Starring: Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy), Ella Purnell (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children), Omari Hardwick (Power), Ana de la Reguera (Eastbound & Down), Theo Rossi (Sons of Anarchy), Mattias Schweighöfer (Valkyrie), Nora Arnezeder (Safe House), Hiroyuki Sanada (Mortal Kombat), Tig Notaro (One Mississippi), Raúl Castillo (El Chicano), Huma Qureshi (Viceroy’s House), Garret Dillahunt (Burn Notice)
Director: Zack Snyder (Man of Steel)
Writers: Zack Snyder & Shay Hatten (John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum) and Joby Harold (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword)
Runtime: 2 hours 28 minutes
Release Date: 21st May (Netflix)
Zack Snyder stepped onto the public stage with his divisive remake of Dawn of the Dead, reimagining George Romero’s classic with fast-moving zombies and a more abrasive sense of humour courtesy of James Gunn’s screenplay (it also had some bizarre Islamophobic and homophobic undertones that weren’t in the original or Gunn’s script, which…yeah, not cool). Now, after having spent much of his following career adapting comic books, Snyder has returned to the world of the undead and the concept that began its life as the sequel to his Dawn. It’s got everything you could possibly want from a Snyder movie: slow motion, excessive violence, sad covers of classic rock and pop songs, a bloated running time, and unconvincing attempts at sentimentality. However, despite all these excesses, it also has a sense of self-restraint that so few vanity projects have, as well as something Snyder so rarely allows his movies to be: gratuitous, unpretentious fun.
Army of the Dead is a film that relies far more on premise that it does story or even plot. The screenplay is mostly an excuse to get a diverse cast of bold personalities into a zombie-infested Las Vegas, but that doesn’t mean no care has been put into crafting a coherent narrative. The first act is easily the film’s weakest as, after fifteen minutes of prologue and opening titles, the inciting incident is immediately dropped on us and then its just a mad dash to introduce the entire cast and their motivations. However, once our heroes cross the barrier into the quarantine zone, the film really ups the ante in terms of set pieces and exploring its unique take on zombie lore. The pacing is strong from here on out and rarely feels its two-hour-plus length, striking a strong balance between action, tension and character. There’s not a great deal of startling plot twists, poignant character moments or intriguing commentary to discuss, but there is some solid banter and one-liners, as well as a few unsubtle digs at the Trump administration. This puts it at a disadvantage to something like Mad Max: Fury Road, which it is clearly trying to emulate at times, especially in how it builds the tribal culture of the Alpha Zombies.
That said, Army of the Dead has no real pretentions about being something deeper, and cashes in all its chips on “fun” and “cool”. It is undoubtedly a movie where you can turn off your brain and enjoy the carnage, but it has enough intriguing concepts that you don’t necessarily have to, and it never has to succumb to being dumb or offensive to do so. Unfortunately, the ending does leave a lot to be desired. There are bunch of character threads that are abruptly cut short or never resolved, the emotional pay off is cliched and underdeveloped, and its final coda is somehow both preposterous and predictable. Snyder and Netflix clearly have big plans for Army of the Dead as a flagship franchise, having pre-emptively greenlit both a spin-off feature and an animated series, and it’s easy to see why. There’s a lot of potential for this to be a creative sandbox for undead stories, but it falls into the trap of mistaking leaving its first film unfinished with enticing audiences with more. As much as I’m intrigued by the prospect of more, I prefer movies can do that while still being completely satisfying on their own.
It may seem crazy at first to mash up a zombie movie with a heist film, but both genres have one big thing in common: they are only as good as their characters and how they play off each other. Army of the Dead thankfully nails this camaraderie and pulls together a team that captures a dynamic most analogous to the Fast & Furious crew. Dave Bautista is as charismatic as ever as team leader Scott Ward, but he is unfortunately saddled with being the straight man for much of the film, and his motivations are a pretty basic “reconnect with my daughter” storyline that goes how you’d expect. Ella Purnell as said daughter Kate puts in a solid performance, sitting right on that line between righteous and reckless and just about avoids being another damsel in distress. Ana de la Reguera’s Maria and Omari Hardwick’s Vanderhoe are pretty fun but very underdeveloped, whilst Theo Rossi puts in a great creep performance as the predatory refugee guard Burt.
Raúl Castillo is a blast as cocky YouTuber Mikey but doesn’t get enough screen time, which applies to an even greater degree to Samantha Win as his buddy Chambers; at least she gets a pretty standout action sequence as compensation. Hiroyuki Sanada is only there to motivate the plot as shady billionaire Tanaka, and it’s easy to see where Garret Dillahunt as his protégé Martin is going to go from a mile away. Nora Arnezeder is a standout as the stoic guard Lily, mining a charming and badass performance out of a character who could have been easily perfunctory; I just wish she got a little more development. Tig Notaro brings her trademark sarcastic wit to the role of helicopter pilot Marianne and has great repartee with the rest of the cast; this in spite of the fact most of her footage was shot in isolated reshoots. The obvious MVP, though, is clearly Mattias Schweighöfer as the timid safecracker Ludwig Dieter. An audience surrogate done right, he is equally funny and relatable as he darts between horror, confusion and glee at the situation he’s found himself in, and the relationship between him and Hardwick is a nice subtle mini-arc. It’s easy to see why they’ve chosen Dieter to lead the already-shot spin-off.
It’s rare to see a zombie movie made on a blockbuster scale. The only other example that comes to mind is World War Z, which ended up making a lot of concessions on violence to be viable to Hollywood. Luckily, this being a Netflix production, such worries aren’t a problem and Army of the Dead is left free to blow its budget as well as undead brains. The action sequences are a lot of gory fun and feature some pretty unique kills that will equally make you laugh and squirm, the production design is Apocalypse 101 but done with grandeur you rarely get in the genre, and the cinematography by Snyder himself is beautiful and tacky in all the right ways; it’s probably the closest we’ll ever get to a Michael Bay zombie flick. Tom Holkenborg’s score is as solid and pumping as ever, the soundtrack choices are on-the-nose but enjoyable regardless, and the special effects meld practical and digital so well as to make them often indistinguishable. Honestly, the only CG that stood out as dodgy were the occasional seams in how Notaro has been stitched into the film in post-production.
Army of the Dead is simultaneously everything you’d expect from a Zack Snyder film and yet a massive evolution to his approach to filmmaking. For the first time since his debut, he hasn’t made something overly self-serious, deconstructive or tonally confused, and without that baggage his positive qualities are allowed to shine. This is no-holds-barred sandbox filmmaking and, whilst it doesn’t completely hold together, it delivers entertainment where it counts. Unlike so many other filmmakers who’ve given into their worst instincts when allowed complete freedom by Netflix, Snyder of all people found the discipline to practice a little restraint and put fun first. With this and his cut of Justice League, 2021 is a good year to be Zack Snyder.
FINAL VERDICT: 7/10