If Zack Snyder could sustain the same amount of energy and panache that he brings to the opening credits sequences of his films throughout the rest of their runtimes, he’d be an auteur worthy of the adoring, yet occasionally toxic fanbase that’s long tormented Warner Brothers Pictures. His latest project, Army of the Dead, is no different.
Snyder, a master of shot composition and striking imagery, fills the title sequence of his latest zombie flick with arresting visuals, such as an elderly man being mauled while his jackpot winnings spew from a nearby slot like the blood from his wounds. There’s also a paratrooper slowly descending into a teeming, hungry horde. It’s the kind of eye-catching opening that suggests a hard-charged, neon-lit romp. But in reality, Army of the Dead moves like one of the film’s “shamblers.”
The film centers on Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), a mercenary with a troubled past who is approached by a shadowy millionaire to pull off a heist in Las Vegas. The problem is that Vegas has been abandoned and walled off after a zombie outbreak. The zombies who are still standing years later are smarter than the average slack-jawed straggler. Still, $200 million is up for the taking if Scott can assemble a team, get in, and get out in 36 hours before the United States nukes what remains of Sin City. If it sounds easy enough, you’re likely no Romero fan.
Army of the Dead’s two and half hours feel longer than the four-hour Snyder Cut of the Justice League, primarily due to the requisite “getting the team together” beginning of a heist film and a bloated second act that drags because of inopportune heart to hearts. Seriously, are personal relationships that important to discuss when a nuclear bomb is imminent?
One can appreciate Snyder attempting to bring some human drama into the mix to shade his characters, and he introduces the members of Scott’s team well enough, largely accomplishing his goal in the first act. The film rarely revs up into overdrive, however, and while there are a few memorably gory deaths, they’re too few and far between. There’s also a mid-film twist that doesn’t make a lick of sense if you think about it for longer than 20 seconds.
However, points should be given to Snyder for making this simultaneously his most personal, yet fun film to date. The director seemingly addresses his relationship with his late daughter, who was tragically lost to suicide, using Scott and his daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) as analogs to moving results. Additionally, this is the first Snyder flick with genuine belly laughs, thanks to memorable, cheeky performances by Matthias Schweighöfer, Omari Hardwick, and Tig Notaro.
Still, for a movie with such a ridiculously fun premise on paper, the camp could have been turned up a tad, or a greater sense of dread built. Neither are tuned to the levels that they should be. If Snyder’s first zombie film, 2004’s genuinely fun and creepy Dawn of the Dead, was his Alien, this is his attempt at Aliens; it’s not trying to be as scary but it’s heavier on the action. Yet when Aliens gets into gear, it doesn’t let up. Army of the Dead starts, sputters, and stops like an old helicopter.
Nevertheless, Snyder deserves kudos for adding new texture to zombie mythos. The traditional antagonist roles are usually reserved for humans in these types of films, but Snyder invents a Big Bad that feels fresh and menacing. There’s also the zombie tiger, spotted in much of the promotion for the movie, that lives up to expectations. These amusing twists keep things from veering too far into typical Snyder dourness.
All that being said, the audience that will seek Army of the Dead out in its limited theatrical run, or when it drops on Netflix next week, will likely have little to quibble with. Snyder knows his audience and can still deploy an on-the-nose, yet irresistible needle drop like no one’s business. Even so, one cannot help but imagine a trimmed down version of Army of the Dead that loses most of the melodrama and brings the chaotic, bloody mayhem that the premise begs for, like what we see in the film’s opening moments. I suppose I can just watch that credit sequence again.
Army of the Dead is in limited theatrical release in the U.S. now and premieres on Netflix on Friday, May 24.