REVIEW: "Army of the Dead" Welcomes Zack Snyder Home
It’s been quite a whirlwind few years for Zack Snyder. The director has had about as up and down a time both professionally and personally as anyone could expect. No matter your feelings on the director’s filmography or signature style of film-making, Snyder is a force in the movie landscape. Widely derided for his dark take on the DC canon of heroes and facing unimaginable personal tragedy while making the hotly anticipated and condemned Justice League, Snyder has returned to a level of favor in the movie world with March’s release of his unfiltered cut of Justice League and now with a return to the genre and universe that started his ascent with Netflix’s Army of the Dead.
Snyder’s 2004 feature debut Dawn of the Dead was a breath of fresh air in many ways. It was a remake of Romero’s 1978 sequel to his original masterpiece, reminded people of why zombies are inherently scary, and gave us a fresh new take on how this, by-then, tired horror trope could be repurposed in a new age. Much of those were thanks to Snyder’s distinct action-centric philosophy of film-making; creating stark visuals while remembering that all the best horror films are supposed to scare you but also be a fun ride.
Cut 17 years later and we have Snyder returning to the genre that started it all with what we’ll call a sequel (it hasn’t officially been called that yet) to 2004’s Dawn with the new Netflix release Army of the Dead. To be sure, if you’re one of those who felt that Snyder had lost his original touch or were exhausted with the perceived haughtiness of certain aspects of his later filmography, this film shows, if nothing else, that Snyder still knows how to have fun making movies. Perhaps that’s just what the doctor ordered after years of some pretty toxic fan syndrome in the age of the internet.
The film centers on a zombie takeover of the entire city of Las Vegas. The city has been blocked off with side-stacked freight storage containers and we’re given the brief history of the conflict in a Zombieland-esque opening sequence that also serves as a brief introduction to our main characters. This title sequence follows a great set-up opening that harkens back to many of the best tongue-in-cheek aspects of the 2004’s Dawn and also gives us our best justification for thinking of this film as a sequel.
The cast is led by Dave Bautista, who is quickly becoming the latest WWE actor pipeline star. Sure he’s not to the level of The Rock (who is?) or even John Cena yet, but he’s consistently making some very interesting and out of the box role choices. He’s perfectly cast in this role as Scott Ward, a man with immense skill as a zombie-killer that’s living out his time as a fry cook outside the Vegas city limits. He’s here because his estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) volunteers at a refugee camp just outside the quarantine zone that houses families displaced by the zombie outbreak.
Scott’s life is upended when wealthy businessman Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) comes to him with an offer. His casino is overrun by zombies but underneath in the vault lies $200 million in cash. Insurance has already paid his lost claim on this fortune so the money is quite literally finders-keepers. Why now? Well the government is about to nuke the entire city and everything inside. Scott is the best and for his troubles Tanaka will give him $50 million to divide up among his team as he sees fit. Scott reluctantly accepts setting up our team-building montage.
On this team are old flame Maria Cruz (Ana de la Reguera), saw-wielding bad-ass Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), safe-cracker extraordinaire Dieter (Matthias Schweighofer), brash helicopter pilot Marianne Peters (Tig Notaro), Vegas coyote Lilly (Nora Arnezeder), Tanaka’s mercenary Martin (Garret Dillahunt), and a pair of zombie-killing social media stars Mikey & Chambers (Raul Castillo & Samantha Win). Kate also joins the team after learning her friend Geeta (Huma Qureshi) is trapped inside the city limits.
From here it’s a pretty standard action film, albeit with some incredible visuals and some genuinely new ground breaking in the genre. We quickly find out upon entering the city that these are not the mindless undead we’ve come to know through the decades of movie history. Snyder indeed invented the “fast zombie” with Dawn but here he’s created an entire caste system of sorts, with our alpha zombie from the opening of the film (stuntman Richard Cetrone) serving as the ruler of this undead kingdom complete with undead queen at his side. Lilly establishes that these zombies can think and even will allow passage through their land for “trades”, which is exactly what you think it is.
I’m sure this is going to be the aspect of the film that is the most derided and questioned but honestly it’s nice to see a genre as played out as zombies get a fresh new perspective in an environment that still can retain the natural danger of the monsters themselves (yes I’m discounting Warm Bodies a little here). I mean, we’re talking about made-up monsters here people. If we want to give them some sentience, then so damn be it!
All-in-all, the film is a very fun action-horror vehicle that doesn’t skimp on the gore and proves once again that when it comes to directing an action sequence there are few that do it better than Zack Snyder. The cast is very good in their assigned roles and most of the fun of the film is seeing how these different archetypes interact with and exert some influence on each other, with Van and Dieter’s relationship being a particular highlight.
At 2 hours 28 minutes the film isn’t exactly judicious with it’s time, but Snyder fills it out admirably, if still even too much, with human moments between Scott and Kate that gives us a great foundation for the film’s slam-bang closing act. That the film gives us time to breathe in between it’s insane action is commendable but it does feel a bit too long at times and makes the viewer long for the crazy stuff again.
But when it’s there, man does that crazy stuff deliver. And it makes great use of the Vegas setting to set up perhaps the very best scene in the whole damn movie (trust me, you’ll know it when you see it). The movie has some issues with it’s time distribution but overall it’s a welcome return to the fold for Snyder and a great way to kick the Summer blockbuster season into high gear. And after the year we’ve all had, isn’t that something we all want so badly right now? It’s not perfect but man is it fun.
3 stars out of 5.