Review: Zack Snyder Rediscovers Fun in the Colorful, High-Energy Army of the Dead
4/5 zombie Liberaces.
For many of us, the past 14 months have felt like a Zack Snyder superhero movie: grey, dour, and devoid of any warmth or joy. It’s fitting then that Snyder’s first post-DCEU outing is a colorful blast of high-energy violence and pulp. Having exorcised his demons in Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the director returns to his zombie roots with Army of the Dead, a film that may just be his best one yet.
While I appreciate what Snyder has done with superhero films and the DCEU, I’ve always preferred his first film, 2004’s Dawn of the Dead remake. The film featured a dark sense of humor, along with action and gory kills that offered a refreshing take on the zombie genre. 17 years later, Snyder returns with a film that effectively marries heist films with a zombie apocalypse: think Ocean’s Eleven meets Dawn of the Dead.
In a highly entertaining opening credits sequence, we see the spread and fallout of the zombie infection throughout Sin City. We see zombie showgirls, zombie Elvis impersonators, and zombie bachelorette parties as the horde grows exponentially. After a brief but brutal battle known as the Zombie Wars, the government walls off the city of Las Vegas and declares it a No Man’s Land, a la Escape From New York.
Survivors are kept in refugee camps outside the city, and coyotes do brisk business smuggling folks in and out of Las Vegas for high-risk raids on slot machines and easy accessible cash. It’s a high-risk high-reward gamble, a bloodier version of Vegas’s toxic fantasy. After all, when you have nothing, you have nothing left to lose.
Zombie Wars veteran and mercenary Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), gets his own high stakes offer when billionaire client Tanaka (Mortal Kombat‘s Hiroyuki Sanada) offers him $50 million to assemble a team to break into a casino and steal $200 million in cash from a secure vault. And the clock is ticking, as the government plans to wipe out what remains of Las Vegas in a nuclear explosion.
Ward then sets about assembling the team. Joining him are his old army buddies: friend and potential love interest Cruz (Ana de la Reguera); brash helicopter pilot Peters (Tig Notaro, digitally replacing Chris D’Elia); and buzzsaw-wielding philosopher Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick). They’re joined by twitchy German safecracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer); zombie-killing social media influencers Guzman (Raúl Castillo) and Chambers (Samantha Win); tortured smuggler Lily (Nora Arnezeder); and Tanaka’s babysitter Martin (Garret Dillahunt). The characters are all familiar versions of “let’s put together a team!” archetypes, but Snyder’s strong cast makes the most of their roles. Notaro is a standout as a sardonic, cigar-chomping mercenary, but everyone is clearly having a blast.
Also along for the ride is Ward’s estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell), a World Health Organization worker who is on her own rescue mission to save a group of refugees trapped inside the city. Their relationship functions as the emotional core of the film, as well as another obstacle in completing the already dangerous suicide mission.
Army of the Dead is 2 and a half hours long, and is overstuffed with characters and side stories. But the film doesn’t drag. Snyder takes his time to establish the eclectic crew, who all get their own relationships, motives, and character moments. While some horror fans may be impatient for the killing to start, all this character work serves to make the deaths more meaningful. And as members of the team are picked off (as they always are in zombie films), each kill carries an emotional punch.
The film’s tone swings wildly between pulpy tongue-in-cheek humor and moments of unabashed sincerity, and while those moments don’t always land, there’s still so much to enjoy. There are energetic fight sequences, creative kills, and a plethora of fun and creative zombie designs. The film also introduces zombie “Alphas,” an evolved version of the undead with the ability to move fast, communicate, and work as a team. The Alphas are one of many clever tweaks to the zombie mythos that allows for a more nuanced threat than your standard shuffling zombie horde.
The film also effectively builds a world that will be further explored in an already-filmed prequel (Army of Thieves) and an anime-style series about the early days of the outbreak, titled Army of the Dead: Lost Vegas. Army of the Dead isn’t perfect (what is?), but it is an entertaining blockbuster that offers a welcome departure from Snyder’s recent oeuvre. It’s got plenty of gore, loads of style, and a charismatic cast. After so many bleak AF zombie dramas (I’m looking at you, The Walking Dead) it’s a thrill to have a genuinely good time in the zombie genre. It’s also a welcome palate cleanser for Snyder, who is finally having some fun.
(image: CLAY ENOS/NETFLIX)
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