‘It is by going down into the abyss where we recover the treasures of life.
Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.’
It’s been an interesting journey for Zack Snyder as a filmmaker. After leaving and then returning to Warner Bros. and DC to complete his controversial cut of Justice League, it would appear that the working relationship between the director and the studio has collapsed entirely, and Snyder appears ready to move on from that stage of his career. Netflix gave him his first opportunity to do that with Army Of The Dead, bringing Snyder back to zombie movies for the first time since his 2004 remake of George Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead.
A military convoy from Area 51 is overturned in the Nevada desert, causing its cargo, a zombie, to be set free. After infecting the soldiers from the convoy, the group descends on Las Vegas, causing so much havoc that the city is eventually quarantined and walled off following a failed military intervention. A few months later, casino owner Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) puts together a team, led by former mercenary Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), to breach the quarantine and retrieve the $200 million that was abandoned in his vault following the evacuation before the military elements the zombie threat with a tactical nuclear strike on the city – but all is not as it seems inside Las Vegas…
Despite this script first appearing way back in 2009 (ironically originally planned for release by Warner Bros.), Snyder has presented a film which brings a fresh new element to the zombie movie experience, blending the usual action horror stakes with the added drama of a heist film. This is the core strength of the story; taking the traditional action of a horror film and adding a set of stakes that are rarely seen within the genre, keeping the character motivations fresh and the plot interesting; and the result is a narrative that allows the ensemble cast to demonstrate a range of emotions and motivations as the plot advances, balancing their survival instincts against their greed as the threat escalates. Snyder also brings some interesting character elements to the zombies themselves; stepping away from the traditional mass of shambling drones (though they are still present), and presenting a new kind of zombie with a higher capacity of thought and an actual social hierarchy. The move is bold, but it pays off; as allows for Snyder to instill what amounts to a main villain into the piece, which works to increase the threat level presented to the heist team over time.
The heist team itself is well thought out, and packed full of interesting characters. Bautista’s Ward is joined by his former teammates Maria Cruz (Ana de la Reguera) and Vanderhoe (Omari Hardwick), military chopper pilot Marianne Peters (Tig Notaro), German safecracker Ludwig Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer), Youtube sensation and sharpshooter Mikey Guzman (Raul Castillo), who brings his comprade Chambers (Samantha Win), Tanaka’s head of security Martin (Garret Dillahunt) and Lilly The Coyote (Nora Arnezeder), who leads them into the city through the refugee camp established outside the quarantine zone. It’s a large cast, but Snyder does a good job of establishing some clearly-defined character traits for each of them, and whole some of them are a little stereotypical, it’s not inappropriate to create those clear differences in such a bombastic movie as this one. Everyone puts in strong work performance wise; Batista and de la Reguera have great chemistry and stand out as the team leaders, with Schweighöfer taking a lot of responsibility for the comic relief, supported by Hardwick, Castillo and Notaro. Tig Notaro deserves considerable recognition for her performance, as she was added to the film during the reshoot stage to replace Chris D’Elia following the numerous sexual misconduct accusations levied against him. There’s no way of knowing that Notaro was not on set with the rest of the cast, and despite being filmed almost entirely solo against green screen, her performance is so electric that it’s perfectly covered, helped by some very clever editing in the post-production stage.
As mentioned before, the story of this film is a lot of fun, if perhaps a little convoluted. The constant layering of stakes starts to get a little silly towards the end, and while that isn’t inappropriate for a zombie action film of this style, it did feel somewhat unnecessary. Army Of The Dead also runs pretty long at 2 hours and 30 minutes; I was glad that it was released on Netflix as it did give me the chance to pause when necessary. Famously, Snyder isn’t shy about a long runtime for his projects; and while he uses that time to pack in as much character development and establishing backstory as possible; it wouldn’t have hurt a film of this style to lose even half an hour from that total runtime without it feeling like it was missing anything.
Where this film really stands out is the action. It’s not a secret that one of Snyder’s greatest strengths is in his action sequences, and he does not disappoint here – from the opening sequence, the threat of the zombies is made perfectly clear, and the scenes of devastation around the city are impressively staged. Snyder makes good use of high-octane sequences and tension at various points, and an effective use of his trademark slow-motion makes some scenes pop in a very satisfying fashion. There’s also a good mix of sci-fi tropes thrown in with Snyder’s new interpretation of zombie hierarchy, which blend well to create familiar scenes with an exciting twist. One early sequence sees the team sneaking throw a long passageway full of dormant zombies; a scene which has been done before plenty of times in other properties; but Snyder’s style of direction and storytelling, combined with a talented ensemble cast and interesting core narrative, allow it to feel fresh and interesting despite the familiarity.
Army Of The Dead is a high-octane, suspenseful zombie thriller with a great central cast and some solid ideas, executed well by a director who is in his element. This one is a lot of fun, especially if you can put aside the minor frustrations and lose yourself in the action.
Oh, and there’s a zombie tiger in it. Maybe I should have led with that?