2021 is five months old, and two of its best films belong to Zack Snyder. With Army of the Dead—his first foray with the decaying since 2004’s Dawn of the Dead—Snyder has crafted a grisly and gratifying world. It’s a sandbox all his own, allowing him the freedom to go for broke. That brash style may not suit all genres, but it works perfectly here.
There is no greater indicator of that than the movie’s opening credits. After we witness the inciting incident—the escape of the alpha zombie—we then bask in the murderous mayhem of the zombie horde descending on Vegas. The ramifications of which are painted through a montage of Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) and his crew mowing down waves of shambling undead.
That bloodbath is interestingly inter-spliced with photos of the squad, displaying glimpses of their lives before the descent into madness. It’s slick; it sets the tone for what’s to come; and it’s extremely effective at painting a portrait of the horrors people suffered as the number of zombies swelled beyond control.
From here, we flash forward. Ward is now a short-order cook at a dumpy diner in the desert. As it turns out, saving the lives of many—including a high-ranking government official—isn’t good for much more than a medal and a pat on the back. Thus, when Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) approaches him with an offer—$50 million in cash if he can navigate the zombie-infested strip and retrieve four times that amount from a casino vault—it’s one that proves difficult to refuse.
His acceptance also sets up one of my personal favorite tropes, “Getting the band back together.” Ward is no fool; he understands the dangers of what lies ahead; and he knows he needs the old gang to pull it off. One by one, we’re introduced to the faces from the opening, along with some other misfits. And what works so well here is that all of them feel fully realized and unique.
Whether it’s Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick)—whose PTSD eats at his conscience—or Marianne Peters (Tig Notaro)—who’s simply game for the money—or Mikey Guzman (Raúl Castillo)—a YouTuber whose videos center on blasting the walking dead—these are not stock characters for the slaughter. They all have distinct personalities and are all given time to shine.
The script—which Snyder also wrote—even infuses a healthy dose of humor. It’s just enough to ease the tension, while allowing some of the less serious members of the group like Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer) to put their stamp on the film. Believe me, Dieter is awesome.
With them all onboard, we head to Vegas. And, as it generally is with missions like these, nothing is ever simple. To get in, Ward requires the aid of his daughter Kate (Ella Purnell). She works as a volunteer at the refugee camp outside the shipping crate-lined wall that cuts Vegas off from the rest of the country. The camp houses those who’ve been exposed to the contagion. They’re not sick, but that doesn’t matter much to the folks in charge.
Anyway, as I mentioned, things are never as cut and dry as they appear. Kate joins the crew, along with Lilly, “The Coyote,” (Nora Arnezeder)—a mercenary who helps people in the camp cross the border into Vegas in hopes they can attain unguarded riches—and Martin (Garret Dillahunt)—a security stooge for Mr. Tanaka.
Kate is compelled to come because “The Coyote” escorted a friend of hers in the camp across; she never returned. That is the B-plot of the movie.
Now, with the general premise set, I’m going to shift away from the proceedings and into overall impressions.
Army of the Dead is not your typical zombie film. Sure, the stereotypical pesky biters are present—the shamblers, mindless minions driven by the thirst for flesh. But there’s also the varsity team led by Zeus (Richard Cetrone—Affleck’s Bat stunt double). Zeus was the nasty sucker that kicked this whole thing off.
They are faster, stronger, and smarter than your average undead. They’re even humanized throughout. It’s a nice touch that further illustrates how they’ve assembled a society of their own and want to be left alone.
When the crap hits the fan, these zombies on steroids are quite menacing. The action scene on the casino floor as Zeus’ troops swarm in mass is just incredible, as is their initial confrontation with the lesser dead upon their entrance into the building.
Snyder has always had a tremendous grasp of creating awe-inspiring visuals. That is no different here. Serving as his own cinematographer, the frenetic shootouts are captured just wonderfully. I can’t stress enough how badass and fraught the film is as reality sets in that not everyone is making it out of this venture alive.
Army of the Dead soars in those moments. It is not a perfect film, though. It is overwritten in parts, and some of the more melodramatic scenes—as deftly as Bautista and co handle them—are forced. There is not a whole lot of fat, but to say that there’s none just wouldn’t be true.
In addition, for all the new ideas it brings to the table, Army of the Dead does feel evocative of James Cameron’s Aliens. As an homage to one of my favorite films, I totally dug that aesthetic; but, in saying that, a couple of its plot threads do feel utterly predictable and, as a result, underwhelming.
In the end, what impresses me most about how excellent 2021 has been for Zack Snyder is how both of his offerings came together. I can’t even fathom the logistics of how he pulled off the extensive VFX that went into the fabled Snyder Cut, nor can I quite comprehend how he so seamlessly rejiggered Army of the Dead to remove the problematic Chris D’Elia. But I’m sure glad he was able to do it. Hats off to him and the folks who made it all happen.
Netflix, no pun intended, gambled big—giving Snyder the creative freedom to craft something original and exciting—and it paid off. They were wise to go all in.