When he burst onto the scene in 2004 with a remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Zack Snyder was heralded as a bright new voice in the horror genre, crafting a film that was both a worthy remake of a beloved classic and an impressive feat on its own terms. Seventeen years, a stop-start franchise, one of the most discussed superhero films of all time, and a legion of die-hard super fans later, Snyder returns to his zombie roots with Army of the Dead.
In the wake of an army convoy crash that unleashed a zombie from its Area 51 containment, nearby Las Vegas is overrun by an undead horde. Millions of holiday makers, gambling addicts, and Elvis impersonators are turned into zombies and render the city Ground Zero for an infection. With the area walled off for good, and an impending nuke to cleanse the area of the undead once and for all, mercenary Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) is sent in on a desperate heist to extract a dormant $200million for a billionaire. Ward assembles a ragtag troupe to breach the quarantine zone, break into a high security Las Vegas vault, and make it out alive before the city is turned to ash.
Netflix have entrusted Snyder with the keys to his own zombie kingdom, with the promise of a franchise entirely under his control, no doubt capitalising on the Snyder Cut movement of recent years. It’s a lot of trust to place in a filmmaker who, despite his rabid fanbase, has frequently divided critics and audiences alike, never quite managing to reach the heights his evident talent behind the camera promises. His latest effort is likely to follow the same path as his previous works, satisfying some, but leaving others wanting more.
While it may not be the most unique ideas, injecting a heist undercurrent to a zombie action adventure is a fun twist on a tried and tested genre, allowing for a steady combination of high-octane bullet storms with the quiet tension of a race against the clock. In bursts, Army of the Dead threatens greatness, particularly when Snyder lets loose the reins and unleashes hell on our central characters.
Snyder’s competence as an action filmmaker has never been in question, and he continues to excel in this arena. From the inadvertent anarchy on a hibernating horde caused by a clattering of kitchen utensils to the all-out warfare on a casino floor, it wouldn’t be too far to suggest Snyder is a master of his own brand of action scenes. He deftly combines Bautista’s skill as a hand-to-hand combatant with his group’s laser-like accuracy for headshots to create some genuinely impressive set-pieces. Carnage is always just around the corner, but it never veers into chaos courtesy of its impressive action choreography and staging. Bautista leaping from one blackjack table to another while surrounded by countless zombies was mightily fun to watch, and the same level of quality is reached in every major action set-piece.
The opening credits, for instance, feel like an homage to the Zombieland opening. In spectacularly bloody detail, we’re shown the zombie takeover to the sound of a swing-version “Viva Las Vegas,” the first of many but nonetheless effective needle drops throughout. The carnage is something to behold, and its contrast against the delightfully campy soundtrack alludes to a film more interested in entertainment than anything else. Enjoyable, too, is the silent walk among sleeping zombies that inevitably descends into chaos, and soon the flashes of gunfire is what illuminates the scene to create some startlingly cool visuals.
The problem, though, is that said set-pieces are remarkably few and far between. Across its 148 minutes, only a handful of genuine action set pieces occur, and despite its final one lasting in the region of 20 minutes, it feels like too-little-too-late to get the blood pumping. There are all-too-long stretches dedicated to fleshing out its characters and, most crucially, its world-building. Army of the Dead’s most unique element is its antagonist, the titular army that is faster and more organised than any undead seen on film before. Lead by their Alpha King and Queen, their threat feels real to our protagonists, dodging gunfire, peeking around corners, and wearing armour to avoid the normally quick death of the average zombie. Despite their threat, with so much time devoted to explaining the world and the unspoken agreement between human and zombie in order to avoid conflict feels like unnecessary padding in an already overlong feature.
Much of the character focus is on Ward and his estranged daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell), as their journey into a zombie oblivion serves as a helpful way for the two to reconnect. Bautista and Purnell have a convincing chemistry in their brief scenes together, but their characters are too thinly written for their father-daughter strife to truly land. Elsewhere in the group, safecracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer) and old mercenary friend Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick) are a ham-fisted attempt at a bromance that, once again, is hardly given the attention it needed to have an impact. Dieter, too, is left with the role of comic relief that works occasionally, but Snyder relies on his high-pitched scream in fear one too many times as Dieter descends into an irritant than relief.
A few of the group do come through with some positives, mercifully. Ana de la Reguera is Ward’s right-hand woman and his moral centre, her easy-going yet gung-ho nature suited perfectly to the zombie heist situation they’ve put themselves in. Garret Dillahunt and Nora Arnezeder have an engaging back and forth, with Dillahunt never once hiding his nefarious intentions and having more fun for it. An amazing turn against all odds, too, comes from Tig Notaro’s helicopter pilot, Peters, in a role that I learned after-the-fact was filmed entirely during post-production. Notaro blends seamlessly into proceedings, both visually and with her easy rapport against her co-stars, so much so that the knowledge that she was never once on an actual Army of the Dead set came as genuine surprise.
With no expense spared of its rumoured $90 million budget, it’s surprising that Army of the Dead’s outdoor sets look so unpolished. The dull, sandy brown colour palette as we look at countless burned-out cars and the remains of dilapidated buildings are not enough to engage visually. It feels like the film reuses the same set multiple times only shot from different angles to make it seem like a different area. More frustrating, still, is how lifeless these practical sets feel when the apocalyptic, CGI-created Las Vegas looks terrific from a distance, particularly as you track a helicopter flight across the strip as it dodges remnants of iconic Vegas landmarks.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more mixed-bag effort than Zack Snyder’s latest. For every good element there’s its sub-par counterpart; despite having great action choreography, there aren’t enough action scenes to excited. For every fun character, there’s a poorly written one. For every impressive VFX shot, there’s a poor practical equivalent. Its flashes of greatness aren’t enough to inspire much excitement for what might be to come from the Army of the Dead franchise. With a prequel and a spin-off animated series already in the works, there’s more to come from Army of the Dead, whether we like it or not.
Army of the Dead is now available on Netflix