Zack Snyder’s latest, and first for Netflix, combines his affinity for thrilling action, an enjoyable zombie narrative, and a huge cast of characters willing to buy into the world he’s created, even if it’s borrowed from decades of similar cinema.
This review of the Netflix film Army of the Dead does not contain spoilers — it will be released on the streaming service on May 21, 2021.
Before Zack Snyder inspired millions (actually thousands) of fans to flood onto social media to demand a cut of his version of the Justice League, before he became a darling director of the superhero genre, even before he showed the epic Battle of Thermopylae on screen in 300, he made a zombie movie. In fact, he remade one of the pillars of zombie entertainment with Dawn of the Dead, attempting to bring George Romero’s 1978 classic into the modern day.
Since that directorial zombie debut in 2004, he has made a slew of comic book and superhero films, creating only one film from an original concept: Sucker Punch. His newest feature, Army of the Dead, dips back into his early days, penning a zombie heist script with Shay Hatten and Joby Harold, a film that was first announced in 2007. It’s Snyder’s first film with Netflix and the first in which he’s the cinematographer.
In classic Zack Snyder fashion, slow-motion is used early and often. The camera whips and whirls around a zombie-torn Las Vegas, the setting for the film’s story. Described as a zombie heist action film, Netflix’s Army of the Dead is a two-and-a-half-hour slugfest, with moments of forced sincerity sprinkled in, most of which work much less than the action set pieces that precede and follow. Following Dave Bautista as Scott Ward, a widowed mercenary, the film watches as Ward recruits a crew and enters Las Vegas in order to steal a truckload of money, $50 million of which goes to him and his fellow risk-takers.
Snyder’s film hits the beats. It plays upon the heist and zombie films that came before it, beginning with Ward unfurling the blueprints to the hotel and safe on his bed. He puts together a ragtag team of ex-lovers, social media zombie-killing stars, a pilot (Tig Notaro replacing Chris D’Elia), and resident badasses of the outbreak. Accompanying them are Martin, played by a Garret Dillahunt who spouts evil with increasing intensity throughout the film, the Coyote (Nora Arnezeder), and Shaw’s own daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell), with intentions to save a woman who snuck in to crack open a slot machine to rescue her daughters.
With 48 hours until an atomic bomb explodes the walled city of Las Vegas, the crew works against a ticking clock, despite each scene feeling longer than expected, due to Snyder’s willingness to make anything slo-mo, including crying, glancing around, walking, and other mundane activities in the not-so-mundane world he created. Each shot feels blurred at the edges, slightly silhouetted, hyper-focused on one of these characters. You always know you’re watching a movie, or even letting a video game unfold before you.
And if you have the sensation that you’ve seen a version of this before, it’s because you have in one place or another, from moments spliced from The Last of Us video games to Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials. Snyder imprints a tedious nature to the film, settling for first and second acts that might entertain, but don’t move any emotional storylines forward. Still, we get CGI zombie tigers and ritualistic offerings from the “smart” zombies, the latter of which answers the decades-long question of “Can zombies have babies?”
At times, Army of the Dead becomes a nonstop montage with intercut scenes of dialogue, many of which lack resonance. In a large cast of supporting characters, Omari Hardwick and Matthias Schweighöfer stand out with a budding bromance between the saw-carrier and safecracker. Bautista continues to carve out a place for himself in Hollywood, resting in the soft spot between muscle and tenderness, a place long reserved for The Rock and Vin Diesel, though Bautista might have more to show over the next few years.
Snyder’s film reaches its anticipated dose of big-set action in the final 45 minutes, an endless stream of the undead, bullets, and flying money. Throwing aside a level of sense and narrative, the final act of Army of the Dead stamps the Netflix film with a seal of action approval.
Surrounded by death, the film keeps its levity, remaining as enthusiastic and amusing as ever. Snyder’s film contains energy that’s been missing through most of his work in the superhero genre, and it should be an indication that more zombie, heist, or zombie heist films should be in his future.