Army of the Dead Review
Warning: Spoilers Ahead!
After bursting onto the scene in 2004 with the remake of Dawn Of The Dead, Zack Snyder returns to where his filmmaking career began with 2021’s Army Of The Dead. So, how is it?
Back in 2004, while making the remake of Dawn Of The Dead, Zack Snyder had the idea for a movie about a crew robbing a Las Vegas casino in the middle of a Zombie Outbreak. In 2007 it was officially announced in pre-production with Snyder and Joby Harold writing the script and Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. directing.
Unfortunately, the project languished in development hell until Netflix picked up the rights in 2019 and Snyder stepped up as director. Armed with a more hands-free studio, fancy cameras, and the desire to be his own cinematographer, Zack Snyder’s Army Of The Dead is the culmination of a fascinating career. But, is the movie any good?
With this movie, it’s a full genre exploration. The film really was inspired by movies like Escape From New York or Aliens, [James] Cameron’s Aliens, RoboCop. That world. It’s very much a genre deconstruction in the sense that I love all the tropes, and so I’m constantly trying to subvert the tropes by having them not finish as you would [expect]. Zack Snyder, IGN interview
After watching it two times, I realized that Army Of The Dead is, in fact, Snyder’s love letter to all things action and horror. Now, hear me out with this! All you’ve gotta do is watch the opening fifteen minutes or so, and everything becomes crystal clear. The movie starts by cutting back and forth between a newlywed couple enjoying nuptial bliss and a convoy of heavily armed military personnel transporting something, something dangerous, mysterious, or even otherworldly. The dialogue here, between the lead vehicle’s drivers, is laden with references to all things horror; aliens, conspiracies, Area 51, and other hints of possibilities. Naturally, there is a crash, a massive explosion, and whatever they were transporting escapes.
Instead of having a shoot-out, guns blazing action sequence, we are given the sight of the men being given orders to abandon the ‘payload’ and get the fuck out of there. Which is quite a refreshing change of pace for most movies dealing with the military. Unfortunately, the monster wipes them out, and we are treated to a more testosterone-filled version of the Moors sequence from John Landis’ classic, An American Werewolf In London. Watching this sequence and realizing the homage to my all-time favorite werewolf movie put a smile on my face, and I knew I would be in for a good time.
And the following credit sequence reinforced that perfectly.
Having Liberace count us in, then play a beautiful flourish on the piano as behind him bedlam erupts as a big band tune kicks in on the soundtrack (a swing version of the Elvis classic, Viva Las Vegas). At the same time, hot-pink titles appear of the carnage declares loud and clear what type of movie this is. Fun. And having the singer be none other than Richard Cheese himself, who provided the glorious cover of Down With Sickness for Dawn Of The Dead, is a lovely way to tie both movies together and one the diehard fans will instantly pick up and cheer.
Not only does the opening give us a toe-tapping song and plenty of zombie carnage and violence, what Snyder does here is to show us how the undead took over Sin City and the futility the government faced trying to destroy the undead horde. While this happens, we also are shown our central characters facing the problems of zombies, killing them, saving people, and dealing with loss beyond their control.
The fun of watching body parts go flying and blood paint the screen red is punctuated with Snyder’s normal nihilism. In a way that undercuts the audience’s expectations beautifully and poignantly, what we have here is a more mature director who has experienced a loss similar to that of our heroes in Army of the Dead.
At its heart, it’s a relationship movie – Dave and his daughter. They’re trying to mend their relationship throughout the film. She shouldn’t have been on the mission, but she tricks him into it. There is this tiny relationship movie inside of it about a father who abandoned his child and [is] trying to make it right. And then, on top of that, it’s just like pure genre mayhem and insanity. Zack Snyder, IGN interview
The story itself is centered on Dave Bautista’s character, Scott Ward, trapped in a dead-end job at a diner. He is the film’s emotional core, and Bautista really shows what a good actor he is. Yes, we’ve seen him do stoic before with his role in Guardians Of The Galaxy, but here he brings a vulnerability to a stock-character role that any other muscle-bound actor could play. Watching this movie, I have to admit that Bautista is the best of the best as far as wrestlers-turned-actors go.
Most of the cast also bring their A-game to their roles. Apart from Bautista, the two standouts are Tig Notaro as Peters, the pilot, and Matthias Schweighöfer as Dieter, the safecracker. Both actors bring much-needed charm and likability to a movie that, at times is far too self-serious and pretentious for its own good.
But, in a way, this is a Snyder movie, and the man is known to be self-indulgent at times. As for the rest of the cast, they do just fine with pretty standard characters that you would find in what is basically a pulp-type story; A team of mercenaries is sent into a zombie-infested Las Vegas to rob a casino.
And setting Army Of The Dead in a war-ravaged, walled-off version of Vegas that resembles more of a post-apocalyptic wasteland one would find in Mad Max is a stroke of genius. Ask anyone to picture Vegas, and immediately they conjure up images of glitz, glamour, money, and Lady Luck. To see it as a dried, barren, destroyed place is chilling and the perfect setting. Many heist movies have been set in Las Vegas, so seeing it as a setting for both a heist film and zombie flick makes good sense.
Of course, we cannot talk about a Snyder movie without talking about the action. And there is plenty of good ol’ wholesome action for the discerning viewer. A standout moment is a suspense-filled jaunt through a host of hibernating zombies. The tension is palpable as the only way through them is a narrow corridor, and one wrong move will have them all be devoured. Naturally, things go wrong. A member of the team betrays them, and the guns start blasting.
A more levity-filled section is when the character, Dieter, is trying to set off pressure pads in front of the safe and the various zombies they use to do the task. It is one of the more comedic moments of the movie and made me smile and giggle like a child.
But, with everything Snyder, there are, of course, the bad things (which can be said for all moves and fiction)
What makes Army Of The Dead stand above most zombie-fare that comes out, apart from the money Netflix threw at Snyder, is the director and cinematographer. Handling both duties, Snyder shows everyone what he already knew; he can shoot the shit out of anything. His entire career has been one of “some is good, more is better, and all is perfect,” which is another way of saying excess and slow-motion.
By taking the camera directly, we can fully see how he sees the world, and this is one case where I have to say I am not a fan of Snyder, the cameraman. His shots are too reliant on hand-held shakiness, shallow focus, and reliance on extreme close-ups. It was the same with the ending of Justice League (2021) with the Nightmare Universe scene between Joker and Batman. This style of filmmaking may be for some, but for me, it becomes annoying real quick.
Army Of The Dead’s dialogue is clunky. Granted, this isn’t a Quentin Tarantino or Aaron Sorkin movie, but these stock-standard characters could’ve used a little more panache in the words they’re saying so stoically. Of course, being a heist movie, there is a level of predictability that one cannot escape, but the addition of the zombies does help to save it from complete been-there-done-that.
But back to the zombie goodness. And once our merry-band of thieves enter Las Vegas, there is plenty of action, blood and guts, and a new take on the undead.
“A normal zombie is not really… it’s hard to have sympathy. Weirdly, even the guys who kill them, seem like they’re doing them a favor a little bit. And so I felt that we were able to create this other class of zombie that was semi-conscious. We treat them like wolves or… like a dog, not necessarily fully realized [or able to] talk or anything, but they can organize. And with Zeus… he has a horse. He rides a horse. He has a staff. And he’s probably the smartest of all of them. Whether he has hopes and dreams, I’m not sure.” Zack Snyder, IGN interview
What Army Of The Dead brings to the zombie genre is the idea of a caste system. Unlike almost nearly every single other zombie tale in the universe, this one introduces the concept of different kinds of the undead. Yes, there is the zombie tiger, but there are also the regular shamblers (think your normal undead monster) but what Snyder does is bring in Alphas.
These are faster, more brutal, and seemingly intelligent zombies, with one named Zeus as the progenitor of the entire outbreak having a ‘Queen.’ She becomes critical to the movie’s plot in the later stages of the film. In an almost loving way, the way they interact defies all expectations about what a zombie is and brings a twisted tenderness to the undead monstrosities just trying to survive in the middle of a desert.
And no discussion of Army Of The Dead can happen without mentioning the true star of the movie. Valentine, the zombie tiger! It’s a fucking tiger that got turned into a zombie! What more can I say.
After diving thoroughly into Snyder’s filmography, Army Of The Dead is both a return to the well (in a way) and a more mature step forward for him. This is by no means his most excellent movie, but it is also not his worst. Instead, what we have here is an enjoyable yet ponderous movie that adds something new to the zombie genre.
And it has a fucking zombie tiger!