Zack Snyder jumps platforms for another long-haul, this time with zombies

By: Steve Pulaski

From the much-anticipated release of his cut of Justice League to a zombie epic in Army of the Dead (on two different streaming platforms no less!), Zack Snyder might as well be pounding the table to get some goddamn respect. He earns it here. Don’t expect a “Snyder Cut” of this one, however, because this is so distinctly his vision. He creates a visually dynamic movie that punches you with two tragic endings on top of all the zombie mayhem you could ask for in a 128-minute package.

Army of the Dead finds the right tone from the jump, opening with a wildly clever sequence involving a military convoy transporting confidential cargo colliding with a pair of newlyweds on a lonely Nevada highway. Emerging from the damaged crate is a mutant zombie who is immune to gunfire, killing the surviving soldiers of the crash before setting its sights on Las Vegas.

Cue the phenomenal opening credits: a ridiculous cover version of “Viva Las Vegas” plays while Snyder kickstarts a montage of carnage you could believe merely occurred in a week’s time, given the swiftness of the zombies. Topless zombie showgirls feast on an Elvis impersonator. Zombies dogpile casino-goers with a backdrop of slots and table-games. It’s absolute madness set to showtunes. The credits also introduce us to our major characters, specifically Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), Cruz (Ana de la Reguera), and Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick); three soldiers with impeccable aim and lady luck on their sides. After escaping the city, which becomes walled off by freight, they return to their joe jobs while the government is left with figuring out a way to exterminate what’s left of “Lost Vegas.”

Ward’s interest is piqued when a wealthy mogul named Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) approaches him with a proposal: assemble a team, retrieve the $200 million in his underground vault in Vegas, and escape via a rooftop helicopter in exchange for $50 million to divvy up amongst the crew. All before the government nukes the entire city. Without many options, Ward phones Cruz and Vanderohe, along with a sharpshooter (Raúl Castillo), a helicopter pilot (Tig Notaro, seamlessly replacing disgraced comedian Chris D’Elia through reshoots), one of Tanaka’s henchmen (Garrett Dillahunt), Ward’s own daughter Katie (Ella Purnell), and the most indispensable member: an expert safecracker named Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer).

Army of the Dead takes about 50 minutes before the crew set foot inside the destroyed Vegas. It takes its time setting the stakes and granting us some familiarity with the cast of misfits. In that regard, Snyder, Shay Hatten (John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum), and Joby Harold’s script shows creative and narrative ambition. They roll the dice and gamble in testing the weight of a completely nutso zombie movie by jamming it with characters, stylized action sequences, and emotional heft.

Not only are these zombies quick, they’re smart to boot. They’ve established a hierarchy and have made the Olympus casino their kingdom. Within said kingdom are two distinctly different types of zombies: “Shamblers,” as they’re known, are the sloppy, staggering undead we’ve grown accustomed to in zombie flicks. “Alphas” are a different breed, capable of strategizing and outsmarting humans with quickness and combat. You could believe some of the alphas were former Vegas stage-performers, adding to the authenticity.

Veteran editor Dody Dorn (Power Rangers) has the daunting challenge of making this carnage coherent and succeeds. Snyder (who also serves as cinematographer) has always excelled at adding some dimension to his settings. He makes Vegas his playground, brimful of eye-popping detail that looks like far more than the alleged $90 million was spent in curating all of this. Snyder’s interiors, however, can sometimes tend to get ugly and claustrophobic. Not the case here. Casino floors, underground vaults, and grimy apartments are all investing locations.

At 128 minutes, however, Army of the Dead is far too long. Part of this is there are too many characters, most of whom left unhumanized. In my humble estimation, you could’ve omitted two of the sharpshooters of the group and trimmed some of the fat. Dave Bautista doesn’t get enough credit for his acting abilities and he makes a compelling character out of a very thinly drawn Ward, who still has PTSD over his first zombie encounter that left his wife and Katie’s mom dead. You might not realize it until the conclusion, which gifts us not one but two tragic endings that set the stage for sequels that I, for one, would welcome. Note: a prequel called Army of Thieves is already slated for release this year.

It shouldn’t come as a great shock that Snyder and zombies make a winning pair. Of course, his remake of zombie godfather George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was his first (and arguably best) film, tackling themes of consumerism and the military industrial complex. Perhaps it’s the promise of that deceptively wry movie that made his subsequent efforts feel like stale popcorn entertainment by comparison. Army of the Dead flirts with themes such as refugees, treatment of activists, and political persecution, but doesn’t let them bog down a movie made to be escapist fun. Not every movie needs to be a political diatribe. It’s a forgivable omission.

Not without its flaws, but not nearly boasting as many as his past works, Snyder has outdone himself with Army of the Dead and deserves the praise he should receive.

NOTE: Army of the Dead is now streaming on Netflix.

Grade: B

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