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Review: Zack Snyder's Army of the Dead stuffs great action into a generic story

By Tim Augustin - 13 May 2021

Review: Zack Snyder's Army of the Dead stuffs great action into a generic story

Image: Netflix

No Snyder Cut needed for this one.

Netflix’s new zombie blockbuster seems like a movie best seen in theaters. We’re sorely lacking in big action-packed fare on the big screen these days anyway, but we should probably be happy that a movie like this is coming out at all – nevermind where it’s available to view. Army of the Dead is Zack Snyder’s highly anticipated return to the zombie genre since his Dawn of the Dead remake 17 years ago, after all. That movie quickly became a fan favourite with horror fans, thanks to its impactful opening sequence and fast and furious zombies.

Personally, I liked Dawn of the Dead quite a bit – so I was really looking forward to this flick. Zack Snyder has had a lot of success adapting big comicbook stories in recent years (300, Watchmen, Man of Steel), but I was anxious to see the director return to something of his own making. Enter Army of the Dead, a movie with an eye-catching premise: a gang of thieves and ex-soldiers have to break into zombie-infested Las Vegas to pull off an extremely dangerous casino heist. At a glance, it might seem a whole lot more fun than Dawn of the Dead’s dark chaos, but Army of the Dead wastes no time dialling up the emotional stakes of its story - to mixed results.

 

This heist seems like a gamble

Image: Netflix

Army of the Dead doesn’t try to outdo the intensity of Dawn’s opening, or even match it. From the moment you watch the movie open with a man receiving oral pleasure (I’m trying to be family-friendly, give me a break) from his wife, you know what you’re in for. No time is wasted setting up the events leading up to the zombie outbreak in Las Vegas – though they rely a little too heavily on soldiers acting like absolute idiots whenever possible. During a sequence where two soldiers are being hunted by a ferocious zombie, one of them trips and accidentally fires off their gun, giving away their position. Puzzlingly, the two then laugh it off, having gotten spooked by a hole in the ground – as if they weren't running from a nightmarish monster just a minute ago.

There are a lot of moments like these scattered throughout the movie, where you have to suspend disbelief and just assume that everyone here is an idiot, which isn’t exactly what you want to do for a horror movie. Some of the best ones (Ready or Not, Hush, You’re Next) excel because their protagonists are intelligent, and that’s such a rare thing to see in a horror movie. But I digress. Where other zombie movies unfold during the zombie outbreak itself though, Army of the Dead breezes over it in a matter of minutes. We do get to see some of it go down via a slow-motion musical title sequence, which have become a staple of Snyder's films by now.

The rest of the movie takes place with the zombie apocalypse having been contained in Las Vegas.  Having fought off the undead in Las Vegas, former zombie war hero Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) now flips burgers on the outskirts of town, like many others displaced by the crisis in the city. A casino boss named Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada, who’s having a big year between this and Mortal Kombat) approaches him with a tantalising proposition: break into the zombie-infested quarantine zone and retrieve US$200 million sitting in a vault beneath the city strip. The catch? Well, there's an endless list of catches, but one of them is that Las Vegas will be nuked in 32 hours – giving Ward a ticking clock to complete the heist.

Image: Netflix

Army of the Dead has some pretty strange pacing, and that’s a recurring complaint of mine with Snyder’s films. Once Ward decides to go for the heist, he assembles a crack team of various thieves, mechanics and warriors to execute a dangerous plan – but it takes 40 minutes for them to actually get into Las Vegas. Before that, a lot of time is spent setting up each team member and their individual backstories, which would work if they all didn’t feel so tired. So few of these characters are even remotely compelling. Most of them feel like Snyder ticked off a list of generic tropes constructing them, but stopped just short of giving the audience something to emotionally latch onto.

Each of them can be boiled down to one personality trait or skillset, and that's all they have going on. Peters is a pilot for example, and Martin is Bly’s untrustworthy right-hand man. They never really grow beyond these boxes, which means they never have a chance to become interesting – so why would you care when they start dropping dead? There are a few exceptions, though. The German safe cracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer) is the film’s designated comic relief, but Schweighöfer practically walks away with the movie in a lovably earnest performance. An unlikely bond between him and the steel-faced Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick) brings out the best in both characters. On the heist, Scott Ward also has to deal with keeping his daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) safe and unravelling their problematic relationship – and while the intended emotion behind their scenes falls flat most of the time, it does provide the film with some much-needed heart.

 

A real splatterfest

Image: Netflix

All that being said, it’s not like you’re booting up Army of the Dead for a two-hour dose of well-written character drama. This is a zombie movie first and foremost, and while it adheres to most of the genre’s conventions, Snyder has snuck in some new additions to Army of the Dead’s zombie canon to keep things interesting. When Scott and his team waltz into Las Vegas, they’re fully prepared to blow away dumb, unthinking Shamblers – rotting corpses that only pose a threat if enough of them are gathered together. What they aren’t prepared for are faster, smarter zombies called Alphas and their leader Zeus. Suddenly, the zombies aren’t a mess of bloodthirsty corpses. They’re strong, quick and united under a powerful but enigmatic leader.

Army of the Dead unfolds more like an action-thriller than a horror flick, but there’s plenty here for horror fans to lap up too. Snyder didn’t skimp on the gore and violence that come with man-eating zombies, and one scene in particular, involving an undead tiger, had me cringing at the screen. It was fantastic. At the heart of all these stomach-churning kills are intense zombie sequences where you genuinely begin to fear for the fate of these characters. Not because you actually care about them, but because you wouldn’t wish these deaths on anyone. Zeus himself isn’t terribly interesting as a villain though, and a part of me wishes that Snyder just went for straightforward fast-moving zombies – since this new ‘Alpha’ zombie type never adds up to much in the end.

Army of the Dead feels large in scale, with the practical casino sets and drawn-out visuals of a barren Las Vegas crawling with undead. Slot machines and roulette tables provide great setpieces for some of the big action sequences later on, and these quick-moving zombie hordes fill them with a constant sense of danger. It’s not just open environments and casinos, though. Snyder peppered in all sorts of environments for these characters to die in fun variety, from underground corridors to wide deserts. The movie bounces from claustrophobic, darkly-lit fights for survival to run-and-gun chases, and that keeps things fresh.

 

Verdict

Image: Netflix

If you’re looking for an action-packed zombie movie that doesn’t require much from you for two and a half hours, Army of the Dead will do the job. It takes ages to get going thanks to an out-of-place quarantine camp subplot, but once the team hits Las Vegas, things take a frantic and very entertaining turn. Unfortunately, these characters mostly come off bland in a story that leans heavily on Scott and his daughter’s relationship, which again, buckles under pressure. If I felt something besides pity whenever one of these characters met their maker, maybe I’d like this movie better. As it stands, I wish this ended up being more than just another movie with a wasted premise.  

We also interviewed Dave Bautista and Zack Snyder on the movie. Check out that interview here. 

***

6 Alpha hordes out of 10

Army of the Dead premieres on Netflix on 21 May, 2021.

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