A film review by Craig J. Koban May 30, 2021

ARMY OF THE DEAD jjj

2021, R, 148 mins.

Dave Bautista as Scott Ward  /  Ana de la Reguera as Cruz  /  Omari Hardwick as Vanderohe  /  Matthias Schweigh÷fer as Ludwig Dieter  /  Tig Notaro as Marianne Peters  /  Nora Arnezeder as Lilly / The Coyote  /  Ella Purnell as Kate Ward  /  Huma Qureshi as Geeta  /  Ra˙l Castillo as Mikey Guzman  /  Theo Rossi as Burt Cummings  /  Hiroyuki Sanada as Bly Tanaka  /  Garret Dillahunt as Frank Peters

Directed by Zack Snyder  /  Written by Snyder, Shay Hatten, and Joby Harold

ORIGINAL FILM

I've always admired Zack Snyder as a director of fearless ambition.  

He began his career by remaking one of the most cherished horror films of all time in DAWN OF THE DEAD (no easy feat, but he pulled it off superbly).  He then followed that up by helming some of the most thanklessly faithful and finely executed comic book adaptations in 300 and WATCHMEN.  From there, Snyder decided to embark on a fresh reboot of the most iconic super hero of all time with MAN OF STEEL, which kicked off the DCEU and culminated with him releasing a four-hour long team up film with ZACK SYNDER'S JUSTICE LEAGUE (with one version in black and white) to a streaming service...and it was radically unlike the obligatory genre fare that we've been getting for years.  

In my mind, I'd rather have a filmmaker that swings big for the fences and takes calculated risks than one that slavishly plays within genre expectations and conventions, and Snyder's uniquely and audaciously assembled successes far outweigh his failures on his resume.   

This, of course, brings me to his latest in the zombie horror heist thriller ARMY OF THE DEAD, which brings the filmmaker full circle in terms of revisiting the genre that established his career and put him on the map.  Although not a direct sequel to his 2004 rookie effort in DAWN OF THE DEAD, ARMY OF THE DEAD serves more as a spiritual follow-up that joyously blends two films for the price of one in its tale of an assembled squad of roughnecks breaking into a heavily fortified and zombie plagued Las Vegas to steal millions from one of its abandoned vaults (think DAWN OF THE DEAD minus malls and with casinos and cross morphed with OCEAN'S ELEVEN and you'll get the idea).  Snyder serves up an unapologetic amount of gore and mayhem here to appease horror fans, not to mention that he milks the sheer ridiculousness of its premise to great effect.  ARMY OF THE DEAD does, however, suffer from being way too self-indulgently long for its own good and sometimes has two many personalities vying for attention on screen, but it's a deliriously creative and outlandishly entertaining men/women-on-a-mission adventure morphed with undead thrills.   

Snyder's script (which he co-wrote with Shay Hatten and Joby Harold) gets things off with a bang with a prologue featuring a military transport that is leaving an Area 51 facility with some heavily encaged and well guarded cargo of the most important variety.  Unfortunately for them, their main truck collides with a passenger car containing a recently wed couple just leaving Vegas on the Nevada highway (one of them was performing post-nuptials oral sex on the other while he was behind the wheel in the worst case of distracted driving leading to an accident of large scale proportions...perhaps ever).  We learn via dialogue between two soldiers before the deadly crash that their payload is so dangerous and so unstoppable that basic military weapons have no effect.  In the post-accident we see the shipping container housing the cargo pop open and - yup! - out pops a fast moving, dexterous, and lethal zombie that takes care of everyone that was not instantly killed in the crash, and manages to turn those he munches on into the undead.  This alpha male zombie and his new companions reach the top of a hill and - yup! - the gleaming sin city of Las Vegas can been seen in the distance, like a full course meal being offered up for the slaughter to come. 

 

 

And boy...does it come. 

We then get one of the best opening title sequences of recent memory, with Snyder doing an exemplary job of relaying both the scale of the zombie carnage that decimated Vegas while also quickly introducing us to many of the key players in the humans versus undead battle to come.  On top of the gleefully preposterous sight of half naked showgirl zombies making elderly slot machine players their midnight snacks, things get somber and dire fast when the military eventually comes in and lays the city to waste.  Eventually, Vegas was walled off to secure the zombie menace inside, with the U.S. government deciding to nuke the city back to the Stone Age to deal the final death blow.  During the initial zombie invasion there were three of the film's major players that got stuck in the thick of it, but managed to get out and return back to their petty blue-collar jobs on the mostly normal outside.  They include Ward (Dave Bautista), Cruz (Ana de la Reguera), and Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), all of whom try to acclimate to lives beyond the military, but can't escape their trauma laced pasts. 

Still, Ward's rep as a gallant war hero of the first Vegas zombie wave has not gone unnoticed, so he's approached by a mysterious Japanese businessman named Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) with a chance of financial salvation: He wants Ward to gather together a crack squad of commandos to break into a Vegas vault and steal the hundreds of millions inside, which Ward is allowed to keep a very large portion of and distribute to his team as he sees fit.  Now, there are two catches: (1) Vegas is going to be nuked in a few days, so it's hugely time sensitive and (2) the decayed city is crawling with thousands of zombies, led by the aforementioned alpha male and his queen that rule over the land like bloodthirsty monarchs.  Ward isn't phased by the dangers and ticking time clock that awaits, so he gathers his old partners in Cruz and Vanerohe, but realizes that he'll need more specialty talent, like ruthless zombie hunter/social media star Mikey (Raul Castillo); the safe cracking genius Ludwig Dieter (Matthia Schweighofer); the Vegas zone expert guide in Lily (Nora Arnezeder); the much needed getaway helicopter pilot in Marianne (a scene stealing Tig Notaro, more on her in a bit); and Ward's own daughter in Kate (Elle Purnell), who coerces her dad to allow for her to come so she can save a friend trapped on the inside.  Oh, and there's also a vile and slimy security man (Theo Rossi) that tags along (he works at a quarantine camp/refugee village outside Vegas) alongside an enigmatic, but rather untrustworthy and up-to-no-good henchmen of Tanaka's, played by Garrett Dillahunt.  

Any guesses as to who because zombie snacks first? 

It's really the inescapably nifty premise of ARMY OF THE DEAD that lures us in with its running out of time bank heist mission that just so happens to involve zombies and the threat of Vegas going full Hiroshima.  The post apocalyptic Vegas is wonderfully realized in terms of practical and computer generated visual effects magic, and it's creepy, to say the least, witnessing this city's former citizens (and I'm assuming tourists) turn into monsters that rule over its rubble.  I appreciated the attention to embellishing and expanding up zombie culture here as well, especially with the introduction of the smarter, savvier, but still deadly king and queen, who oversee and dominate over their dumber, slower, and lower classed beasts with unchecked power and influence.  ARMY OF THE DEAD also poses and answers many tantalizing questions about zombies that have not been addressed in past genre films, like, for example, do zombies bang each other?  In this film's case, it definitely appears that the king and queen do the horizontal undead mambo.  Oh, they also have a zombie horse and pet tiger, the latter of which was once owned by Siegfried and Roy. 

Snyder also delivers on the bloodletting mayhem promises of his film's title, and has a field day with multiple well oiled and incredibly sustained moments of artery spewing action and tension.  There's a sensationally unnerving trek that Ward and his team are forced to go on, which involves tippie toeing through hundreds of zombies that are all asleep, but still stand vertically and could awaken at the slightest noise.  There's also a sly sequence involving making it through the INDIANA JONES inspired menagerie of booby traps that are laid out in the final twenty feet or so leading to the sought after bank vault (one of the characters ingeniously uses zombies as guinea pigs to get through).  And by the time the film reaches its climatic third act and the inevitable showdown between Ward's A-team and the zombie king and his minions it's a balls to wall grisly, hyper-kinetic, and furiously staged last man standing finale let's Snyder's macabre imagination run wild. 

The colorfully eccentric assortment of characters that make up this motley crew are well cast as well, especially the brute forced, but sensitive minded Bautista as the ex-super soldier that just wants to settle down and open up a food truck (like Dwayne Johnson before him, he doesn't have much range as a performer, but he has a charismatic presence and can effortlessly dial between comedy, drama, and action beats with relative ease).  Reguera and Hardwick round off the ethnically diverse performers and are equally solid as Ward's loyal comrades in arms (Vanderohe wields a makeshift chainsaw that he doesn't like anyone else touching).  Nora Arnezeder is great as her smoky eyed and ruthlessly determined Ellen Ripley of the squad.  Matthia Schweighofer provides some much needed comedy relief as his meager minded dweeb that's essential for his safe cracking skills first and his skills for shooting zombies in the brain a very, very distant second.  One of the highlights is easily Notaro as the motor-mouthed and throw caution casually to the wind pilot.  Chris D'Elia was original cast and shot his footage, but after sexual misconduct allegations he was literally cancelled and digitally erased out of the film with Notaro pinch hitting and having her newly shot scenes inserted in with some precise computer composting and editing.  It's all surprisingly not distracting (most viewers that were unaware of the behind the scenes changes will probably be hard pressed to notice), mostly because Notaro is a hoot and hijacks the film away from everyone in the few scenes she populates.   

Some things definitely don't work in ARMY OF THE DEAD, like its inanely unearned and unnecessary running time.  This film would have been a perfectly engineered and stealthy 100-plus minutes, but at nearly two hours and thirty minutes its egregiously long winded.  I kind of cried foul at the final moments, which instead of providing and ending with closure only serves up potential sequels to perhaps come.  I also think there's also a claim to be made that the best zombie horror fiction works best on a level of social/political commentary.  Romero's original DAWN OF THE DEAD placed his creatures in a shopping mall as an obvious dig at the mindlessness of consumerism and consumption, and Snyder attempts - albeit failingly - to tackle topical issues about refugee camps, segregating the haves from the have nots, and unpopular authoritarian quarantine methods to keep people safe.  There are hints that ARMY OF THE DEAD wants to thoughtfully examine these themes, but it ultimately doesn't seem too inclined to do so.  Also, the film forced me to ask many logical questions at times, like a potentially premise destroying one as to why the unstoppable zombie plague was so easily contained to just one city and didn't expand...well...everywhere? 

But, dammit, ARMY OF THE DEAD remains an unpretentiously enjoyable freak show and carnival of horrors, and Snyder is just the right twisted ringmaster to get us invested and relishing in the perversity of it all.  And considering the production hell shit storm that the filmmaker endured during JUSTICE LEAGUE, it's a treat see him fully allowed by Netflix to geek out in so many facets of production (he served as co-writer, co-producer, director and his own director of photography here, meaning that the streaming giant obviously cut a fat near $100 million budget check for him to basically do as he pleases).  Like the city that's like its own character in the film, ARMY OF THE DEAD is a work of wicked extremes and garish excesses, but it's one to become easily lost in.  

And, yeah, I'll check this one under another one of Snyder's uniquely and audaciously assembled successes...granted...a messy success. 

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