There are few genre directors more divisive than Zack Snyder. His DC comics adaptations are now legendarily disagreed upon, with a series of hardline fans on one side and vociferous critics on the other. Then there’s the wild story of Justice League, a film he started, but Joss Whedon finished, only for Snyder to be given a fortune to recreate his own “cut.” There is a lot to talk about. That’s why it’s a relief that Army of the Dead is far less complicated, a throwback to one of Snyder’s more universally liked films, his 2004 remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. While Dawn certainly didn’t set the world on fire, it was a satisfying, blood-drenched romp through the zombie genre, and with Army of the Dead, we’re given a similarly toned—if more grandiose—entry.
Army of the Dead takes place in a cordoned-off Las Vegas. The city has been completely walled off by the government due to a losing battle with a vicious zombie outbreak. The events leading to this outbreak are kept mysterious, with just enough information for us to use our own imaginations, and not so much that we have to overthink it. The film centers around two very charismatic leads: Scott (Dave Bautista, continuing his inexorable march toward action stardom) and Maria (Ana de la Reguera). Both former soldiers who fought the outbreak at its inception and have since retired to quiet, albeit unsatisfying, civilian lives, they’re tasked by casino owner Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) with infiltrating Vegas and retrieving the fortune he has in his vault, minus a hefty fee for themselves. So, they assemble an oddball team of badasses, and the zombie heist film is born.
Honestly, Army of the Dead is often a hell of a lot of fun. It’s nice to be reminded that when Snyder doesn’t take himself so damn seriously (he also wrote the script), he can be a thoroughly enjoyable action director. His production design is a wild mix of desert sands and parched skeletons, with pops of color from all of the gaudiness of Las Vegas. It’s easy to call the design ugly, and in truth it often is, but it’s deliberate and effective. The music is an eclectic collection of unexpected and enjoyable covers that complement some top-notch action sequences. And the story itself—once you get past a handful of extraneous subplots—is an interesting spin on the zombie genre that I won’t spoil.
The cast is an unusual, enjoyable mix of talent, with no one being asked to flex too hard and mostly keeping it fast and loose. There are some notable standouts. Bautista and de la Reguera are both excellent and pair well together. Garrett Dillahunt is terrific as Tanaka’s obviously untrustworthy, inevitably backstabbing assistant, Martin. Tig Notaro—one of the more fascinating additions to the cast—is actually very good as the misfit blabbermouth pilot Peters. For those who don’t recall, that role was originally given to Chris D’Elia until it was discovered last year that he was a f*cking creep. Snyder dumped him and hired Notaro, filmed her scenes against a green screen and CGI’d her in.
That brings up a curious note about the cinematography of the film. Snyder handled the cinematography himself, and it’s a mixed bag. Trying to channel a little James Cameron, he used a specialized camera that results in some deliberate blurriness. That doesn’t have quite the artistic effect he was probably hoping for. Then, some scenes are blurry by accident, the result of having to digitally insert Notaro into them. It just sometimes feels blurry, period, and that doesn’t work in its favor. On the other hand, Snyder lets the pace of the action speak for itself. He largely eschews slow-motion. The action is fast and often stunning. It’s also intensely gory, but in such a goofily stylized fashion that it’s more funny than actually disturbing.
Army of the Dead is a film that wears its heart and inspirations on its sleeve. It borrows heavily from video games, often feeling like a lost cut scene from a Resident Evil or Dead Rising game. In its quieter, more tense moments it leans into The Last of Us. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it keeps the story entertaining. Plus, Snyder manages to keep his penchant for melodramatics to a minimum. Still, it drags hard at about the 90-minute mark. As is often the case with Snyder, he probably had two or three too many ideas that he stuffed in there resulting in a bloated 150 minutes stuffed into what should have been a 100-minute bag. It’s not a world-shaker but rather just a fun and exciting film and sometimes, that’s all that we need.
Army of the Dead is now in theaters and on Netflix.