Ever since 300 came out, director Zack Snyder has had a productive working relationship with Warner Bros. That is, until his DCEU films were met with mixed receptions, most recently his four-hour cut of Justice League. Now, Snyder is free from the conflict with Warner and has seemingly been given carte blanche over at Netflix for Army of the Dead, his first film away from the studio that has been his home for over a decade. So, how does this zombie/heist flick fair and should you commit to the two and a half hours it takes to get to the end?
Army of the Dead stars Dave Bautista as Scott Ward, the leader of a band of mercenaries who are hired by a mysterious and shady individual (Hiroyuki Sanada) to rob a casino in Las Vegas. The catch? The city is a walled off quarantine zone thanks to a zombie outbreak. The zombies are contained within the walls, allowing society to carry on outside of Sin City. Many of the heroes of the initial outbreak, including Ward, found themselves in menial and banal lives after the fact; in Scott’s case, he’s flipping burgers for a living. But when the government decides to nuke the city once and for all, that leaves a few precious days for an attempt to steal the millions of dollars from the casino vault, something that seems mighty tempting for someone in Scott’s position.
This film has Snyder’s DNA all over it. Netflix seemingly let the director go unchained for it, allowing Snyder to not only direct the film, but also co-write it, co-produce it and serve as the director of photography. All of the trademark Snyderisms are here, for better or for worse, including very on-point needle drops when it comes to the soundtrack, a slow motion opening credit sequence to rival Watchmen’s (and Zombieland’s) and overly muscly men in the squad. If you’re not a fan of Snyder’s style, this movie won’t win you over any time soon. That being said, you have to commend the man for taking such a hands on role for the movie. This feels very much like an escapist passion project that the director wanted to be super involved with. His cinematography in particular was pretty solid, save for a few instances of extended out of focus shots to prolong tension or a reveal. But the action was clear and wide and his colour pallet was engaging.
Likewise, if you’re a bit squeamish when it comes to blood and gore, this also may not be for you. This movie is really, really gory. At times, it reminded me of the video game series Dead Rising, where you mow down hordes of the undead in seas of blood. The same can be seen here. But while the movie may seem excessive at times, at least Snyder put in the work for making the action and zombies interesting.
These aren’t your run of the mill basic zombies. Well, they’re in the movie too, but it’s more interesting than that. These zombies all have behaviors. They hibernate and communicate with each other. There’s also tiers of zombies. The classic undead, the shamblers, are the garden variety but then there’s also the Alphas, who can run and seemingly think. These zombies have a hierarchy and will allow humans into their domain in exchange for, say, a human sacrifice. These zombies are almost more like intelligent humanoid monsters than the brainless walking dead of old. If you ever wanted to see a zombie put on a battle helmet and ride a horse, well this movie will scratch that very unusual itch. Subtlety has never been Snyder’s strong suit and this movie features the pack leader of the zombies, called Zeus, operating out of the fictional Olympus Casino. Yup.
So while the zombies and action are entertaining, how do the humans fair? Well, that’s where the movie is hit or miss. There’s quite a few characters in this movie, from Bautista’s stoic Scott to the more colourful characters like Tig Notaro Marianne Peters, the helicopter pilot or Matthias Schweighöfer as Ludwig, the safecracker. But the movie doesn’t always make the characters interesting, with them often being relegated to one dimensional meatbags with one specific trait (the crass one, the timid one, the tough one etc.). The movie attempts to have some emotional stakes with Scott thanks to a subplot with his estranged daughter, Kate, but it largely ends up feeling like baggage that takes us away from the carnage and the heist. Their relationship isn’t the problem, but how she’s integrated into the plot feels a bit forced, as does her submission that occurs later in the movie. Sure, you don’t go into this movie excepting a whole lot of characterization or depth, but what characters are here do feel a little bland, despite their colourful personalities. On the upside, the movie does stick a good landing. Likewise, Omari Hardwick as Vanderohe is the standout of the cast, who uses a comically huge power saw to chew through the undead while remaining being fed up of the amateurs in their midst.
With such ultraviolence, the movie naturally needs some levity to make sure it’s not too grim. Most of the humour comes from Ludwig, a safecracker who has never fought a zombie before. Naturally, he’s timid, weak and unsure about what to do and his constant pestering of questions and his reactions to danger are mostly annoying. The movie is also unnecessarily long, at two and a half hours. This could have been a two hour film and many of the subplots feel like they could have been trimmed. The threat of the impending nuke, also doesn’t create a sense of urgency for the plot.
In the end, Army of the Dead is much, much more Zach Snyder. It’s a wild heist movie full of ultraviolence and excess. Are the characters easy to root for? Not really, they’re not that engaging, but the action, mayhem and a fresh look at the walking dead at least make the movie entertaining to view. Who knows, maybe Netflix will give him carte blanche yet again so we can see that Alexander the Great picture he wrote over the pandemic. Stranger things have happened. For now, Netflix seems perfectly content in making sure Zack Snyder is perfectly content. For the consumer, mileage will vary.