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There’s a certain sense of poetic symmetry for Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead. Long before he tumbled down the rabbit hole into the world of comic book adaptations and superheroics, the famed director got his start in 2004 with a highly well-received remake of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Now, 17 years(!) later, he’s staggered back—much like the famed undead antagonists at the core of zombie flicks—with a new take on the genre for Netflix’s Army of the Dead. The first (new) movie from Snyder in the Snyder Cut-fracas feels poetic in a way—after what was arguably the most challenging period in his life, the director is going back to the source.
Arriving to the streaming service on May 21, Army of the Dead features the best opening in a Snyder movie since the start of Watchmen: a military transport carrying an otherwise unspecified payload from Area 51 ends up colliding with a ruckus pair of newlyweds on a highway, unleashing the dastardly undead contained inside. The alpha zombie, eventually known as Zeus (Richard Cetrone), makes fast work of the soldiers before turning his sights on the City of Sin. Dead then drops into montage mode as the chaotic carnage works its way across the city. Set to a cover of “Viva Las Vegas,” the denizens of Vegas are lambs to the slaughter as the (soon to be) army of the dead rapidly expands throughout the city. We’re also introduced to a few of the flick’s leading players, including Ward (Dave Bautista), Cruz (Ana de la Reguera), and Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), as the mercenaries work in tandem with the military to contain the threat. Containment is about all they can do, as the city soon proves to be overrun and is eventually blocked off via a wall made of cargo containers. The trio receives nothing short of a pat on the back for their troubles, left to take on blue-collar jobs to get by. Oh, and all of this happens in the first 15 minutes of a two-and-a-half-hour movie.
So you’ll understand why Ward’s interest is piqued when wealthy casino owner Bly Tanaka (the legendary Hiroyuki Sanada) arrives with a modest proposal. It turns out there’s an impressive $200 million in cash sitting in a vault under one of the casinos. With the US government set to torch Vegas with a nuke, there’s a ticking clock on how long the cash will be up for grabs before the city goes up in flames. If Ward can exfiltrate the money in time, $50 million of it is his to keep.
Therein lies the plot of Dead, which fuses your standard zombie movie with plot elements of the Oceans movies and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, as Ward works with Cruz and Vanderohe to assemble a new crew to pull off the job. The trio recruit YouTube zombie killer Mikey Guzman (Raúl Castillo), German safecracker Ludwig Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer) and helicopter pilot Marianne Peters (comedian Tig Notaro, who was CGI’d in over Chris D’Elia). The team is further rounded out by Tanaka’s man Martin (character actor extraordinaire Garret Dillahunt) to oversee the operation, crooked cop Burt (Theo Rossi), a quarantine zone coyote named Lily (Nora Arnezeder, a standout) and Ward’s daughter Kate (Ella Purnell).
However, with this many characters, it can be a little difficult to service them all effectively—which is one of Dead’s biggest drawbacks. The movie’s script (written by Snyder, Shay Hatten, and Joby Harold) paints its characters pretty thin, often reduced to just a series of descriptions we’re told rather than shown. It could be argued the lack of development is by design, as characters in zombie films often serve as cannon fodder as events progress. It won’t be shocking to fans of the genre to know Dead certainly leans into this trope, too. However, the underwritten parts work better for the supporting cast—primarily Schweighöfer, Notaro, Dillahunt, and Arnezeder—as they threaten to steal Dead by getting all the best lines.
Bautista, however, fares much better than de la Reguera and Hardwick. On paper, it almost appears as if Bautista was grown in a lab to lead a Zack Snyder film; physically capable and imposing—but with a deep, kind heart—he’s perfect for Snyder’s vision. Given the director’s recent work, it might not shock you to learn Army of the Dead features a tender throughline about the relationship between children and parents. Bautista is tasked with carrying most of the weight around that specific plot, handling it with grace and empathy. Dead is arguably worth watching to see how the former WWE star has once again elevated his craft.
The other draw is going to be Snyder’s ever-strong eye for kinetic action. The aforementioned opening does a fantastic job of setting the tone which is continued throughout a few different sequences, including an extremely tense walk through a casino and a knock-down, drag-out finale that fully embraces the “army” part of the film’s title. Additionally, Snyder serves as his own cinematographer here and does an excellent job at providing painterly-like moments; there’s a particularly impressive shot in the third act that feels as if it’s a Frank Frazetta work come to life.
The overall plot is video game-like in structure as the group moves from setpiece to setpiece with bits of narrative sprinkled in between. Yet, it all feels a little standard—especially in the wake of the inherently deconstructionist nature of Batman v Superman. Sure, seeing Snyder integrate different kinds of zombies (smart, strong, fast, slow, dumb) together into more of a zombie society adds a new wrinkle—and that’s even before the zombie tiger shows up—to the genre. But I kept waiting and hoping for a twist or two to reinvent the wheel. For many, this won’t be a knock on the movie, but I do personally wish it had strived to push the genre forward in a bolder way.
After such a difficult experience with Warner Bros., I have to imagine that Snyder returning to his roots felt deeply therapeutic. It’s impressive to see Army of the Dead unburned by expectations while functioning as a palette cleanser for Snyder ahead of whatever epic project it is that he’ll inevitably take on next. The film doesn’t have much to say outside of its killer hook of a premise—but maybe it doesn’t have to make a grand statement in the way so many of the director’s previous films felt like they needed to do. Returning to well-worn territory and finding a few new things to say along the way is, perhaps, enough for now.
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