Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead can be seen as a homecoming of sorts for the filmmaker. After years of dark and gloomy comic book adaptations (from a moody Man of Steel to a CrossFit Batman), Snyder’s latest film is his first original IP and non-superhero film since Sucker Punch in 2011. It’s also his second ever zombie apocalypse movie since his directorial debut, Dawn of the Dead in 2004. But even the good-will gained from the surprisingly refreshing Snyder Cut of Justice League earlier this year (and the noticeable absence of a lot of Snyder’s more distracting director traits), Army of the Dead still falls short of what it could have been.
This is not a sequel to Snyder’s 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake, nor is it connected in any way. Instead, this zombie/heist movie hybrid eschews the conventional zombie apocalypse story in favor of a more contained infection area. The zombie outbreak is contained within a walled-in Las Vegas and Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), a burger flipper with a tortured past, is contracted to assemble a team to go into Vegas and retrieve a stockpile of money before the whole city is nuked.
In broad terms, the heist story in Army of the Dead is an intriguing concept. And while it doesn’t quite breathe life into the long tired and decaying zombie subgenre, it at least attempts a bit of mouth to mouth resuscitation on it. That alone is worth commending. Unfortunately, there isn’t much else to latch onto as the film is devoid of meaningful characterization, filled with bland zombie alterations, and a disengaging heist.
For a movie with a hefty runtime of more than 2 and a half hours, the setup of the heist and assembling of the team is barely given the attention it needs to introduce the characters and prepare us for what’s to come. Each member of the team is given a hasty introduction and brief explanations of why they’re essential to the team. As a result, these vital character introductions fall flat at nearly every turn. The only real exception is Scott’s estranged daughter, Kate Ward (Ella Purnell). But even with the plot real estate allocated to her character introduction and arc, the plot trajectory for her and Scott ultimately feels hollow as they traverse very well worn landscapes of zombie fiction with little to no enthusiasm.
That’s not to say the performances are lacking. There’s a good amount of ground rule doubles hit in a movie with zero home run performances. But middle of the road performances are a welcome addition to the movie as they don’t distract or grind anything to a halt. In fact, it’s likely that a large percentage of the people who will stream Army of the Dead will do so solely for the zombie action.
On that front, the film delivers some goods. Although it is considerably less frequent as one would like it to be, the moments of zombie gore set pieces do not let down. The tried and true formula of aggressively gooey makeup effects and gore explosions in zombie fiction does feel as though it is honored in Snyder’s film. Spurts of nearly cartoonish levels of blood and gut explosions are one of the film’s only bright spots.
Another wise choice by Snyder (who also served as director of photography) was to shed the trappings of a lot of his director trademarks. Maybe it’s because Army of the Dead is Snyder’s first film shot entirely digital, but the bright, and frankly normal, lighting of the film was a noticeable breath of fresh air from a filmmaker notorious for near monochrome darkness in what feels like nearly every frame he’s shot over the last decade or more.
In addition to this welcome change in his style, Army of the Dead is mostly devoid of needless slow motion sequences. This is a trait that’s so pervasive and misused in most (if not all) of Snyder’s previous work that finally seeing a film where he doesn’t instinctively lean on that stylistic crutch makes you honestly forget it’s a Snyder film. As backhanded or snarky as that may seem, it is a sincere feather in Army of the Dead‘s cap that the action is shot competently without relying on overcharged visual effects to sell the point.
Ultimately, these improvements to previous Snyder impediments are not enough to elevate Army of the Dead past what it is at the end of the day. Which is to say, this entry in Zack Snyder’s filmography is passable and even enjoyable but it simply doesn’t leave a strong impression nor a desire to revisit it anytime soon. If you’re hurting for a well made Snyder film, revisit Dawn of the Dead or check out Zack Snyder’s Justice League again. Army of the Dead simply doesn’t cut it.
Army of the Dead premieres on Netflix on May 21.
About the Writer: Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive Viewer, Anthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat Pizza Roll.