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Army of the Dead
Directed by Zack Snyder
Written by Zack Snyder, Shay Hatten and Joby Harold
Starring Dave Bautista, Ella Purnell and Garret Dillahunt
Classification R; 148 minutes
Zack Snyder has a way with openings.
In 2009′s Watchmen, the director unpacked decades worth of byzantine comic-book backstory into six scintillating minutes, using ultra-slow-mo and Bob Dylan to ease audiences into a story of apathetic gods and fascist monsters. In 2013′s Man of Steel, Snyder kicked things off with a surreal explosion of extraterrestrial mayhem on a chaotic Krypton. And in 2004′s reboot of Dawn of the Dead – Snyder’s first, and best, movie – the filmmaker lights a fire to George A. Romero’s legacy, burning the comfort of American suburbia to the ground before needle-dropping Johnny Cash’s The Man Comes Around to neatly extinguish any and all hope.
Snyder’s prologue-as-provocation bravado is alive and well (dead-alive and unwell?) in his latest genre bonanza, Army of the Dead. Unrelated in continuity to Dawn, this new zombie epic announces itself loudly and viciously, with a nearly 15-minute introduction tracing just how Las Vegas came to be a monster mecca.
Set to the tune of Viva Las Vegas, sung here with an extra slithery layer of lizard charm by Richard “America’s loudest lounge singer” Cheese and Allison Crowe, Army of the Dead’s first chapter delivers buckets of blood, acres of destruction and enough topless zombie showgirls to satisfy the most perverted of teenage gore-hounds. It is a tasteful assemblage of all things tasteless. And one that I’ve gone back to rewatch two or three times now.
So: If you want a great opening, hire Zack Snyder. But if you need a middle and end, too, well, that’s going to be a problem.
A splatter-heavy riff on Ocean’s Eleven, Army of the Dead focuses on a group of ex-commandos who are enlisted by a casino tycoon to recover $200-million in cash before the zombie-overrun, walled-off Vegas is nuked to dust by the U.S. government. Tasked with putting the team together is Scott (Dave Bautista), a teddy-bear type who lost his wife during the initial undead outbreak and is hoping that the mission might help him reconnect with his estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell), who now volunteers at a quarantine zone just beyond the Strip.
Do we get a series of scenes where Scott enlists myriad members of his ragtag team? Of course we do. Which is how Scott’s mercenary buddies Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick) and Maria (Ana de la Reguera) join the fun. They’re joined by Guzman (Raul Castillo), a social-media influencer who’s made his name slaying zombies; German safecracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighofer), who has never wielded a gun; and wisecracking helicopter pilot Marianne (Tig Notaro, who steals every scene she’s in despite never actually acting against anyone else; she was digitally inserted into the film in post-production, after Snyder decided to completely erase the presence of disgraced comic-actor Chris D’Elia).
It is a refreshingly diverse cast of performers and characters. It’s just that Snyder and his two co-writers have little idea how to best utilize them. There is a lot of attention paid to who these men and women are and why they’ve put their lives on the line, but screen time does not automatically reflect genuine narrative interest. By the point that Snyder is ready to tell us just what the father-daughter woes are between Scott and Kate, or when we finally learn about Maria’s inner demons, or when we’re asked to start engaging with the friendship formed by Dieter and Vanderohe, there’s little reason anyone will still care who these people are or what their problems are.
By stitching together the zombie movie with the heist flick, Snyder has created a cross-genre thrill ride both highly aware of itself and ignorant of its inherent deficiencies. In practice, this means uninteresting characters twisting themselves through highly predictable plot twists. Can our ragtag group of heroes trust the shadowy corporate emissary (Garret Dillahunt) sent to watch over the mission? Do some of the characters have ulterior motives? Will that zombie tiger end up eating someone? I’ll leave the guessing game to you.
What’s most disappointing, though, is that after Army of the Dead’s initial, inspired burst of carnage, the action is relatively pedestrian. There are lots and lots of bullets to the head, knives to the skull, and bites to the neck, but nothing that anyone mildly versed in the language of zombie cinema (which is basically everyone these days) hasn’t seen before. And the one new-ish thing that Snyder attempts – er, some zombies are hot now, and apparently have sex with one another? – feels like a gag that somehow made it from panicked pitch session to finished product.
Then again, you do have to admire Snyder’s sheer defiance of subtlety. For better and worse, Army of the Dead is exactly the kind of uber-stylish, ridiculously muscular, exceptionally juvenile storytelling that he’s made his bones on. Some audiences will make a meal of it. Some will gag. You’ll know which viewer you are after those first 15 minutes, guaranteed.
Army of the Dead is available to stream on Netflix starting May 21
In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.