If you’ve seen any film from director Zack Snyder, you’ll know the man knows how to open a film with a bang. Snyder’s latest epic, Army of the Dead, the first Netflix film to receive a wide theatrical release, is no exception. In a staggering opening sequence that feels like Snyder was cackling with glee during production, we witness the origin of the zombie outbreak that overtakes Las Vegas. From a comically avoidable car crash that derails a mysterious Army cargo, to Las Vegas getting bombed by the government, all while introducing us to the film cast of characters and the tragedies that befall them. This prolonged opening feels like Snyder showing off, infusing a devilish sense of humor with flashes of melancholy that lingers throughout the remainder of the film. Did I mention the fact that it’s all largely scored by a bold song cover by the one and only Richard Cheese? Welcome to Army of the Dead.
After the opportunity of a lifetime to finish his director’s cut of Justice League, Snyder — like a legendary comic returning to stand-up for the first time in well over a decade — returns to the zombie genre, the very genre that launched his film career with his wicked remake of George A. Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead. Despite the title, Army has no relation to Dawn, but still feels like a spiritual successor.
When a zombie outbreak overcomes Las Vegas, leading to the government walling off the city, shady businessman Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) brings together a team of mercenaries led by the world-weary Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) to sneak into the city and break into the basement of a casino where $200 million is locked away in a vault. Having less than three days as the city is set to be nuked into oblivion, Scott brings together a team to not only pull off a successful heist, but avoid the endless amount of undead roaming the city. Within the ragtag ensemble of characters— all memorably cast — we get the usual’s; the hardass pilot (Tig Notaro, look into how she filmed her role, it’s seamless), the badass with a peculiar weapon (Omari Hardwick sporting a large Buzzsaw), the quirky safecracker (Matthias Schweighofer), the smarmy villain (Theo Rossi), etc.
Dave Bautista leads the cast in his best role to date. The character’s relationship with his estranged daughter (Ella Purnell), accompanying him along the heist, serves as the films emotional core. Bautista, primarily known for his heroic turn in Guardians of the Galaxy 1 & 2, but showed range in his brief role from Blade Runner 2049, is downright soulful here. His vulnerability and endearing chemistry with co-star Ella Purnell grounds the film emotionally.
Army finds Snyder at his most playful, with the filmmaker branching out stylistically. There’s an electric sense of fun pulsating throughout the extensive 146 minute runtime. Outrageous zombie kills, demented sight gags, even a zombie tiger all factor in to the insanity Snyder puts forth onscreen. Whether it’s a supremely tense sequence of our ensemble attempting to make their way through a floor full of hibernating zombies (yes, that’s a thing), or an exhilarating shootout throughout a casino lobby, Snyder keeps the pace moving briskly by diversifying the set-pieces.
Army is a highly original and often ambitious take on the genre. From the opening that establishes a rich backdrop, to the new portrayals of the undead. The zombies in this are a concoction found somewhere between Romero and Richard Matheson. Snyder, alongside co-writers Joby Harold and Shay Hatten, bring a wealth of new ideas to the zombies in particular. These undead have evolved beyond what you’re used to seeing, leading to some surprising developments along the way. Stunt people-turned-actors Richard Cetrone and Athena Perample are humanly performed as the King and Queen of the evolved zombies lurking in Las Vegas.
Despite the over-the-top action and gore, there’s a consistent melancholic undertone that creates an unusual, yet compelling tone. It’s perhaps Snyder’s biggest tonal juggling act, and one he pulls off exquisitely.
The film does stretch its runtime about 10 to 15 minutes too long and some character motivations fluctuate depending on where the plot dictates, not to mention one particularly annoying character decision that sets the final act in motion. Thankfully, the bombastic climax forgives most of the scripts contrivances.
Army of the Dead finds Zack Snyder making an audacious return to the zombie genre in what might also be the best zombie movie since his Dawn of the Dead. From his signature needle drops (including a final choice that’s particularly inspired), to memorable characters, both alive and undead, and first-rate action, this is Snyder’s most energetic — even personal— work in years. It’s a highly imaginative and thrilling take on the zombie genre that showcases Snyder’s singular eye for blockbuster filmmaking.