Zack Snyder is one of several filmmakers credited with revitalising the popularity of zombies in the early Noughties, as his Dawn of the Dead remake turned heads with its hyper-aggressive sprinting undead. For this reason, it’s notable that he has chosen to return to the monsters as the intense interest they once enjoyed has petered out, with only AMC’s The Walking Dead still carrying the torch. Army of the Dead might not be good enough for Snyder to jumpstart the zombie craze for a second time, but it packs enough new ideas to show that there’s still some life here after all.
When a maximum security military convoy is bested by the most cunning of threats – a man receiving fellatio in his car (seriously) – it inadvertently unleashes a bloodthirsty zombie that promptly chomps its way across Nevada. Our story picks up several years later, when the initial danger has passed and the world’s infected population has been quarantined to a soon-to-be-nuked Las Vegas. Keen to retrieve a cash fortune from a casino vault before the bomb drops, businessman Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) hires mercenary Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) to venture into the dead city and save those dollars. That’s right, it’s an apocalyptic heist: Ocean’s Undead-en, if you will (I’m so sorry).
Mashing up these two distinct genres is a novel idea, although there is a slight issue with tone in the first act. In true Snyder fashion, the opening credits roll across an extended slow motion montage which packs an odd mix of genuinely macabre and somewhat tongue-in-cheek moments. Things take a turn for the bleak as the film introduces Bautista’s troubled hero, who resides in a country gripped by a human rights crisis. There is some attempt at political commentary, with parallels drawn to real problems facing the United States and a couple of jabs at a certain former President, but the world-building falls a little flat overall.
Fortunately, Army of the Dead does get on stabler footing once its heist crew comes together, portrayed by a diverse cast including some much-appreciated comic relief in Tig Notaro (Star Trek: Discovery) and German talent Matthias Schweighöfer. The latter is a tad grating at first as eccentric safecracker Ludwig Dieter, but you soon warm to his offbeat charm – which is rather lucky considering he’s getting his very own prequel film, Army of Thieves, later this year. Ella Purnell (Belgravia), Omari Hardwick (Power) and Nora Arnezeder (Mozart in the Jungle) also impress in a remarkably sturdy ensemble.
If there’s a weak link in the Army of the Dead cast, it would probably have to be Dave Bautista. In all fairness, his character is by far and away the dullest – essentially just another generic tough guy with a sensitive side – but it doesn’t help that the former wrestler’s acting chops are still up for debate. He’s proven perfect casting as Marvel’s larger-than-life alien warrior Drax, but is yet to make a lasting impression in any of his more subtle dramatic roles and this is no exception.
Army of the Dead has a large ensemble cast and so inevitably some characters get more development than others (and a couple are obvious cannon fodder). It’s hard to criticise Snyder or his co-writers Shay Hatten and Joby Harold too harshly for that, as underwritten roles are a systemic problem in the horror genre and this movie does a better job than many of its peers. That said, the team should be called out for one egregious moment, in which a certain member of the team abruptly starts blurting out their motivations to the audience before being killed off seconds later. Any emotional weight is negated by the sheer awkwardness of the scene.
There are a few other silly moments in the script that can be picked apart if you’re that way inclined, but overall, Army of the Dead feels relatively cohesive for a film juggling three different genres. The heist scenes are naturally the most fun and Snyder tackles them with style, while he also delivers some genuinely unsettling horror scenarios, including one memorable sequence in a room full of “hibernating” zombies. Surprisingly, it’s the action component that falls short as all tension dissipates the moment machine guns start firing and there’s a severe lack of the visually striking frames that Snyder’s previous efforts have benefited from.
Army of the Dead’s fresh new spin on zombies should be enough to hold your interest in these slumps, imagining a grim hierarchical society in which the undead have organised themselves. At the top of the pack are the “alphas” – zombies that demonstrate some level of intelligence and fighting capability, perhaps even a shred of emotion – with cape-wearing Zeus and his queen as their leaders. It’s a development that succeeds in making these ominous foes more interesting, placing them closer in-line with the primates from Andy Serkis and Matt Reeves’ recent Planet of the Apes films. But purists need not worry, there are plenty of traditional brainless “shamblers” to fill the zombie movie headshot quota.
While not without its flaws, Snyder’s latest is a solid effort overall and should have some appeal beyond the director’s hardcore fans. The new ideas presented by Army of the Dead definitely have legs and it’s not hard to imagine them being taken further in a possible sequel (as well as the two prequels already in production). Even without that added material, there’s plenty here to sink your teeth into.
If you’ve already watched the movie, you should check out our Army of the Dead ending explainer for some detailed analysis of the final scenes.