Synopsis: Following a zombie outbreak in Las Vegas, a group of mercenaries take the ultimate gamble, venturing into the quarantine zone to pull off the greatest heist ever attempted.
Stars: Dave Bautista, Ella Purnell, Ana de la Reguera, Omari Hardwick, Matthias Schweighöfer, Raúl Castillo, Samantha Win, Nora Arnezeder, Tig Notaro, Richard Centrone, Athena Perample, Theo Rossi, Huma S. Qureshi, Hiroyuki Sanada, Garret Dillahunt
Director: Zack Snyder
Running Length: 148 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Movie trends go up and down with the tide and I’m a little surprised that the love for zombies in film and television has gone on for as long as it has. It’s far past its expiration date in my book, getting to the point where I have to resist entirely skipping over a title if I see the ‘z’ word or ‘undead’ anywhere in a plot description. There just has to be more life, or the afterlife, than munching on brains and finding new ways for those running in terror to be ripped apart or, if fighting back, stop their foe with a sharp object to the head. After some respectable “of the Dead” sequels churned out by original Night of the Living Dead creator George A. Romero before his passing in 2017, a new generation of films were created to further that legacy and it became difficult to discern what had Romero’s blessing and which were but cheap imitators in name only.
If we were still embracing the term “winning” (and I’m here to tell you, we are not), one could easily say that director Zack Snyder is the de facto champion filmmaker of 2021 so far. Not only did his long overdue and much anticipated director’s cut of the greatly maligned Justice League debut on HBOMax to spectacular reviews, but he’s following it up two months later with a gonzo zombie film that is the itch you never knew you needed to scratch. Now, while Snyder has a significant and loyal fanbase that always has his back (for better or for worse), who can say if Army of the Dead would have gotten as much of a buzzed about release if Justice League hadn’t been received so well. While not related to Romero’s work, I’d imagine that horror icon finding a lot to like about Snyder’s film, which takes it’s time (148 minutes to be exact) to lay out a detailed plot featuring characters that have depth…and it’s not just the living ones.
That’s not to say I was totally in the Snyder camp right away. An enticing prologue featuring soldiers transporting a mysterious government asset that crashes in the Nevada desert led into a credit sequence that is basically an entire prequel film in and of itself. What the government was protecting is a quick moving and strong alpha undead that makes quick work of the soldiers, turning them into his hungry minions. Descending upon Vegas, they soon proliferate a zombie infestation that we see brave men and women trying to control the spread. By the time we see Snyder’s ‘Directed by’ credit, a wall has been fashioned around Vegas keeping the plague contained…but for how long?
While Snyder has the right idea in his introduction and stages it with typically excellent skill, it’s the credits that feel like he handed duties over to an assistant that didn’t quite have his style down. Gaudy, gory, and meant to be funny but not getting halfway there, it’s enough to make you think twice about sticking with the movie for the next two and a half hours. Stick with it. It’s but a mere bump in the road because once Army of the Dead really gets moving, it becomes a thrill a minute blast following a ragtag group gathered by Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada, Mortal Kombat) to take back millions of dollars in cash just sitting in his zombie inhabited casino.
Led by Scott Ward (Dave Bautista, My Spy), the group includes mercenary turned mechanic Maria Cruz (Ana de la Reguera, Nacho Libre), brawny Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick, Spell) who carries around a buzzsaw as his weapon of choice, expert safecracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer), and helicopter pilot Marianne Peters (Tig Notaro, Together Together) who is responsible for getting a chopper on top of the hotel working in time to get the crew out of Vegas before a nuclear bomb decimates the undead once and for all. Guiding them will be Tanaka’s security agent Martin (Garret Dillahunt, Looper) and Lilly (Nora Arnezeder) who routinely smuggles people through the wall and into casinos so they can steal the remaining money in the slot machines. To up the personal stakes, Scott’s daughter Kate (Ella Purnell, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children) is a last-minute addition to the squad, hoping to find a friend that Lilly brought in and hasn’t returned.
If I told you that all of this happens within the first hour and you had 90 minutes to go, would you still be on board? Hope so because the next hour and a half takes you over the wall and into a decrepit Vegas that has been overrun by zombies. Adapting to their environment, the stronger have survived and formed a kind of community while others just wait around for the next scrap of unlucky flesh to pass by their vicinity…and then they pounce. Experienced in the ways of negotiating passage through without becoming lunch, Lilly helps the team into the city and for a while things are going fine…until suspicion amongst the group gets the better of them. As factions break off and they separate, Snyder easily juggles several action-packed storylines at once and doesn’t short shrift any of his actors getting their moment to shine. Thankfully, that also means we don’t stick around too long with some of the characters that could grate on us, like Dillahunt’s Martin who is little more than your stock shady inside man sent in to protect his boss’s investment.
What keeps the film so engaging is it’s unpredictability, you just never know who is going to make it to the end credits and who might be a tasty snack in the first scene. No one is safe and while Snyder and co-screenwriters Shay Hatten and Joby Harold give the characters an appropriate amount of time to mourn, at the same time they aren’t above taking out a team member you would have bet the house had a long life ahead of them. Going hand in hand with keeping you on your toes is that there are times when Army of the Dead is genuinely frightening. Let’s not forget while zombies are often shown as lumbering slow movers they can also be sprinting fiends out for flesh. The leader of the legion of undead and his wicked mate have exceptional make-up effects and costume designs – perfect nightmare fodder.
It might be easy to debate the film is overlong and while a trim here and there might have gotten Army of the Dead down to a slightly shorter sit, as presented it doesn’t feel like an excess of overindulgence. It’s simply a big movie with a big goal and when you go to Vegas, you gamble it all if you want to win. I think Snyder and company are successful in what they set out to achieve (confirming Bautista is a bona-fide action star, if anything) and you can count on Army of the Dead to play well on any size screen you choose to view it on.