Principal Cast : Dave Bautista, Ella Purnell, Omari Hardwick, Ana de la Reguera, Theo Rossi, Matthias Schweighöfer, Nora Arnezeder, Hiroyuki Sanada, Tig Notaro, Raul Castillo, Huma Qureshi, Garret Dillahunt, Samantha Win, Michael Cassidy, Richard Cetrone.
Synopsis: A group of mercenaries plot a heist on a Las Vegas casino during a zombie outbreak.
Caution: here be living, breathing, highly specific spoilers within.
Now that he’s able to tackle material that isn’t draped in capes and heat vision, Zack Snyder returns to the zombie nest for the first time since his Dawn of The Dead remake to deliver a punchy, violent, gloriously gory subgenre epic destined for inevitable memes and pop-culture references, Army of The Dead. This Netflix platform film sits comfortably within the middle-ground of zombie fiction on screen, a premise that many consider to have well worn out its welcome in the last few decades given the proliferation of examples to the format – The Walking Dead and its popular spin-off television series, not to mention popular big-screen entries such as Warm Bodies, Cargo and especially Train to Busan. If nothing else, zombie films have come a long way since George Romero’s classic “shuffling zombie” classic Night Of The Living Dead, a seminal film which revitalised a tired genre and set us on a course for the kinds of material we see today. Army of The Dead doesn’t seek to reinvent the wheel any more or less than its familial brethren, but with visual stylist Snyder at the helm (he also gets credit here as cinematographer) you can be sure of a slick, hyper-kinetic, crowd-pleasing action ride to savour.
Following a disastrous zombie outbreak forces the United States Government to effectively wall off the entire city of Las Vegas, and formulate a plan to blow it and its undead residents to hell with a low-yield nuclear weapon, wealthy businessman Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada – Mortal Kombat) concocts a plan to send a mercenary team into one of the city’s casinos to steal a quarter billion dollars from its underground vault. He recruits zombie survivor Scott Ward (Dave Bautista – Blade Runner 2049) to assemble a team, which comprises of Scott’s military buddy Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick – Kick-Ass), a former flame turned mechanic, Maria (Ana de la Reguera – The Book of Life), violence-prone YouTuber Mikey (Raul Castillo – Looking), a larcenous transporter of human cargo in Lily (Nora Arnenzeder – Safe House), helicopter pilot Marianne Peters (Tig Notaro), and German safecracker Ludwig Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer – Valkyrie). Sanaka also send into the city with them his right-hand man Martin (Garrett Dillahunt – Looper), who has his own motives for tagging along. At the last minute, Scott’s estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell – Churchill) also joins the party, intent on rescuing a pair of women trapped inside the walled off metropolis now teeming with the living dead. Upon entering the ruined city of Vegas, they are surprised to encounter a group of intelligent, hierarchical creatures, led by Zeus, the Zombie King (Richard Cetrone). And as the countdown to nuclear obliteration draws to a close, the race to find and extricate the cash and come out alive begins.
From the moment Army of The Dead begins, you know you’re in for a ride. Things kick off with a woman giving her new husband a blowjob on the highway, and the film ends with Dave Bautista’s on-screen daughter blowing his head off in the desert, so you could say this film is one giant fellati-arc. Zack Snyder’s film has a fascination with head jobs throughout its entirety, although not of the sexual kind really. Hell, one poor zombie even has their head removed from their body and carted around like a trophy at one point so, well, yeah. Given that zombies can only traditionally be killed by obliterating their brains, a lot of the action is focused on our core group of mercs shooting scores, nay legions of frantic undead creatures in the head with graphic, blood-soaked glee. That a bunch of men make their way into the dank, warm womb of a subterranean vault to capture the prize is also something of a euphemism but that is an incredibly long bow to draw so I’ll stop now. Suffice to say, Army of The Dead is as cantankerously scabrous about zombies and killing them as it’s possible to be, and then maybe moreso.
Mixing one part heist flick, one part zombie movie and a minor dash of daddy-daughter bonding time, Zack Snyder’s ultra-brutal action flick boasts some quite decent action sequences, just enough hints of comedy to offset the gore, and more than a dash of jet-black irony to last the entire length of this film; Army of The Dead is a long film, clocking in around the 2 and a half hour mark, and to his credit Snyder doesn’t waste a lot of time getting to the point and into the meat of the story. The opening third of the film has to quickly satisfy audience expectations of who the ensemble is, how they relate to each other, what the stakes are for them all, and just how enormous Bautista is standing next to them all. Hell, Bautista’s head alone is half the size of Tig Notaro entirely. The film is at its strongest when coming up with inventive and often hilarious zombie kills, from grenade explosions to countless automatic weapons fire, not to mention some alarmingly satisfying hand-to-hand combat here and there. Does it need to be two and a half hours though? Not at all; some scenes could be excised and the film would be a tighter experience overall. And yet it’s still a hugely entertaining balls-out experience, complete with Snyder’s typically on-point needle-drop music choices.
Snyder co-wrote the screenplay with Shay Hatten and Joby Harold (the latter better known for his writing credit on Guy Ritchie’s recent King Arthur movie) and he tries something interesting in giving the film a deeper sense of pathos and humanity than many of the genre’s tropes allow. The relationship between Bautista’s Scott Ward and Ella Purnell’s Kate is the linchpin of the movie, although the young woman is terribly written and her life choices are almost entirely a disaster not just for herself but her father. That Scott is burdened by having to kill Kate’s zombiefied mother in front of her forms the centerpiece of his emotional angst throughout, a catharsis only broken late in the movie that just about pays off the earlier work formed by Snyder’s percussive editorial choices. I didn’t think this angle worked as well as it could have, despite the best intentions of all involved, when the ensemble cast all demanding screen time forced this storyline to sit somewhere in the background instead of naturally in the middle. Kudos to Bautista, too, who grinds out a worthwhile dramatic performance with grace and legitimate skill despite having to shoulder (broadly, I might add) the action-heavy work here as the film’s heroic icon.
In terms of the ensemble, Snyder has gather a rag-tag group of relative unknowns to populate his effects-heavy action film. Outside of Bautista, audiences may be only sideways familiar with Notaro (who appears in a minor recurring role on Star Trek Discovery, and is a noted comedian to boot) and Garrett Dillahunt (he’s one of those “oh, it’s that guy” types who pop in here and there) but the rest of the main cast I’d never really heard of before. Ella Purnell, who once played young Maleficent in the film of the same name, is mildly enjoyable as Kate Ward, although given a hard task to tackle serious character dynamics in such a sonic boom of a movie. Sadly her character is the worst part of the film, despite the actress’s best efforts. Kate makes pretty stupid, bone-headed decisions and by the end I was kind of hoping she’d get caught in the nuclear blast and die. Her work is, perhaps to the relief of most, pretty much drowned out by the constant blood, scares and action Snyder engages around her. Ana de la Reguera plays Bautista’s chum-slash-love interest well (although the love-interest subplot comes along not just at the most inopportune time but also without warning, making my head spin with a “where did that suddenly come from?”) and she does a solid job looking like a total badass throughout.
Matthias Schweighofer is the film’s token comedic pause, offering a stammering, wide-eyed innocence mixed with all the death and carnage that, to be honest, wears out its welcome quite quickly; he eventually becomes one-note and annoying. Dillahunt has a great time playing a total asshole, who gets perhaps the best death scene in the film when he comes face-to-claw with Army Of The Dead’s resident zombie tiger. Is it racist to suggest Omari Hardwick is the token black guy, because that’s what his character felt like throughout? Whether you agree or not, Hardwick plays the smooth-talking, ass-kicking mercenary well, carrying his enormous portable circular saw with him into battle and for that, we give homage. And of course, Tig Notaro is as always a triumph – it should be noted that the actress was digitally inserted into the film following the removal of original actor/comedian Chris D’Elia following some external controversy, and the effect (which bumped up the film’s budget considerably, by all accounts) is largely seamless.
One of the film’s more unusual aesthetics is with its cinematography, thanks to Snyder himself pulling multiple duties in this regard. Shot digitally with the RED cameras, a lot of the film makes glorious and often frustrating use of focus, with shallow depth of field the primary method the director utilises. I say glorious because some of the cinematography in this film is absolutely amazing, the same kind of crisp, moving artwork Snyder delivered in 300 and SuckerPunch. I say frustrating because in Army Of The Dead he uses it all the time. Not every so often, I mean all the damn time. When I wanted to see what was going on, half the background is blurry and softly rendered, whilst whatever is going on in the foreground is lost entirely. Shallow depth of field has its purposes, and can be hugely effective when used correctly with adequate storytelling reasons. In Army Of The Dead, it was a style used far too often. It didn’t make the film unwatchable, but at times I was yelling at the screen asking to cut to a wide shot or pull the camera back a bit to let me work out what the hell was going on. I should counter this issue I had with acknowledgement that the wide shots of a desolate Vegas, the stunning visual effects and some of the trailer-worthy moments all looked pristine, but a lot, and I mean a lot of this film was shot with lenses that disabled my ability to discern the action.
Is Army of The Dead one of the better or stronger zombie films to come along in recent times? No, it isn’t. Snyder’s camp sensibility, penchant for ultra-violence and the film’s diminished sense of threat limit the reach of the movie’s staying power. Sure, it fires on all cylinders and the cast all seem to be having an absolute blast, but the film finds the balance between delicate emotional drama and outright horror movie a bridge to far, it seems. When it taps into the more horror-centric elements Army of The Dead truly does satisfy. When it tries to give Bautista something to cling to emotionally, I found things tough going for a popcorn zombie movie. Bautista is turning into a fine actor despite his rougher edges, and he delivers the material well here, but it was a misstep to spend so long on the father-daughter dynamic when a pared back gristle-free thriller without the paternalistic overtones might have been more suitable. The final third is pure Snyder entertainment, but aside from the cold open and stellar title credits (seriously, is there anyone better at an opening credit montage than Snyder?) the middle-section shuffles along kinda like so many of the thousands of slow-moving zombies within, and I would suggest the extended run-time will frustrate those keen for a re-watch. But hey, there’s the head thing.