I will have to admit that when I heard “Zack Snyder directs a movie about a heist taking place during a zombie uprising”, I felt a chill in my heart. But just like you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, you shouldn’t judge a movie by its pitch line. Netflix’s new zombpocalypse adventure Army of the Dead shows Zack Snyder at the most relaxed he’s been in a at least a decade, if not longer. Dear gods, he even manages to do comedy in this movie. Real comedy. With laughs and everything.
The story concerns a heist to grab $200 million in a Las Vegas vault owned by a casino magnate. The team is led by Frank Ward (Dave Bautista), a former military-turned-mercenary, and includes a French smuggler (Nora Arnezeder), a German safecracker (Matthias Schweighöfer), and even Ward’s own daughter (Ella Purnell). Complicating the mission is the fact that Las Vegas has been overrun by ravenous zombies and that the military plans to nuke the everloving hell out of the city in a couple of days.
That’s literally all there is to the plot, barring a few mandatory and unsurprising twists, but that’s all the plot there needs to be. This film is less a narrative than it is an experience. It’s an action/comedy heavy on the action with just enough character development to qualify as a story. It’s more or less a live-action video game that’s equal parts shooter, puzzle-solver, and unskippable cut scenes.
I should point out that that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While it might not always succeed at enrichment, Army of the Dead is rarely fails as entertainment. It’s not always exciting, but it’s rarely outright tedious. (Although it does dip its toes into those still, quiet waters when it thinks we aren’t looking.) Is this even a Zack Snyder film at all? No heavy-handed narrative? No grimdark aesthetic? NO MARTHA??!!
I mean, I’m as shocked as anyone else that I actually found a Zack Snyder film to be kind of fun. Snyder himself feels much more at ease here than he has in a very long time. Although he’s been making movies since 2004’s Dawn of the Dead (which Army is not connected to), this is only the second time he’s filmed something composed completely out of original material; all his other films are either reboots, remakes, or adaptations based on preexisting material. The other Snyder original was 2011’s Sucker Punch, which has a set of virtues and vices all its own.
But unlike Sucker Punch, which was all style and no substance but thought it was something deep and complicated, Army of the Dead is much more aware of what it is. There’s a kind of confident energy running under everything, even when the film kind of slacks and sags. It feels like Snyder is actually having a genuine good time here, playing around in a sandbox he built himself. And with the help of the writers of John Wick 3, which…well done, good sir. The action scenes are brutal but theatrical, like an operetta scored for headshots, neon lights, and zombie tigers.
Although this is probably just a small corner of the sandbox. There is a lot of world-building going on in this movie, both subtle and not. Snyder lays down specific zombie lore and rules and alludes to events outside of the relatively narrow canvas of this film. Of course, the movie ends on a sequel tease, but not necessarily in the way you’d expect. It feels both obligatory and not; we all know going into it that an ambiguous ending scene is probably coming, but it’s executed with clear intent to continue the franchise in a specific way.
One of the more intriguing aspects of the film is that zombie lore, in fact. While the team has to face off against countless “shamblers” — your typical mindless zombie — there are also “alphas” that possess higher intelligence, real emotions, and the ability to plan. The zombie outbreak starts when a military experiment from Area 51 gets loose, implying the original alpha Zeus (played with disturbingly brutal grace by stuntman/actor Richard Cetrone) is at least part extraterrestrial. It’s not completely original, but it is intriguing all the same, and the scenes with the alpha zombies are genuinely unnerving because of how they seem like an uncanny hybrid of real human and rabid predator. The alpha roles give the zombie performers potential for a more complex performance, and they do not disappoint.
However, what really makes the film work is its cast, which does a surprisingly better job than expected given the film’s context. While the characters might not all be very deeply conceived, they are all very distinctly conceived, with clear personalities and motivations. Dave Bautista, perhaps not surprisingly, does a great job as the team leader. Bautista doesn’t have a huge range as an actor, but within that range he’s pretty damn good. It’s like a vocalist who can only sing one, maybe two octaves with the right coaching, but nearly every note in that range is a sweet spot. Ella Purnell does a decent job as his daughter Kate, even if he comes off better when she’s playing against Bautista than she does in scenes without him.
Two of the most memorable of the supporting cast end up being Nora Arnezeder’s French coyote Lily and Matthias Schweighöfer’s German safecracker Dieter. Lily is a tough-as-nails character who’s still in touch with her empathy and compassion, a pragmatic warrior with humanity. Arnezeder is magnetic and effortlessly commands attention whenever she’s on screen. Dieter, on the other hand, has a personality that embodies the question “Is he gay or just European?” Dieter is campy and extra, but still able to hold his own in a fight (eventually). He approaches safecracking as a high art, and he carries himself as an artist would. He’s never explicitly gay, but he’s certainly gay-coded. His honest and genuine bromantic chemistry with Omari Hardwick’s soldier Vanderhoe further muddies the subtextual waters in the best ways.
A more canonically queer character is helicopter pilot Peters, but that might just be because she’s played by Tig Notaro. Peters is one of the most amusing of the entire cast, with Notaro nailing the comedic aspects of her dialogue perfectly. It’s just a shame that the majority of her time in the film, she doesn’t share the screen with anyone. Her character was originally played by Chris D’Elia, who was removed after sexual assault allegations appeared against him. Notaro was filmed solo to replace D’Elia and green-screened in when necessary. It’s relatively seamless, but it does mean Notaro is mostly working in isolation.
But even the solid cast can’t make up for some of the film’s missteps, which are mostly all on Snyder. While he does keep his love of slo-mo blessedly in check for most of the film, he over-indulges himself during the third act climax. Which, you know, understandable and expected but very much played out. The film is also way, way too long, at least 25 minutes longer than it really should be to keep the energy high and the pacing tight. The stretches between action scenes are expansive and often not as interesting as Snyder seems to think they are. Since several of the characters are relatively static, there isn’t so much development that would have required such long pauses in the action. The comedy isn’t always as effective as it could be, although there are great moments like a running joke in the first act where Ward offers each member of the team he’s recruiting a smaller and smaller percentage of the loot. The humor leans toward the bro side of the spectrum a bit too much but is often low-key and intentionally ironic.
If Snyder had reigned in some of his more frustrating impulses, Army of the Dead would have been a killer action film that raced as fast as its alpha zombie hunters. But even with what we have here, this is a surprisingly light and lean film that sees Snyder at his most creative. It’s like he was given a blank slate and just went to town, and I have to give him respect for making a film that’s entirely his from start to finish. It might not ever reach its full potential, but it’s never not interesting.
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B
Army of the Dead can be streamed exclusively on Netflix.