I’ve never been to Las Vegas, but like any conscious American I know that it’s a city with a reputation for being both a glittery, glitzy haven of overindulgence and pleasure-seeking and a sleezy, scuzzy monument to mindlessness and braindead, gluttonous consumerism. Zack Snyder‘s Army of the Dead takes that braindead moniker quite literally, producing an epic zombie film that bites off a bit more than it can chew while still being an enjoyable enough ride through post-apocalyptic desert mayhem.
Co-written by Snyder (Justice League, Dawn of the Dead ’04), Shay Hatten (John Wick: Chapter 3), and Joby Harold (Awake), and directed by Snyder, Army of the Dead explores what happens when an undead infection takes hold over Las Vegas and decimates those that live there. After a rapid spread, the City of Sin is quarantined to prevent further contamination. Cutting their losses, the U.S. government prepares to annihilate the city and its entire walking dead population with a nuclear bomb set to drop on the Fourth of July. Thirty-six hours before detonation, casino owner Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuka Sanada) recruits ex-mercenary Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) to put together a ragtag team of misfits to infiltrate the barricaded city and retrieve five hundred million dollars from the vault in Tanaka’s casino. Tempted by the thrill of one last job, Ward and his rough-and-tough cronies drop into Vegas, unaware of the true danger that lies ahead of them…
Snyder, who directed the well-received remake of Dawn of the Dead, is no stranger to both zombie movies and big, flashy, look-at-this-cool-shit films, so you’d think this would make for a pleasing combo, but the magic of his earlier entry into the genre is missing here, and though the colors and the gore pop, the rest of the movie is dull and uninspired.
It’s a shame, as the movie starts strong with a gorgeous opening sequence depicting how the outbreak happens (road head is involved, so it’s automatically an A+ origin story) that segues into a credit sequence montage of Vegas getting overrun and falling into glorious zombie chaos. Oh and there’s zombie strippers in the montage at one point because Vegas. Also because Zack Snyder. I don’t know, it works. It’s a high energy, balls-to-the-walls type of opening, and it sets the stage for what should be a thrilling heist story set against the brain-eating background but instead becomes a string of quasi-decent action sequences broken up by scenes full of halfhearted dialogue exchanged between uninteresting cardboard characters.
Arguably, Snyder has always been a director that favors style over substance, and that’s certainly the case with this film. The neon-infused aesthetics of the posters and promo materials carries over into the film, but isn’t pushed nearly as much as it could have been. In that same vein, there’s a few choice set pieces, but the desolated Vegas wasteland remains underused. We see almost nothing of the plethora of iconic Vegas landmarks and locations, the film containing itself to bland hallways and unremarkable hotel lobbies. It’s an odd production decision, especially because when we do get the occasional well-crafted set, often between action sequences.
As to the action, there’s certainly some blood-pumping chases, fights, and explosions. Snyder has always been adept at delivering on Big Movie Action. The trouble here is there’s too much downtime between each throwdown. The film pushes 160 minutes and its characters just aren’t interesting enough to justify that runtime. The “getting the band back together” sequence takes almost an hour, and by the time they’re finally equipped and ready, you’ve forgotten half their names. Tig Notaro’s helicopter pilot Peters and Matthias Schweighofer’s safecracker Dieter do stand out, but as is the running theme of this film, they’re underused.
No one seems to know quite what to do with the zombie genre these days, and I do applaud the film for experimenting with some different narrative approaches, namely the idea that some of the undead are intelligent and that the Alphas like Zeus (Richard Cetrone) can somehow “make” other smart zombies who are capable of communication and strategic thinking. As many horror fans know, grandfather of the modern zombie George Romero originally intended to have semi-intelligent zombies wielding weapons in Day of the Dead (1985) and the fast-moving, quick-thinking zombies of Snyder’s film feel like a fruition of that discarded story idea.
All in all, Army of the Dead delivers enough hyper-stylized action, gore, and grit to please the average zombie lover. It’s overlong and carries no emotional weight, but it’s entertaining enough if you’re having a lazy afternoon that could use a shot or two of undead adrenaline. While the overall gamble doesn’t pay off, there’s not a whole lot to lose, so you might as well play.
Army of the Dead
5 – Totally Terrifying
4 – Crazy Creepy
3 – Fairly Frightening
2 – Slightly Scary
1 – Hardly Horror