Premise: 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.
A zombie Siberian tiger. An undead corpse’s microwaved hand. A needle-drop of The Cranberries’ “Zombie.” Sean Spicer. All of this – and so much more – are part of the lunacy and silliness that we have to look forward to with writer-director Zack Snyder’s newest film Army of the Dead. A master of opening credit sequences, Snyder includes a moment with a paratrooper dropping into a horde of zombies, where the parachute envelopes the screen, splattered with blood. The image is undoubtedly striking, but try to parse out the logic of the sequence, and your head will surely explode. Much like Snyder’s earlier 2021 release, Zack Snyder’s Justice League, and the majority of his filmography, the film continues to establish the director’s legacy of creating memorable images that reveal themselves to be fairly hollow upon further scrutiny.
Snyder has been rightly criticized over the years for his lack of focus on character development, and Army of the Dead is no different. It feels refreshing to see Snyder return to his roots in the zombie genre – his debut feature was 2004’s Dawn of the Dead – after doing so many superhero films, but that doesn’t absolve him from foregoing any nuanced character work. Whenever any larger emotional beats occur, Snyder wants us to feel the impact but they ultimately feel hollow because very little has been done to establish who these characters are, let alone their relationships to each other.
Nevertheless, Snyder never forgets to have fun this time around, seamlessly blending a heist thriller with a zombie flick, all while setting it against one of the most vibrantly recognizable locations imaginable: Las Vegas. The hero this time around is Dave Bautista as Scott Ward, a former Marine/Green Beret/something (who cares, really?), who is lured to the zombie-overrun Sin City to rob a casino vault before it’s nuked. He’s tasked with putting a team together, a la Ocean’s 11, and eventually he’s joined by Ella Purnell, Omari Hardwick, Ana de la Reguera, Matthias Schweinghofer, Nora Arnezeder, Garrett Dillahunt, Tig Notaro, Raul Castillo, Samantha Win, and Theo Rossi. If this sounds like too many characters to keep track of, not to worry- Snyder just barely gives them more background information than I have. Even the process of cracking the casino’s vault is stunningly bereft of any details. The script also leaves it unclear as to how long the zombie outbreak has taken hold of Vegas; is it months? years? weeks? The cast gels together nicely and they each complement each other well enough on the mission, but it’s hard to get too attached to any of them. The fact that Matthias Schweinghofer and Omari Hardwick provide some excellent chemistry, and their scenes together are comedic highlights, is mostly due to their acting capabilities, and shouldn’t necessarily be credited to Snyder.
Meanwhile, the zombie action is what you’d expect from Snyder, who remains one of the best action filmmakers working today. The violence is over-the-top (as it should be) and the gore is never overly gruesome. Snyder tries to subvert the genre with two “evolved” leaders of the zombie horde; the conceit sort-of works to increase the stakes and the danger, and to give the film a “big bad” for the finale. Also, there’s a zombie Siberian tiger. Adjust your expectations accordingly.
Snyder’s visual style during his DC days was all high-contrast and gloom, and here he trades it in for a brighter, more natural look (he served as the cinematographer as well). The director reportedly worked with custom-made Red Digital Cinema cameras – the brand is one of the most highly-regarded for filmmakers – and the result is an ultra-shallow focus that looks like it was shot on an iPhone’s portrait mode. This isn’t necessarily a detriment to the look of the film, but I found myself distracted by the vast majority of objects that weren’t in focus in each frame.
Netflix and Zack Snyder feels like a match made in heaven; the streaming giant is famously hands-off when it comes to working with its chosen auteurs. Free from the constraints of DC’s guidelines, Snyder could essentially make his film as he saw fit. At two-and-a-half hours, the film still somehow manages to hum along nicely, with hardly any dry spots. Could the film cut out a scene or two of zombie mayhem in favor of more character development? Sure, but fans of Snyder’s work surely know what they’re getting themselves into by now. The zombie genre works best when it explores the human condition and what we’ll do for survival. But who has time for all that highfalutin’ introspection when there are zombie tigers on the loose?
Army of the Dead premieres on Netflix Friday, May 21.
About the Writer: Ben Sears is a life-long Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com and a recurring co-host on The Obsessive Viewer Podcast, and a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.