Army of the Dead (United States, 2021)

May 19, 2021
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Army of the Dead Poster

Army of the Dead isn’t director Zack Snyder’s first dance with the undead. His feature debut, 2004’s Dawn of the Dead, had him remaking the George A. Romero horror classic. 17 years later, after spending a significant portion of his filmmaking career chronicling the ups-and-downs of costume-wearing men and women, Snyder has returned to the genre where he got started. In this case, however, instead of desecrating a mall, he desecrates the United States’ mecca of greed and immorality, Las Vegas.

The problem with making a zombie movie in 2021 is that, during the shambling undead craze of the 21st century, no cliché has been left unturned. Snyder’s “spin” is to merge undead horror with a heist movie – something that might have worked had the latter been engineered with more verve. The heist aspects of Army of the Dead are perfunctory and the zombie elements are overly familiar. That’s not to say the film is boring, although the unnecessarily long running time gives birth to occasional bouts of tedium. Although trapped surfing a wave of predictability, Snyder delivers enough gore to keep zombie movie fans happy and enough adrenaline-driven action to maintain a high level of suspense. Despite the apocalyptic elements, the tone is more flippant than the darker-than-dark DC movies. There’s even an effective father/daughter emotional component for those who want a little bit more.

Yet Army of the Dead is entering a subgenre where there’s no room for it. Not only are zombies passé, but there’s nothing Snyder can offer that hasn’t been done better in the Romero opus, World War Z, “The Walking Dead,” or a dozen other high-profile productions. There are times when Synder seems to be copying but that’s more likely a coincidence than a conscious choice – how many different things can a filmmaker do with a limited palette? One clear-cut influence is James Cameron’s Aliens. Not only does Snyder borrow the relentless tone but he copies a line of dialogue verbatim: “You don't see them fucking each other over.”

Uninterested in presenting a lengthy or detailed backstory, Snyder dispenses with it in about 15 minutes, providing a scattershot explanation of how the zombie-virus is unleashed and permitted to run rampant throughout Las Vegas. (Left unexplained is how it was contained within Sin City, which seems to be an impossibility, as illustrated during the course of the main story.) The government builds a zombie-impregnable wall around the city. (Presumably, the low IQ of even the Alpha Zombies precludes anything other than a brute force frontal attack on the barrier – something that won’t work.) Next step: nuke it. Just another atomic blast in the desert.

Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), a decorated hero of the human/zombie war, is approached by a Japanese businessman named Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada, who played Scorpion in the recent Mortal Kombat film), with a proposition. Apparently, there are hundreds of millions of dollars left unattended in a vault beneath one of the casinos. If Scott (and his hand-picked team) can get it out, he can keep a nice chunk for himself. It’s a time-sensitive offer, however, since the bomb is scheduled to go off in a few days. After thinking it over for about a millisecond, Scott agrees.

He is joined by a group that numbers more than The Magnificent Seven but less than The Dirty Dozen. Coming along for the trip are two former warrior confederates, Maria Cruz (Ana de la Reguera) and Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick). Dieter (Matthias Schweighofer) is the safe cracker. Marianne Peters (Tig Notaro) is the helicopter pilot. Additional muscle is provided by Mikey Guzman (Raul Castillo), Chambers (Samantha Win), Burt Cummings (Theo Rossi), and Tanaka’s Chief of Security (and inside man), Martin (Garret Dillahunt). Lilly (Nora Arnezeder) knows the way into the city. And Scott’s daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell), has a reason for going in unrelated to the money. When her father says “no,” she makes him an offer he can’t refuse.

Unlike Snyder’s recent superhero outings for Warner Brothers, Army of the Dead isn’t overflowing with household names. The best-known actor is Dave Bautista, whose role in different kind of ensemble (Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy) has allowed him to rise to the bottom of A-list names. He’s no Vin Diesel or Dwayne Johnson, but he’s able to do both the soft, emotional scenes and the kick-ass moments with a degree of competence. He is surrounded by a group of players who can say their lines and shoot their guns. The most interesting casting choice is Tig Notaro who was added after the movie completed filming. Chosen to replace the disgraced Chris D’Elia, Notaro was CGI’d-in in much the same way that Christopher Plummer replaced Kevin Spacey in All the Money in the World.

Although each of Snyder’s two most recent films has been granted a “special edition” home video release, that’s unlikely to happen with Army of the Dead. Clocking in at nearly 2 ½ hours, the movie is already too long and it’s hard to imagine Snyder collecting scraps from the cutting room floor to boost the running time further. Additionally, he has lauded the “creative freedom” provided by the hands-off people at Netflix (something also prized by the likes of Martin Scorsese and Alfonso Cuaron, amongst others). For zombie movie-fans, Army of the Dead provides a good blend of the fast and the familiar, all blended together into a concoction that hits the sweet spot. Snyder takes some chances, doesn’t skimp on the gore, and offers a shock or two. Perhaps that’s the best a zombie movie can hope to accomplish in 2021.

Army of the Dead (United States, 2021)

Run Time: 2:28
U.S. Release Date: 2021-05-21
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Gore, Profanity, Nudity)
Genre: Horror/Thriller
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1