Zack Snyder is at his best when zombies are involved. He first broke on to the scene with a Dawn of the Dead remake, after all. So, when given the tools to make Army of the Dead at long last (after sitting in development hell at Warner Bros.) due to Netflix, it’s no surprise that Snyder seems invigorated. The sense of fun that’s long been missing from his films is back, as is a welcome lack of toxicity. That allows the spectacle of this genre effort to really stand tall and sing. All told, the end result is one of Snyder’s best works.
Army of the Dead sees Snyder going back to his undead roots. Far more than superheroes, this is where he should be concentrating. The movie is far bigger than Dawn of the Dead and isn’t a sequel, but it shows that he’s perfectly suited for zombie fare. The scale is impressive and you do get caught up in the action. What more can you ask for with something of this sort?
After a prologue that shows how the zombie apocalypse begins in Las Vegas (which leads to a title sequence that’s an absolute blast), we meet our hero. Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) has gone from saving the Secretary of Defense from the undead to working as a short order cook. Approached by casino mogul Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada), he’s made an offer. The President is planning to nuke Vegas in a few days. Before that happens, Bly wants Scott to assemble a team to steal the millions stuck in the vault of his casino/hotel. If he can pull it off, $50 million will be split between him and his cohorts. Despite his reservations, he agrees.
Enlisting a crew to pull off the heist, Scott gets things in gear. There’s old teammates of his like Maria Cruz (Ana de la Reguera) and Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), as well as his estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell), who volunteers at the refugee camp outside of the city and has important contacts. The rest of the team includes, obviously, a safecracker in Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer), alongside helicopter pilot Marianne Peters (Tig Notaro), plus a Coyote (Nora Arnezeder) who can navigate for them. There’s also one of Bly’s men in Martin (Garret Dillahunt), who appears to have side motivations. Entering Las Vegas, they see the standard zombies, but also Alphas, who are smarter and tougher. As you might imagine, a conflict is inevitable, especially with the countdown to a nuclear blast going on as well. Throw in the hope for father/daughter bonding and there’s a lot at stake, to say the least.
The cast are playing archetypes, but they play them pretty well. No one is worthy of raves, but they all pull their weight. For example, Dave Bautista is solidly cast as the team leader, as is Nora Arnezeder as the Coyote. They’re the right amount of intense. On the other end of the spectrum, Matthias Schweighöfer is amusing as an easily frightened safecracker. Then, there’s the oddity of Tig Notaro replacing Chris D’Elia in post. She’s good in the wisecracking supporting role, but it’s clear that Notaro is inserted through CGI and reshoots. It’s not bad, it’s just weird. Other cast members include Raúl Castillo, Theo Rossi, Samantha Win, and more. All in all, the ensemble works.
Zack Snyder has a nasty sense of fun on display here. The aforementioned title sequence may be the most purely enjoyable thing he’s ever done. His script, which he co-wrote with Joby Harold and Shay Hatten, based on his own story, builds out the world really well. There’s some clunkers, line-wise, and you largely see where the plot is going, but Snyder and company approach it was a solid mix of fun and intensity. Snyder’s direction, including doing his own cinematography, is some of his best. There’s less of the stylish tricks he’s known for, and when they’re used, it’s done so sparingly. Army of the Dead has a visual palate that simply fits this particular flick. He’s unafraid of a body count, but this isn’t particularly a grim zombie movie, either.
Army of the Dead will please fans of zombie cinema and blockbusters in general. Snyder lovers will dig the flick, too, though that goes without saying. If this is the start of a new franchise, count me in. The film works on its own merits and represents a legitimate Netflix event. Enjoy!