Title: Army of the Dead
Director: Zach Snyder
Writers: Zach Snyder (story), Shay Hatten (screenplay), Joby Harold (screenplay)
Stars: Dave Bautista, Ella Purnell, Matthias Schweighöfer
Life in Las Vegas isn’t what it used to be. Its upscale hotels and grand casinos have recently been ringed inside a massive wall of cargo containers to prevent the population, now a horde of bloodthirsty zombies, from escaping. Not only that: The US government has decided that enough is enough. A nuclear missile will soon be on its way towards the city to level it to the ground. Not a big nuclear missile, mind you. Just big enough to destroy the city, its zombie population and the surrounding area.
What could possibly go wrong?
You might have watched the classics of the zombie genre—the old Romero films like Night of the Living Dead and its sequels. Maybe you’ve enjoyed Edgar Wright’s hilarious zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead? How about Peter Jackson’s 1992 splatter comedy Braindead? The hysterical Zombieland from 2009? I’m sure you’ve watched at least a couple of episodes of The Walking Dead, if not the entire show, which now has one, two (or is it three?) spinoff series.
These days it seems you can just pick a random word and stick “of the Dead” on the back of it, and you have the title or the next zombie movie or show. And chances are someone’s already produced it.
Director Zack Snyder is no stranger to the zombie genre though. His film Dawn of the Dead could be considered one of the better of the “modern” zombie films. One would expect that Snyder would bring with him something to the genre. Sadly, while Army of the Dead is different than other zombie films, it won’t rejuvenate the genre in any meaningful way.
Tough Guys vs. Zombies
Meet the former special forces operator Scott Ward (played by Dave Bautista). After helping evacuate Las Vegas during a zombie outbreak, Scott spends his days tending the local burger joint. Sick and tired of the daily grind, he dreamed of becoming a chef and opening his own restaurant. This wasn’t what he had in mind.
When the mysterious (and seemingly quite wealthy) businessman Bly Tanaka (played by Hiroyuki Sanada) pops in for a visit to discuss a mission into the zombie-overrun Las Vegas, Scott seizes the opportunity. He must assemble a team of hardened, zombie-killing tough guys (and gals), infiltrate Las Vegas, avoid the zombie hordes and steal the money locked in the Götterdämmerung, a near-mythical vault under one of the casinos.
Again: what could possibly go wrong?
In many ways, Army of the Dead plays out much like an ordinary action film. In fact, it reminds me a lot of James Cameron’s Aliens. A team is assembled, showing their bravado and military hardware, before entering the mission area, where they slowly make their way towards their objective. But before they reach it, everything goes sideways, monsters (in this case zombies) attack and bullets start flying.
The massive, two-meter tall, former bodybuilder and wrestler Dave Bautista stands out from the rest of the group here. From what I know, this is Bautista’s first leading role, and it shouldn’t be his last. Bautista softens up the wall of muscle stereotype with a believable vulnerability and some good acting throughout the film.
The other members of the group come as you might expect; More functions than developed characters, with dialogue that seems to be limited to macho or witty catch-phrases; most of them can be described in a short sentence. You have the tough, silent guy with a complicated past. There’s the corporate stooge with a secret who might betray the group. The quirky pilot with a witty comment for every occasion. The youtube influencer. The nerdy safe-cracker with no combat skill. And so on. On second thought, keep that last one in mind for now. He’ll be important in a later film.
As for the zombies themselves, there is some “new stuff” in here. You have your standard hordes of decaying, shambling, bloodthirsty dead that, for the most part, stand still waiting for someone to come close enough to eat. There are the intelligent zombies that seem to have developed their own society and leadership.
But then there are the zombie dancers, coming bouncing, jumping and running towards our characters like they’re cast members of some twisted, dead version of Cats. It is all too obvious that the actors playing them are dancers, acrobats or something along those lines, and it was hard taking these zombies seriously in any way. At worst, it became cringe-worthy.
Also, this being Las Vegas, there are the obligatory Elvis zombies and even a white zombie tiger. It’s not exactly successful satire, but you might find some humor in there somewhere.
The action and story are what you’d expect from a film like this. Dave Bautista’s on-screen charisma and his character’s vulnerability are not enough to weigh up for the otherwise cliche action scenes and shallow characters. But Army of the Dead isn’t meant to be a character study of ill-tempered and traumatized, zombie-blasting mercenaries.
The film delivers some great entertainment despite its weaknesses. If you like the idea of a gung-ho zombie shoot ’em up, Army of the Dead might just be the perfect film for you. It delivers exactly what it says on the tin.
Army of the Dead also includes some mysteries and hints to a greater zombie movie universe. We know there will be more films in this series, with planned sequels and prequels. Some of these films set in the same universe, such as Netflix’s upcoming Army of Thieves, won’t even be about zombies.
Army of the Dead offers intense zombie action, as different from 70s Romero movies as one might come. But despite some attempts at social commentary here and there, that’s all there is to it. It’s fun, zombie-blasting action, nothing more.