You could be forgiven for accepting that Zack Snyder‘s Army of the Dead intends to offer the dizzying thrill of both a zombie film and a robbery film. That’s how Netflix surely sells it, and to be fair, there are moments when the film relies on bloody action and riotous antics. But that’s not really where the soul of the movie lies. Instead, Snyder has snuck into something aimed at dark irony and bleak decay, smuggled into a mix of genres that people are looking for in order to escape. On the one hand, I can’t help but admire Snyder’s cheek and his willingness to cheat an audience for something far darker than marketing allows. On the other hand, Snyder seems to be well consumed by his own antics and overcrowding his film at every turn like a stage magician stacking himself on the glare in exchange for a prestige whimper. For some it may be worth waiting for the ultimate desolation of the army of the dead, for others it may be too difficult to reach the end.
A military convoy suffers a traffic accident near Las Vegas that releases an alpha zombie into its population. Las Vegas is then overrun with the undead, but a handful of soldiers are able to evacuate some citizens while the government uses shipping containers to build a wall around the city. Retired Soldier Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), who was one of those who fought his way out of Vegas, spends his days flipping burgers until wealthy casino owner Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) comes with an offer: put a team together, crack the safe at Tanaka’s Vegas Casino, smuggle out $ 200 million in cash, and Scott can distribute $ 50 million among his crew as he pleases. While Scott puts together a team of old friends and useful accessories, his estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) works as a volunteer in the quarantine zone outside the Vegas wall. When a friend of Kate’s walks in but doesn’t come out, Kate forces herself into her father’s team to find her buddy while the rest of the gang try to carry out their plan. However, they are all stunned to see that while there are sloppy zombies, there is a smarter race that really rules the city.
Image via Netflix
If you take a step back from Army of the Dead, you can see what Snyder is doing with his misdirection here. He plays all the beats of two well-known genres and mixes them together into a satisfying piece of escapism. On the raid side, you’ve got Scott’s close friends Cruz (Ana de la Reguera) and Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick); there is Safecracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighofer); Lily (Nora Arnezeder), the smuggler who can lead them into town; YouTube sensation that kills zombies Guzman (Raul Castillo) and his buddy Chambers (Samantha Win); wise pilot Peters (Tig Notarowho is one of the best parts of the movie); and Tanaka’s confidante Martin (Garret Dillahunt). If you’ve seen a heist movie and a zombie movie, you are pretty sure what will happen to this colorful crew, including Scott and Kate. And if you keep an eye on Scott and Kate, you can see the movie that Snyder really cares about.
While Army of the Dead will obviously draw comparisons to Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the DeadThe movie that you should really think about is his 2011 film sucker Punch. Like in this movie, Army of the Dead knows what your lizard brain appeals to, and Snyder is happy to give it to you because he has something else that he wants to hit you with in the end. But like Sucker Punch, Army of the Dead suffers from the same fatal flaw, namely that Snyder apparently wants his cake and wants to eat it too. There’s a cross-border disdain for his audience, as if they just show up and show up for subtle violence, but nothing deeper can be entrusted to them unless you really hit them directly with it. This is not a fair viewer rating, nor is it an honest deal as a filmmaker, when you go to so much trouble mowing down and violently killing zombies only to turn around and say, “What you really need is family.” Sometimes you have to trust your audience that they are eating their vegetables instead of putting broccoli in a chocolate cake.
Image via Netflix
It doesn’t help that the army of the dead become painfully dry from their second act. After you’ve put the team together, shot down some zombies, and then reached the Bly, the team splits up for separate missions and you can feel the air vanish from the picture. Like Snyder’s recent films Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice – Ultimate Editionand Zack Snyder’s Justice LeagueHe’s not a director in a hurry to get anywhere, and while some may enjoy indulging in these worlds Snyder builds, there is no economy in storytelling here. If you’re looking to mix zombie films and heist films, that’s fine, but both genres are rather snappy in their stories and Army of the Dead never maintains much momentum. Instead, it goes comfortably through the movements and Snyder is never very interested in improving his tropes until he shows his hand at the very end of the movie.
I suppose some will be able to forgive Army of the Dead’s shortcomings as it is a Netflix movie. You turn it on and talk on the phone while Dave Bautista mows zombies in slow motion and cash flows through the air. But if you want to give Army of the Dead your full attention (and there will be an option to see it in theaters), the movie never really deserves its running time as it promises too much for action that doesn’t really come until the third arrives. I don’t mind Army of the Dead not being wall-to-wall set pieces, but the only thing worthwhile in between is the stuff between Scott and Kate, and even that feels a bit red and short for a lifetime – in a relationship that has real stakes. Again, some are sure to enjoy what Snyder is doing with his heist-zombie hybrid here, but instead of giving its audience something worth chewing on, Army of the Dead is mostly fat and gnarled.
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About the author
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Matt Goldberg has been an editor at Collider since 2007. As the site’s Chief Film Critic, he has written hundreds of reviews and covered major film festivals such as the Toronto International Film Festival and the Sundance Film Festival. He lives in Atlanta with his wife and their dog Jack.
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