A Vegas zombie movie feels like the sort of thing that should have happened long ago, but it’s fitting that Zack Snyder should be the one to present such a thing. The Justice League director’s feature debut came 17 years ago with an amped-up reboot of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Army of the Dead is far more rote and texturally dull than the 2004 movie, but it delivers as an action story.
Army of the Dead concerns itself with combat-hardened mercenaries after a big score. Following a late-night sexual encounter that inadvertently ushers in a localized zombie outbreak, Las Vegas is under quarantine, and soon the American government will solve the problem by dropping a “low-yield” nuke on the overrun city. Decorated war hero Mr. Ward (played by Dave Bautista) — who is alienated from his adult daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) — receives the plot catalyst by menacing casino owner Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada): $200 million sits in a basement vault below the city, a quarter of which is available to Ward and any team he puts together for the job. A smattering of misfits, including stone-faced city guide Lilly aka “The Coyote” (Nora Arnezeder), sharpshooting influencer Mikey Guzman (Raúl Castillo) and baby-faced safecracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer), team up and make their way into the city. Tagging along is Tanaka’s right-hand man Martin (Garret Dillahunt), who has motivations of his own.
The Snyder staples are present and accounted for: a Richard Cheese lounge cover in the opening credits conjures Snyder’s 2004 monster movie (then, it was “Down with the Sickness,” now it’s “Viva Las Vegas”) as well as setting the saucy tone. In fact, the entire credits sequence casually but methodically packs a punch in a short amount of time, creating shoot ‘em up chaos with the Watchmen director’s usual speed-ramping techniques and slowed-down spectacles. The most effective part of the credits are the wordless backstory hints of the main players as they try to save the city during the initial outbreak; one member of the heist team stands with a graduation photo of himself, while another holds a framed family portrait of what he had pre-apocalypse. This is a story told by a person who insists that video games and action movies are artful and is tired of pretending that they aren’t. Confidential, emotional moments read like The Last of Us-esque cutscenes, while the balls-to-the-wall warfare occasionally uses first-person shooting POVs. A shoegaze cover of The Doors’ “The End” recalls the retrofuturistic Stubbs the Zombie game, while a wistful folksy rendition of “Bad Moon Rising” accompanies a montage of the team’s individual sunset recovery of their gun caches. Thus, the needle drops can be obnoxious or endearing depending on personal taste. Visually and sonically, Army of the Dead is built upon Snyder’s youth, in the glow of the family TV, playing with his influences like so many decades-old action figures he uncovered from the attic storage.
Snyder did his own cinematography, and there is indeed a consistent aesthetic vibe, for better and for worse. Massive depth of field covers the landscape in a blurred smear, which is pitch-perfect for hiding the VFX seams in Tig Notaro’s insertion (most of her shoots were done apart from the rest of the cast) and for the film’s most intimate moments, letting the background noise fade away until all the characters have left to focus on is each other. Hard conversations between avoidant father and estranged daughter gain a spotlight and weight. As a visual blanket over the rest of the proceedings, though, the shallow focus defangs the work of Snyder’s storytelling team. The real army of the dead is Fractured FX, who give the undead cannibal stars a beautiful layer of grime and decay. A healthy mix of digital and practical effects are gorgeous when visible, but in an important scene, the highly focused lensing prevents viewers (who did, when it comes down to it, expect to watch a zombie feature) from seeing the severed, still-masticating zombie head that must have taken an awful lot of time to craft in the workshop. What is discernible in the action is lovely; with advanced zeds comes more varied battles with the living, giving Bautista a chance to square off with one limber zombie who apparently did capoeira in his peppier days. The fight choreography looks slick and sick, the guns blaze with balletic Dirty Dozen abandon and, despite a visual identity that doesn’t land, the kinetic parts of the story are a plain old good time.
When the guns are lowered, the static parts of Army of the Dead are uneven and dull. A two-hour zombie movie isn’t a bad thing; Train to Busan takes 118 minutes to pull into its station and it thrills for every second of that, and Snyder only tops off Dawn of the Dead’s runtime with an extra 40 or so minutes. Left with the characters, themselves avatars for characters from horror and action movies from decades past, a bloated middle portion of the story doesn’t advance much beyond a faster ticking clock for the warriors. The cast does what they can with the one-liners and bravado they’re given on the page, but the more mechanical scenes of the second act grind slow until either the zombies show up or the warriors pull their triggers again. The character of Chambers (Samantha Win), though undercooked, is a walking love letter to the tough-talking Vasquez of Aliens, while A-Team bravado is present in Notaro’s hotshot helicopter pilot Marianne Peters. Notaro commands the frame easily in her scenes, a surprise in that her casting was an 11th hour one to replace that of accused sexual predator Chris D’Elia. Hers is the most memorable performance in Army of the Dead, with bone-dry delivery and earned swagger.
Snyder and co-writers Shay Hatten and Joby Harold enter the story with audience rapport already established: they know that the pop culture consciousness is aware of zombie lore and its rules. When Dieter tries to ask for clarity on how to kill one, he’s mockingly rebuffed. The old zombie tropes are still there: a bite turns victims into flesh-eating monsters, and the best ways to kill a flesh-eating monster is still head destruction or a sizeable explosion. Where Snyder and company expand is in the procreation: Army of the Dead’s zombies not only have a hierarchal structure, but they may no longer need human hosts in order to replicate. This is forgotten as quickly as it is mentioned, along with a casual aside that zombies can re-animate when it rains (no rain comes). A gentle interpretation blames the frayed mythos on a purposeful coyness — a quick IMDb search shows a planned TV series of the same title, so it seems that the most interesting parts of the horror material may be cashed in on later.
With Dawn of the Dead, Zack Snyder proved that he could do a zombie movie. Where his 2004 debut was cranked-up gore and intensity in the wake of 9/11, Army of the Dead is an algorithmic cleansing exhale in the wake of a whirlwind period in Snyder’s career. As a zombie movie, it’s a shallow, scattershot effort with interesting mythology ideas that don’t really go anywhere but do tease the inevitable sequel (indeed, as of this printing, IMDb shows that an animated zombie series is on the way for the director). As a heist movie, Army of the Dead is rote but authentic fun. First and foremost, it’s a heist picture, and so the overall effect is an uneven but enjoyable one.
Anya Stanley (@BookishPlinko) is a horror-centric columnist and film critic. Her work can be seen in Fangoria Magazine, Rue Morgue, Dread Central and Birth.Movies.Death as well as her website anyawrites.com.