If you only see one Zack Snyder movie this year about a brooding muscleman who assembles an elite, specialized team to enter a depopulated, contaminated zone to open an indestructible metal box and face down a giant gray humanoid and his zombified hordes, make it Justice League. But if you see two, Army of the Dead‘s pretty good as well. Even though it comes as pre-assembled franchise starter, with a prequel and animated series on the way, spinning off the characters isn’t the point. It’s no spoiler to say that in a zombie movie, the majority of the cast will not make it out alive. Warner Bros. may never #ReleaseTheAyerCut, but the architect of the modern DC movie universe has delivered his Suicide Squad.
Snyder skeptics are calling this one his best film since Dawn of the Dead, his debut, and not just because they both have zombies. It’s also the least Snyder-y movie he’s made since then. There’s no more slow-motion here than in most big action movies, and none of that “slow-down, speed-up” stuff he does. Nor is there any conspicuous desaturation, or post-production passes to make scenes look like literal comic books or paintings. Snyder doesn’t quite favor the hyper-editing style of a Michael Bay, but this is a film that would sit comfortably in the Jerry Bruckheimer canon.
It actually feels a lot like Bay’s Benghazi movie 13 Hours, with creatures from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies thrown in for good measure. He’ll see your zombie shark, and raise you a zombie tiger. Perhaps the only major Snyder signature that sets it apart is his preference for gray skies over the orange sunsets favored by the likes of Tony Scott. And he does love his slowed-down cover versions of older songs.
In an intro that features the kinds of broad stereotypes Bay traffics in, a couple engaging in oral sex while driving crash into and blow up the kind of military vehicle that ought to be better protected against such things. Worse, it’s carrying an alpha zombie-ish monster from Area 51 that’s kinda-sorta named Zeus (Richard Cetrone, a Snyder regular who’s also Ben Affleck’s frequent stunt double). Having superhuman powers and a modicum of intelligence, Zeus kills everyone in the vicinity, then heads to nearby Las Vegas, as the movie’s opening credits shorthand the mini-apocalypse that ensues. By the time Snyder’s director title rolls, Las Vegas gets walled off by shipping containers, left a zombie enclosure scheduled to be nuked by the president on the Fourth of July. The movie doesn’t name the president, but does imply he’s a dangerous fool.
Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), a veteran of the initial zombie war, now flips burgers for a living. Traumatized by having to kill his zombified wife in front of their daughter, he remains estranged from the latter. But when the opportunity arises to make $50 million dollars by boosting a stash of $200 million from a casino basement safe, he sees a chance at catharsis and providing for daughter Kate’s future. It’s time to put a team together, featuring loyal sidekicks, a pilot, a safecracker, a zombie-killing YouTuber, a “coyote” human trafficker to get them in, and an obligatory corporate stooge escort with his own secret agenda.
As social satire goes, zombies in Las Vegas feels only mildly less subtle than zombies in a shopping mall. (Shopping mall? What’s that, asks the Amazon generation?) Thirty seconds of a zombie wearing a T-shirt reading “consumer” would make the same point. But Snyder adds additional stabs at relevance. The outskirts of Vegas are lined with government quarantine camps, where refugees from Vegas are held in case they become zombies too. Regular temperature checks become mandatory — mandatory masks too on-the-nose, perhaps? There’s also a strong implication that the camps don’t actually care about safety. Rather, they offer a pretext for holding non-whites and anyone else the government dislikes. And of course, Kate Ward (Ella Purnell, who played young Maleficent) works with the refugees. Though she hasn’t yet learned not to sass the abusive guards.
After a few beats spent with each team member just so we know enough to distinguish them, it’s Vegas time. And because heroes need a personal stake, events contrive a reason for Kate to come along too. And that’s before the ticking clock of the imminent nuclear bomb moves up. No doubt the father-daughter relationship matters a great deal to Snyder given his recent life circumstances, but the choice to bring Kate on the mission is the kind of beat to make audiences scream at the TV. In fairness, Scott halfheartedly addresses those concerns, but still. There’s literally no chance her presence won’t severely compromise him. Also, Bautista’s crying face in slo-mo does nobody any favors. His entire appeal lies in being non-overdramatic.
The dead in this movie follow several new and arbitrary rules, though arguably no more arbitrary than the classic shot-to-the-brain one. Alpha mutants that can think and communicate, co-existing among the dead, come right out of Resident Evil…the last major franchise to show zombies in Las Vegas. Sadly, one glorious tease never pays off. A character mentions that dried-up walls of corpses briefly return to life when it rains, and then the movie never provides rain. Gotta save something for the spinoffs.
Army of the Dead offers few surprises — the story beats that one might expect to happen do happen, and right about when expected. What gamer doesn’t anticipate a final boss fight right when everything seem free and clear? So its pleasures lie in the execution. Zombies gush blood when slashed with a giant portable circular saw. The most difficult safe in the world features Jigsaw-level traps. And the most unpleasant humans get the nastiest, most drawn-out fates. Don’t expect too many “We Need to Talk About That Problematic Death Scene” editorials after this one. Considering how the MPAA rules neutered some of the trap scene gore in Spiral: From the Book of Saw, Snyder gets remarkably no-holds-barred with the gross-outs. Chalk it up to the organization’s usual hypocrisy, which in this case equals a win.
Though the cast lacks star power, the team make an appealing group. Save, of course, the obviously loathsome characters, like Theo Rossi’s camp guard, who make great heels. Tig Notaro, digitally inserted after another actor became massively problematic, particularly sells what ultimately had to be the total illusion of banter. Omari Hardwick acts wonderfully understated as the calm yet put-upon saw-wielder. Raul Castillo plays it hilariously tacky as the vlogger turned mercenary. And to play the stereotypical whiny German, Snyder actually hired a real German, Matthias Schweighöfer, rather than getting Alan Tudyk to pull his annoying 28 Days/Transformers 3 shtick again.
What fans most want from a big-budget zombie movie is that it not pull any punches. Without spoiling, we can safely say this resembles that remark. Zack Snyder well knows that this time, nobody will complain about neck-snapping scenes. He doesn’t seem to know much about fallout or EMPs, but whatever, neither did Predator. In creating his own heroes, Snyder can have them go as violent as he likes. If that’s your thing, then so, very much, is this.
Army of the Dead is currently playing in limited theatrical release, and debuts on Netflix on May 21.
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