Army of the Dead Review

It is hard to be original when making a zombie movie nowadays. It is an oversaturated genre with properties that, by and large, feel the same.


Director and writer Zach Snyder desperately tried to subvert those expectations in his latest film, Army of the Dead, by creating a new kind of zombie. The result is a terrifying take on the undead, one that is tribalistic and has more agency. It is a refreshing change of pace that lets us know we are in for a different experience.


Snyder's penchant for a stellar opening hammers home this point right from the jump. The first 15 minutes of the film are a masterclass of Synderisms. Set to the sultry tunes of Elvis, Army of the Dead opens with a sprawling tapestry of zombie carnage juxtaposed with human mayhem. There are slow-motion zombie kills, topless showgirls devouring Liberace impersonators, and a stylized introduction of our featured players. By the end, we are fully immersed in this world, even as Las Vegas is walled off to contain the gruesome zombie uprising we just witnessed.



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I suspect many will see Army of the Dead as a spiritual successor to Snyder's 2004 film, Dawn of the Dead. To me, though, it has far more in common with Suicide Squad, a movie for which Snyder served as executive producer. Both attempt to employ a biting sense of humor while following a ragtag group of anti-heroes as they battle a supernaturally superior force once under government control.


The two are like distant cousins of sorts, and neither can live up to their immense potential.


Don't get me wrong. Army of the Dead is a much better movie than Suicide Squad, but it just cannot meet the lofty goals Snyder set out to achieve.


Army of the Dead follows Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), a short-order cook and veteran of the zombie war. After completing his tour of zombie killing duty, Ward returns to a life in shambles. His wife fell victim to an attack from the undead, forcing Ward to kill her and subsequently driving a wedge between him and his daughter Kate (Ella Purnell).


It isn't too long, though, before Ward is brought back into a life he would like to leave behind. Casino owner Bly Tanaka ( Hiroyuki Sanada) and his business associate Martin (Garret Dillahunt) recruit Ward to recover $200 million from Tanaka's vault in Sin City. What's the catch, you may ask? Well, aside from being surrounded by the ungrateful dead, the government plans to drop a nuclear missile on Las Vegas in a few days to destroy the city.


To complete the job, Ward will need a top-notch team around him. Along for the journey are Martin, fellow veterans Maria (Ana de la Reguerra) and Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), wise-cracking pilot Marianne Peters (Tig Notaro), safecracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer), social media influencer and zombie-killing enthusiast Mikey Gonzalez (Raúl Castillo), and his associate Chambers (Samantha Win).



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Putting together a crew is only part of their problem, though, as Ward will also need to gain access to the walled-off city. Enter Kate, who now works at a quarantine camp right outside of Las Vegas. She connects her father with Lilly (Nora Arnezeder)- also known as the Coyote- who joins the crew, as does camp guard Burt Cummings (Theo Rossi). Kate rounds out the group after learning Lilly escorted a mother of two into the city the night before.


Unless Snyder and fellow writers Shay Hatten and Joby Harold intended for the film to be some twisted remake of Ocean's 11, there is no logical reasoning to employ such a large cast. Most are generic archetypes, with few moving beyond the surface level- though one could certainly argue Nataro is doing her best to chew up screen time. There is simply nothing compelling about these supporting characters. Quite frankly, most of Ward's crew could be removed from the film altogether without any consequences in terms of narrative.



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The one exception might be Ward and, to an extent, his relationship with Kate. While neither provides Earth-shattering performances, Bautista is a surprising standout and brings a sense of pathos missing from the film. Snyder clearly spent a great deal of time crafting both these characters and their arcs as he allows them to breathe, creating a sense of depth and direction missing with most of the cast.


I could not help but wonder if this particular arc was a personal one for Snyder. His close-knit relationship with his children is well-known, and there is an intimacy to Ward and Kate's relationship that is nonexistent for the rest of the characters- for better or worse, they are the heart of the film. I wouldn't be surprised if Snyder paid a few visits to the emotional bank to make some withdrawals from the ATM while developing the script.


For me, the lack of compelling character is a symptom of a much larger issue the film suffers from- a lack of editing. Snyder is a good director who brings a unique voice to the screen, but the lack of quality control over Army of the Dead on Netflix's part only hurts the film.


Army of the Dead is a slog to get through at almost two and a half hours of screen time, especially after the first 15-minute opening sequence does such a great job setting up the film as a fast-paced, action-packed adventure. Unfortunately, this proves to be the best part of the entire movie as it grinds to a halt for the next hour or so.


The loss of momentum from the setup causes some pacing and tone issues throughout that the film cannot overcome, not to mention some cringeworthy dialogue throughout . In a lot of ways, it felt like Army of the Dead lacked a true identity. Is it an action movie? A horror movie? A comedy? A combination of the three? It can be all of these things, but it only works if the story has a direction, and I left my viewing wondering what the point was.


The answer I keep coming back to is that Army of the Dead is a standalone movie that is also meant to serve as a trailer for future installments. Ya got to love when a film is so consumed with world building that is essentially become a two hour trailer for future films. Just ask Sony how that worked out for Amazing Spider-Man 2.


Thinking back on it now, it amazes me how little story Snyder managed to pack into the bloated run time. With future sequels and prequels already planned, I hope Snyder takes a tighter approach to his storytelling for future installments.



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And this brings us back to the beginning with the zombies and the King they call Zeus (Richard Cetrone). If Snyder knows how to do one thing, that is direct a fun action sequence. Army of the Dead is no different. The violence is gruesome in all the best ways, and Zeus is a menacing creation that feels truly original. Despite all of the issues in Army of the Dead, the undead is not one of them.


Army of the Dead is one of those ideas I want to work. It feels fresh and different from what we have come to expect from our zombie films. And at times, Army of the Dead is a lot of fun. Unfortunately for Snyder and his team, there aren't enough fun moments to outpace the dead weight.










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