‘Army of the Dead’: Zack Snyder Brings the Zombie Apocalypse to Las Vegas With Popcorn Flare
It seems almost impossible for director Zack Snyder to conceive of anything on a small scale. Whether he’s tackling Spartans or superheroes, the canvas always has to be massive. This has been the cause of his loyal fan base and equally passionate detractors. But for viewers of the variety who enjoy popcorn and fun, it will be hard to deny the sheer entertainment of “Army of the Dead.” Snyder’s first Netflix feature film is a pure zombie movie, without pretensions of being anything more. Even in its title it’s an old-fashioned action adventure made with the kind of slick production values Snyder is known for. Does it have depth? Hardly. Socio-political commentary? Forget about it. But when it comes to stories about flesh-eating humanoids and testosterone-pumped heroes, you get what is promised.
Snyder sets the story in a perfect metaphor for the flash and gloss of blockbuster movies: Las Vegas. It all begins with a military convoy crossing the Nevada desert with a secret being transported out of good old Area 51. That secret turns out to be a prisoner that escapes and infects both troops and unlucky newlyweds who crash into the convoy with what can best be described as a zombie virus. They spread it into Las Vegas, where an undead apocalypse is unleashed. A team of soldiers that include Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), Maria Cruz (Ana de la Reguera) and Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick) battle the zombies in grandiose shootouts as the city becomes a total war zone. Fast forward a few years later and Vegas has been closed off with only a migrant camp left near its border. The White House has even approved dropping a nuclear bomb on the city in order to fully wipe out what’s left of the zombies. A wealthy man named Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) approaches Ward with an offer: If he can reconstitute his team, sneak into Las Vegas and rescue $200 million from a vault before the nuke drops, Ward and his comrades can walk away with $50 million each.
From the first scene “Army of the Dead” has the energy of a director wanting to indulge in taking parts from all zombie, macho action movie classics and blend them into a film having fun for its own sake. It’s a return for Snyder to the genre that first made him big. In 2004 he made his feature directorial debut with “Dawn of the Dead,” a gory, energetic remake of the George A. Romero classic about resisting a zombie invasion from inside a shopping mall. At the time Snyder was impressed with how he made the material his own without doing injustice to the original. That movie retains an almost indie feel compared to what came after in Snyder’s catalogue. Starting with his 2006 “300,” Snyder went on a tear with bloated movies where an eye for over-stylized visuals, essentially bringing to life the very textures of comic book panels, overran the narrative. Now in the same year that he released his massive “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” on HBO Max, Snyder comes full circle with a movie that runs long (2 hours and 28 mins) but doesn’t ever drag. The visuals are stylish but not overdone, with Snyder serving for the first time as his own cinematographer.
What also helps is that “Army of the Dead” never takes itself too seriously. Snyder is letting loose here, dropping the overwrought, clunky operatic spirit of his superhero movies that made something like “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” feel needlessly dreary. Instead he keeps the material lively, with some brief, Romero-worthy satire at the beginning. When Las Vegas becomes a zombie fest, memorable gory images splash across the screen, like a man being devoured in a hot tub by topless zombie showgirls, or the undead standing atop slot machines, or a zombified Elvis impersonator looking on with bloody teeth as drones bomb the streets. Snyder uses to greater effect the kind of wide shots of rampaging zombie hordes tried before by films like “World War Z.” You can find a possible, light wink at our own viral era in how temperature checks are essential in this movie’s world to ensure someone isn’t becoming a zombie. The plot gives us heroes brought in from other action movies about misfits on a mission, but they’re entertaining in their own, muscled way. Ward is haunted because he had to kill his wife when she turned into a zombie, and has been estranged ever since from his daughter Kate (Ella Purnell), who now volunteers at the migrant camp outside the city. Bautista, who is a good actor when given worthy material, actually brings a likeable sensibility to Ward.
The rest of the team look plucked out of an ‘80s action flick. Cruz is the female equal of Ward’s in terms of combat skills, then there’s no-nonsense Vanderohe, Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer), an expert at cracking safes who is also a snob and yelps whenever a zombie appears, Mikey Guzman (Raúl Castillo) is a cocky social media personality who has gained fame for his videos where he kills the undead, and Marianne (Tig Notaro), the required cigar-chomping helicopter pilot who is tasked with flying the team out before the nuke hits. Outsiders joining their expedition include Martin (Garret Dillahunt), one of Tanaka’s men, and a smuggler or coyote, Lilly (Nora Arnezeder). Lilly leads the team into Las Vegas, informing them about vital things like the fact that it’s not just zombies prowling what’s left of sin city, but an even more advanced form of the undead who can organize and plan, thus establishing their own kingdom in the ruins. Everyone has a distinctive, entertaining personality, even if a few are destined to become zombie food by the end.
“Army of the Dead” in its length and large cast could have easily become a cluttered mess. Instead it’s a rather lean combination of a heist thriller and gory undead romp. The writing keeps it simple, the team goes into the massive hotel where the safe is, seek the money and then have to battle their way out. Snyder shoots the action with few of his usual tricks such as endless slow motion sequences and instead goes for a gritty, tight structure. Fans of the genre can be certain to expect plenty of zombie decapitations, necks getting gored and zombie brains being splattered everywhere. When it’s not just action in a popcorn sense, there’s enough humor to keep it from becoming too mundane. Does Snyder go atomic on Las Vegas? Of course. How can he not? The ending of the movie also delivers an appropriately goofy cliffhanger. “Army of the Dead” is schlock but of the kind a genre director makes well when leaving pretension behind. Unlike with some of his previous films, Snyder isn’t out to convince anyone he’s making high art here, even when Wagner or a cover of The Doors’ “The End” play on the soundtrack. It’s simply a decent zombie movie, tailor-made to kill boredom in a summer after the plague.
“Army of the Dead” releases May 14 in theaters nationwide and begins streaming May 21 on Netflix.