After the triumphant debut of “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” earlier this year a lot of attention turned to the director’s return to his roots with “Army of the Dead”, a Netflix original released this weekend after a brief theatrical run. For the uninitiated, the cinematic king of slow-motion made his feature film debut as a director with 2004’s “Dawn of the Dead” considered to be one of the greatest horror remakes of all time. Seventeen years later Snyder has returns to the zombie genre that made him a household name but this time with a twist melding it with a heist film that sees a group of mercenaries enter a zombie-infested Las Vegas to retrieve money for a benefactor facing off against traditional zombies and smarter, more organized Alphas along the way. “Army of the Dead” is one of the most ridiculously fun movies I’ve seen in a long time, good turn your brain off kind of movie that keeps things movie every step of the way. However, it’s certainly not without its flaws that may or may not spoil the experience for those looking to embrace the escapism in favor of substance.
“Army of the Dead” stars an ensemble cast including mercenary Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), his daughter Kate (Ella Purnell), soldier Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), mechanic Maria (Ana de la Reguera), safecracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer), pilot Peters (Tig Notaro), and Frenchwoman Lily (Nora Arnezeder) who is known to smuggle refugees in and out of Vegas to steel leftover money. Others join them as well but those are the more prominent members of a very diverse cast in more ways than one. While there are some duds every members of the cast gets a chance to shine and prove their worth as the group enters a zombified Vegas to track down money for benefactor Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) and come face to face with a whole new type of zombie, the Alphas who are smart, organized and led by the primary Alpha whose bite, and his alone, turns humans into more Alphas thus creating a society of monsters within the confines of the city. This alone gives “Army of the Dead” its own personality melding heist clichés with zombie movie concepts to create a perfect genre mishmash while adding a little something new to both genres, upping the stakes of the heist while also providing a unique, civilized race of zombies that feel unique to other branches of the famous movie monsters.
“Army of the Dead” in a lot of ways was the perfect escapism movie for me. I had a lot of fun watching this film because going in you know exactly what you’re going to get, a mindless blood fest with badass characters in a race against time. The zombies feel like a real threat and their absence for certain scenes is justified by the zombies being more civilized than their more mindless counterparts. We still get some fun action with more traditional zombies, the products of bites from non-Alphas, and a lot of the death scenes are delightfully brutal. We even get zombie tigers and robot zombies so it’s pretty clear Snyder wanted to pull out all the stops to give fans the ultimate zombie experience. He succeeded in a lot of ways and the performers feel completely on board. This is just an enjoyably ridiculous movie with creative camera angles and fun set pieces, a focused narrative with fast pacing and even some lighthearted humor mixed in that never overshadows the suspense. In some ways it plays with expectations and in others it gives you exactly what you want. It always feels like Snyder knows the perfect moments to buck convention and where expectations need to be met without compromise. This, to put it bluntly, is how you create a movie that balances genre clichés and new ideas to create something that feels fresh but also provides the comfort of familiarity at the same time.
With that said there’s plenty wrong with this movie to keep it from being anywhere close to perfect. The writing, which was handled by Snyder and cowriters Shay Hatten and Joby Harold who are well known for “John Wick 3” and “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” respectively, is certainly nothing special, a least when it comes to dialogue. A lot of exposition and simplified character exchanges in the script keep things pretty basic which is made more apparent from the film’s attempt to add some heart to the relationships between these characters. This often feels out of place and littered with dramatic clichés in an otherwise all-out action epic. While it does humanize these characters a bit it also extends the run time which brings me to my second big complaint, this movie is way too long. At two-and-a-half hours “Army of the Dead” does feel bloated to an extent with the first half hour basically reserved for bringing the team together before slowly working into Vegas where the fun really begins. It’s still interesting and engaging but by the time 45-minutes was left I found myself asking the movie to cut to the chase and get on with things. A lot of the character development is front loaded and thus we start off with the least interesting part of this film but thankfully the rest of the movie provides the action and gore fans are probably expecting. There are also moments of personal bonding that are followed by inevitable deaths that often feel like forced attempts to make you care for these people, but let’s face it nobody is going in wanting to care that much. I think this whole experience could have been shortened significantly without losing much of what makes it fun. In spite of being well paced and using its time effectively, it just feels way too drawn out and might leave some losing interest by the third act.
In summary, “Army of the Dead” is a really good time if all you’re looking for is a mindless bloodbath with high stakes and little substance. Usually, a lack of substance is the bane of my movie-loving existence but with movies like this that own their identity and purpose I can’t help but respect it. Sometimes you just want to turn off your brain and enjoy yourself and this film is perfect for that, not to mention it offers some great and unique monsters and adds something fresh to both the zombie and heist subgenres in its own special way. Ironically it falters when it tries to be emotional and deep which stretches out the run time a bit too much for my liking, but for what it is “Army of the Dead” is just great fun melding two genres perfectly and showing once again what Snyder is capable of when he’s allowed to take the gloves off. If you have the patience and are looking to kill a few hours I definitely recommend this movie. In spite of its clear flaws, this is how you make pandering action-horror fan service done right!