ARMY OF THE DEAD (directed by Zack Snyder, 148 minutes, USA, 2021)
BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC Of all the bizarre announcements that came from Netflix’s blank-check spending spree a few years back, when almost every A-List director got some insane vanity project green lit, was Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead. This was a project he had been working on since 2004, which incidentally was when he did the impossible and remade Dawn of the Dead — George Romero’s classic deconstruction of consumerism aka his “zombies in a mall” epic — and actually knocked it out of the park. Since then he’s gone on to be the driving creative force of the DC universe and in the process become one of the most divisive personalities in comic book cinema thanks in part to the infamous phenomenon that was the #ReleasetheSnyderCut movement. It’s only been a matter of months since that four hour Justice League magnum opus hit HBO Max and now, Army just hit Netflix and could easily be one of his best films to date.
Army of the Dead is an old fashioned heist film that traffics in the zombie genre to up the ante and enrich its world building. In this alternate history a zombie military asset from Area 51 escapes while in transit and spreads its plague across the Nevada desert, until the undead eventually overrun Las Vegas. The city is then quarantined and walled off with shipping containers after a failed military campaign to cleanse Sin City of the undead scourge. To celebrate the Fourth of July a few years later the president plans to nuke the city and take it back once and for all. I can only assume this unnamed president is Trump because that would be the only explanation for the bizarre Sean Spicer cameo. Now this is where our hero Scott Ward (Dave Batista) comes in. He’s a down on his luck veteran who, after fighting in the zombie war, currently flips greasy burgers for a minimum wage. Scott is recruited by a somewhat suspicious casino owner – Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) to get a crew together, venture into Vegas and recover $200 million from his casino vault before it gets nuked.
With the zombie craze having run its full course three times over since Dawn, Snyder instead looks outside of the sub-genre cribbing from Aliens for the film’s narrative engine and Richard Matheson’s novel I am Legend for its mythos to deliver one of his most focused and enjoyable films to date. It’s the rare Netflix action film that doesn’t feel like it was written by an AI, but Dead moves rather organically delivering its action beats and gore at an enjoyable clip, even throwing a few curve balls our way. Coming in at two plus hours, it’s actually one of the shorter Snyder films that while imbuing our humans in peril with their motives and backstories, surprisingly does the same with their undead counterparts. Pulling another page from Romero’s playbook here, we have zombies with genuine character arcs and societies that have evolved in their time while in Vegas developing their own social hierarchy.
My only knock on the film would be that while visually it’s your standard gorgeously shot sun-drenched action film in the desert, sometimes Snyder, who is also credited as Director of Photography, experiments with a really shallow depth of field. This happens primarily in dialog heavy scenes with varied degrees of success. Sometimes it works and others it’s painfully distracting as the characters fall in and out of focus while attempting to deliver performances. Dave Batista who is usually the supporting heavy or the comic relief really makes a decent action hero here and does his best not to get upstaged by an impressive supporting cast including the likes of Ella Purnell, Omari Hardwick, Ana De La Reguera, Theo Rossi, Garret Dillahunt and Tig Notaro. It’s just the kind of eclectic ensemble expected in a heist film, where the lead is as good as his crew.
This genre film has the requisite pulse-quickening action and nauseating gore, but surprisingly it has a heart as well. When Batista has to rely on his daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) who works in the quarantine area outside of Vegas to get him in, we soon discover she’s been estranged since witnessing him killing her mother and his wife when she was turning into a zombie; which had to have done some real damage to both of their psyches. This offers a bit more backstory for the actors to chew on and bit more depth for the audience to appreciate as the story progresses and we see how that event shattered both of their lives and their relationship. It’s that thought and character development that takes this high concept idea that could’ve been sheer novelty and gives it enough depth and heart to not only work, but show that Snyder still has it as the film ebbs and flows from family drama to heist film to adrenaline soaked crowd-pleaser.