The opening credits/title sequence of the zombie-heist thriller Army of the Dead plays out like a painterly buffet. The dead have overtaken Las Vegas, and director Zack Snyder illustrates the fallout like a serious of Boschian images: Gambling addicts lose their earnings and their innards; infected showgirls turn a hotel-suite bathtub into a bloodbath. Rather quickly, military forces are sent in to contain the threat, and when that fails, they bomb and wall off the entire city, taking on the “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” phrase to a new splattering height. Amid this chewy spectacle, Snyder openly shows his flippant side: From the satirical gloss of the visuals to the “Viva Las Vegas” cover playing over them, he’s going much more for smirks rather than shrieks. Taking the carnage to maximalist extremes, he knows he’s gnawing on the bones of a genre he’s picked at before. More than anything, he seems to be trying to top his first feature, the 2004 remake of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.
Snyder’s lean Romero riff launched his career; the engrossing and sometimes weirdly moving Army of the Dead clearly means to resurrect it. And with the movie industry slowly emerging from a non-zombie-related pandemic, it too could use a revival, and Snyder is already this year’s designated comeback kid — the belated release of his own four-hour cut of Justice League earlier this year earned him and his fans a measure of vindication or at least closure. Notably, Snyder was given full creative control on Army of the Dead — a benefit of working with Netflix which pulled the long-gestating project out of development hell. Creative control, of course, can be a tricky beast to tame for some creatives. Mercifully, Army of the Dead doesn’t run four hours, though at two-and-a-half hours it still takes its time. A more prudent hand might have reduced the narrative padding and sharpened the strained comic banter from Snyder, Shay Hatten and Joby Harold’s script.
Still, within that banter is a camaraderie and a shared sense of mission, much as there have been in every Snyder joint. Starting with Dawn of the Dead, 300 and Watchmen, nearly all his films have pitted a brave few against a vast enemy of multitudes. Justice League obviously continued in that vein, and so does Army of the Dead, though minus the overt heroism. The fighters we follow into Vegas aren’t trying to save the world; they’re mercenaries hired to lift $200 million from a casino vault, hopefully without getting eaten by zombies or blown up by the nuclear bomb the U.S. government is about to drop on the city. Their leader is Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), a sensitive chunk of muscle first seen in that early, aforementioned montage. That’s where he met other seasoned fighters like Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick) and Cruz (Ana de la Reguera), both of whom he’s recruited for this mission, along with some fresh blood including Mikey (Raúl Castillo) and Chambers (Samantha Win), both tough as nails, and genius safecracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer). Rounding out the eccentric mixed bag of a cast are Nora Arnezeder as an expert local guide; Tig Notaro as a cynical helicopter pilot; and Garret Dillahunt and Theo Rossi as two sleazebags you eagerly hope to see be turned into Strip steak.
To its credit, though, Army of the Dead doesn’t always go straight for the obvious payoffs. Having opened with catastrophic visions, it soon downshifts into a more unsettlingly intimate register as Scott and his heavily armed crew try to stay as undetected as possible. That means not only avoiding the undead but also negotiating with the fast-moving, fast-thinking alphas, an evolutionarily advanced breed of zombies who have turned this sinners’ playground into their own fallen kingdom. (In particular, a hotel called Olympus is there homebase, which is the first but not last of the story’s ancient Greek allusions.) It’d be overstating the movie’s qualities to call it a return to the basics for Snyder, given its more elaborate zombie mythology and its inflated budget and runtime. But in contrast with the heavy sheen that has come with Snyder’s imagery since 300, the craft here feels nimbler and more energized. The visuals don’t seem embalmed in their own grandeur; notably, this is the first film that Snyder has shot himself and the first one he’s shot entirely on digital, and while some of the images have a gauzy desert look, it’s interesting to see him work in such a handheld manner.
Outside of that, it’s very much a Zack Snyder film, for better or worse: unwieldy but engaging, filled with bone-crunching violence, stilted dialogue and some almost-so-bad-they’re-good needle drops. Still, though, Army of the Dead carries a streak of sincerity that’s hard to miss or deny. The story’s key emotional arc involves Scott and his estranged daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell), who insists on joining the mission in a contrived subplot that nonetheless generates moments of raw, unembarrassed emotion. Snyder has turned the spotlight on parent-child angst before (and spoken on his own recent family tragedy), and this thread of the story can’t help but take on a particularly poignant dimension. It also gives Bautista, an actor of an irresistible presence, some expressive notes to play as this foolhardy mission’s trustworthy leader, turning his crew into a genuine Army of the Dad. Ungainly but occasionally absorbing, Army of the Dead is infectiously sinewy to the point of showing that there is in fact life for Zach Snyder after the superhero fare.
Army of the Dead will be available to stream on Netflix on May 21