REVIEW: ‘Army of the Dead’ is Just Zombie-Killing Fun

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Army of the Dead - But WHy tho?

While the conversation around Aliens has been focused on his comic book movies, I remember Snyder for Dawn of the Dead (2003). Not only did the film stand as a critically and fan-loved remake of a classic, but it set the tone for 2000s zombie films and the rules by which they abide. Now, with Army of the Dead, a Netflix Original, Snyder is returning to the undead and is doing it with a neon-filled marketing campaign, a solid line-up of action leads, and a whole lot of blood.

Written and directed by Snyder, Army of the Dead opens with a slow and steady rendition of “Viva Las Vegas”, which kicks back to the lounge-version of “Down With the Sickness” from Dawn of the Dead and sets the tone for the film. But the music is just part of it – the opening of the film drops the viewer into the start of the zombie apocalypse with zombified naked burlesque dancers, Elvis, bridal parties, and more rampaging the Las Vegas strip as we’re introduced into our cast of characters escaping. Oh, and there is a lot of blood.

With a quick kick-off, Army of the Dead’s opening credits ends with storage crates falling into place to wall off the infected city to the rest of the world. When Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), a displaced Vegas local, former zombie war hero who’s now flipping burgers on the outskirts of the town he now calls home, is approached by casino boss Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada), it’s with the ultimate proposition: Break into the zombie-infested quarantined zone to retrieve $200 million sitting in a vault beneath the strip before the government nukes the city in 32 hours.

Hoping to reconcile with his estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell), Ward takes on the challenge, assembling a ragtag team of experts for the heist. When in the city, Scott hits an unexpected emotional hurdle when Kate joins the expedition to search for Geeta (Huma S. Qureshi), a mother who’s gone missing inside the city. With a ticking clock, a notoriously impenetrable vault, and a smarter, faster horde of Alpha zombies closing in, the stage is set for an action-zombie film that hits the ground running and doesn’t let up once the team of misfits lands on the Vegas strip.

Each of the characters fits into the absurd world by embodying their typical survival-action tropes. First, we have Maria Cruz (Ana de la Reguera), an ace mechanic, and Ward’s old friend. Then we have Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), a zombie killing machine; Marianne Peters (Tig Notaro), a cynical helicopter pilot; Mikey Guzman (Raúl Castillo), a go-for-broke influencer who makes a living killing zombies on camera and Chambers (Samantha Win), his ride-or-die; Martin (Garret Dillahunt), the casino’s head of security; a badass warrior known as the Coyote (Nora Arnezeder) who recruits Burt (Theo Rossi), a slimy security guard; and a brilliant German safecracker named Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer). It’s in the casting that the film shines. Similar to his first zombie foray, Snyder understands the interplay between personalities in a survival situation. But even better than the last time, he brings in action homages that come off as referential without the tacky that comes with it – especially with Chambers visually embodying Vasquez from Aliens.

In truth, every actor brings a charisma that fits both their roles and the tropes they embody to a tee. One of the best elements is the use of Spanish without subtitles between the Latinx characters. It’s one of the small things that help push genuine character dynamic and makes the film stand out from the crowd. Plus, Army of the Dead manages to utilize standard action tropes while also escaping tokenizing any of the characters in a stereotype like what can happen when playing in the action movie trope toy box.

While the film thrives in its character interactions, even Notaro’s addition to the team works well – which was my one concern given they were added to the film via CGI during post-production to take the place of Chris D’Elia, who was rightfully removed from the project. While there are some moments where the camera blur around her seems out of place, most of her scenes work well, and her humor fits in naturally to the surrounding. That said, in her scenes and a few others, Snyder uses a lens blur to distort the backgrounds of the shots that is too heavy-handed at times. But, it’s only used when outdoors, which makes a lot of the action sequences immune to it.

Army of the Dead - But WHy tho?

In addition to some great characters, Army of the Dead also introduces zombies with a hierarchy – Alpha zombies that communicate with each other and humans. They think, the plan, and even ride horses – oh, and command that zombie tiger. The zombies in Army of the Dead feel pulled from a video game, with different characteristics and identities that work. It’s absurd, and it doesn’t make sense all the time, but the zombie rules are fun ones that make the most of every interaction. Additionally, the designs of the Alpha zombies are excellent, in a memorable way that will wind up on shirts and memes for sure.

The action and zombie homages that get sprinkled through the film make it a romp that knows what it is and where it fits in the zombie filmography. Snyder proves he’s best when he’s being irreverent and putting gags and the physicality of his actors first. In one particular action sequence, Chambers is left to fend for herself against a horde and does so with high impact. In fact, she has one of the most physical fights in the whole film, and it’s shot with enough trust in her to ace the choreography. With just enough slow-mo to accent high octane moments, Snyder strikes a balance that works perfectly. When the film hits its fast pace in its last half, we get zombie fights that aim to be gory and wild that bring big Dead Rising 2 vibes that make you want to jump into the world.

Truthfully, Army of the Dead is a lot, and while it’s about 30-minutes too long just when you look at your watch to check the time, the last act pulls you back in with a balls to the wall action ending that really seals the deal. Once the bullets start flying indiscriminately, the Alphas are thoroughly pissed off, and you realize that no one is safe; the fun doesn’t stop. While this one doesn’t rewrite the zombie playbook like Dawn of the Dead did nearly 20 years ago, it’s the best video game movie zombie movie I’ve ever seen – even if it isn’t one.

Army of the Dead is playing in theaters May 14, 2021 and streaming exclusively on Netflix May 21, 2021.

Army of the Dead
  • 8/10
    Rating - 8/10
8/10

TL;DR

Truthfully, Army of the Dead is a lot, and while it’s about 30-minutes too long just when you look at your watch to check the time, the last act pulls you back in with a balls to the wall action ending that really seals the deal. Once the bullets start flying indiscriminately, the Alphas are thoroughly pissed off, and you realize that no one is safe; the fun doesn’t stop. While this one doesn’t rewrite the zombie playbook like Dawn of the Dead did nearly 20 years ago, it’s the best video game movie zombie movie I’ve ever seen – even if it isn’t one.