Army of the Dead, 2021, directed by Zack Snyder – 3/5 Stars
On the heels of one of Zack Snyder’s highest moments of his career, the release of his four-hour cut of Justice League on HBO Max, he has released another passion project this month, Army of the Dead. While this new zombie extravaganza doesn’t have the budget or cast that Snyder had for Justice League, it manages to be surprisingly entertaining for a movie in a comedically oversaturated genre.
Army of the Dead’s greatest strength is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The opening credits sequence, which lasts far too long, shows the audience that a zombie outbreak started in Las Vegas, but was contained by constructing a wall around the city’s perimeter. This is demonstrated with a brightly color-corrected, slow-motion montage of gruesome zombie fighting set to a Richard Cheese and Allison Crowe cover of Elvis Presley’s “Viva Las Vegas.” This premise is ridiculous, but the movie knows it, and it flaunts it.
The story truly begins when ex-mercenary Scott Ward — played by Dave Bautista — is approached by casino owner Bly Tanaka – played by Hiroyuki Sanada – who requests that Ward re-enters Las Vegas and retrieve $200 million from a vault below his casino. Financially on the ropes, Ward accepts, and recruits a team to pull off a zombified Ocean’s Eleven style heist. Another wrench is thrown into the mix when Ward’s estranged daughter, Kate, who is volunteering at a camp for survivors outside the city, decides to come along to try to rescue her friend. This father-daughter relationship is the closest thing to an emotional storyline for the movie, but it goes largely underdeveloped, and when the emotional beats do come along, they feel unearned.
This is a problem with the film as a whole; it can’t seem to commit to any one story or concept. There a far too many subplots and dramatic setups that go to waste or seem to be forgotten altogether. Near the beginning of the story, when the team enters the city, it’s explained that many of the zombies have dried out and collapsed in the heat, but they will return to life when it rains. It never rains, and the zombies never come to life. In another scene, one of Ward’s team members confesses her love for him, with virtually no setup or development of their relationship before that point.
Perhaps the most frustrating example of this lack of commitment within the story is in its humor. The overall casual tone of the dialogue and initial introduction to Army of the Dead seems to imply that it wants to be a horror-comedy, akin to something like Zombieland or Shaun of the Dead. In spite of this, jokes don’t come very often, and when they do, they don’t always land. It’s especially tragic that Snyder chose to cast the hilarious Tig Notaro in a pivotal role but gave her a criminally small amount of screen time.
Army of the Dead at its peak, though, is fun. When the characters aren’t explaining the boring, overwrought lore of the world or bickering about their told-not-shown backstories, they shoot some zombies. Snyder’s signature use of slow motion works well for the action sequences, and the hair and makeup on the zombies is notably well-done. The visual effects budget clearly falters at points, and the odd cinematography choice of using a very close depth of field is sometimes distracting, but these issues are quickly overshadowed by the impressive stunts and explosions that make the movie what it is.
Army of the Dead isn’t the kind of movie that audiences should go into expecting quality filmmaking. The emotional stakes are paper thin, it has a truly distracting amount of plot holes and its cinematography and effects are only passable. That said, it’s fun to watch people fight zombies every once in a while.