and bombastic action sequences were made for the theater experience.
The film may still be a fun time on televisions and laptops but make no mistake – “Army of the Dead” is far from a character-driven indie flick. Its selling points are the big-time shootouts and creative world building, not exactly its characters and plot, which are pretty basic by zombie movie standards.
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Even being a quirky, sometimes funny take on zombies isn’t out of the ordinary – “Zombieland” and its recent sequel, as well as “Shaun of the Dead” and “The Dead Don’t Die,” have accomplished that more successfully – but what helps “Army of the Dead” stand out from the crowd is the authorial touch from Snyder. He brings his indulgent, explosive visual style to the table, never holding back, and it results in a wild ride that’s hard to look away from.
“Army of the Dead” follows single father and former zombie killer Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse that wiped out Las Vegas. The American government has kept the undead inside city limits for a few years but has now decided to drop a nuclear bomb on Sin City to end the threat for good. With only a few days left before Vegas goes up in smoke, billionaire casino owner Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) hires Ward to break into an underground safe and steal $200 million.
From there, Ward assembles his team of thieves and washed-up mercenaries, including helicopter pilot Marianne (Tig Notaro), muscle-bound Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick) and safe expert Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer). Meanwhile, his estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) winds up joining the team of misfits on their mission with other plans in mind.
Despite the expansive cast, only Ward really undergoes an arc, resulting in a pleasantly surprising career-best performance from the typically brutish Bautista. And while some of the side characters are fun to watch, they mostly serve as cardboard cutouts and cannon fodder.
But that’s part of the deal in any zombie flick – some people are just there to die in increasingly ridiculous and disgusting ways. “Army of the Dead” delivers on that and then some. The setup and payoff of the kills and explosions are also better executed than that of the interesting but shallow additions to zombie lore or even the bland plot as a whole.
The film’s blend of zombie and heist movie cliches is a little tired in the beginning – all of the tropes picked apart in “Rick and Morty” season four are laughably present, as are several key plot points pulled straight out of “The Walking Dead” and “World War Z.” But once the action gets rolling near the midpoint of the film, it really leans on its impressive production design, overdramatic slow-motion establishing shots and enough blood and guts to last a lifetime.
The progression of the father-daughter storyline, while certainly sincere, is also predictable and well-trodden. Though it is the emotional core of the story, it often feels like a distraction from the fun zombie content. The same can be said for the numerous subplots, including an out-of-left-field romantic connection, blatantly telegraphed betrayals and half-baked sequel-baiting.
“Army of the Dead” also struggles to lock down one consistent thematic identity, juggling brief moments that tackle heavy issues including sexism, immigration and classism, none of which ever really go anywhere. Trimming down on such elements and focusing on one or two main through lines wouldn’t just help cut down on the bloated nearly two-and-a-half-hour runtime, it would also create more narrative cohesion where it was certainly missing.
All things considered though, the hints of expanding the universe were enough to draw interest and enjoyment. Even if blending a zombie movie with a heist plotline doesn’t yield the groundbreaking film it sounds like it would, infusing the genre with tiny new morsels of science fiction and Snyder’s signature over-the-top style is enough to get the job done.
“Army of the Dead” is only the second time Snyder has written and directed a wholly original feature film instead of an adaptation. It’s also his second foray into zombies after his 2004 feature debut “Dawn of the Dead,” but Snyder is really back in his element here, getting to create a world with his own visual style fully baked into it instead of trying to assimilate other properties, brands and icons.
Thankfully, the film isn’t as heavy and melodramatic as “Justice League” or as hyper-masculine as “300,” so even people who aren’t usually fans of Snyder’s work should give “Army of the Dead” a shot.
And for those who’ve already fully bought into Snyder and are ready to turn their brains off, shove popcorn in their mouth and watch people get their guts torn out, “Army of the Dead” still covers all the bases.