For better or worse, Netflix’s Army of the Dead is Zack Snyder in his purest form. He may have carved out the early years of the DCEU in his own image, with Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and HBO Max’s Justice League all hugely representative of his vision, but he was always fighting a battle of some kind against Warner Bros.
His superhero epics were overlong, often ponderous and a little too self-serious for their own good, as if he was battling against his own instincts on whether to paint them as tragedies of gods and men inspired by ancient mythology, or deliver the more straightforward crowd-pleasing superhero blockbusters that the studio clearly wanted all along.
Unleashed by the complete creative freedom afforded by the streaming service, Snyder’s return to the zombie genre is an absolute blast. If you’re not on board with his filmography by now, then Army of the Dead is going to do absolutely nothing to change that fact, and before the opening credits are even over we’ve already seen explosions, blowjobs, boobs, rippling biceps, bullet casings and plenty of slow motion.
Speaking of the credits, Snyder has become an expert at using the opening titles as a means to deliver visual exposition and kickstart the worldbuilding. We’ve seen it in Dawn of the Dead, Watchmen, Batman v Superman and the Snyder Cut of Justice League, with Army of the Dead following in that tradition by painting the picture of a Las Vegas overrun by hordes of the undead, while also introducing us to the sprawling cast of characters and how they fit into the movie’s apocalypse.
From there, the entire plot is set in motion by a lengthy monologue from Hiroyuki Sanada’s shady billionaire Bly Tanaka, who lays out the plan to rob a casino of $200 million in a race against time before the government nukes the entire city to oblivion. That’s basically Army of the Dead in a nutshell, and while several members of the ensemble have motivations of their own, it doesn’t really matter in the long run.
Throughout the first act of the film, Snyder frames the majority of shots in a way that leaves the backgrounds almost entirely out of focus, which is jarring for a spell before you eventually settle into Army of the Dead‘s aesthetic groove. The roster of mercenaries and antiheroes themselves are all painted in very broad strokes, and the momentum sags until the gang get into the quarantine zone because nobody says anything to each other that isn’t either exposition filling in the gaps or a one-liner.
Almost all of the principal players are little more than ciphers, but each still manages to give their one-note character their own distinct set of foibles and traits, although leading man Dave Bautista deserves a special mention. Despite the sheer size of the guy, he somehow always manages to add a layer of vulnerability to his performances, and that’s no different here. Scott Ward’s personality is basically entirely that of an estranged father who wants to open a food truck, but Bautista still makes him more than just a standard musclehead.
Omari Hardwick’s Vanderhoe is the soulful philosopher, Ana de la Reguera is the mechanic and would-be love interest for Bautista, Theo Rossi’s Burt Cummings is the creep, Garrett Dillahunt’s Martin gets the ‘asshole with ulterior motives’ role, Nora Arnezeder’s Coyote ticks the box marked ‘grizzled badass,’ Matthias Schweighöfer earns a few laughs as the scaredy cat safecracker and so on. On that note, Tig Notaro plays to her strengths as the wisecracking helicopter pilot, and watching Army of the Dead, it’s impossible to tell that she didn’t even join the cast until eight months after shooting wrapped, with Snyder removing Chris D’Elia from the ensemble in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations and seamlessly compositing Notaro into the film
Of course, nobody watches a zombie heist actioner called Army of the Dead for plot and character, which is just as well because the father/daughter story between Scott and Ella Purnell’s Kate Ward doesn’t really land, either, and if anything only serves to slow things down. Luckily, the inventive spin on the standard zombie tropes adds a fresh layer to the set pieces, of which there are many and they’re packed to the gills with stylish visual bombast.
The horde is split into two distinct classes, with the heightened intelligence of the Alphas giving us the incredible visual of a zombie wearing a helmet, sporting a cape and wielding a spear riding into battle on an undead horse. It should also be noted that Snyder is clearly having the time of his life diving back into blood, guts and gore, with heads and bones popping both off and open throughout the running time, leaving a trail of brain matter and entrails behind as each scene moves to the next. It’s almost excessively violent at points, with one mauling at the hands of zombie tiger Valentine bordering on the gratuitous, but it’s all so tongue-in-cheek that it never becomes difficult to stomach.
As a whole, Army of the Dead is big, loud, incredibly stupid and probably 20 minutes too long, but it’s a deliriously bonkers delight once it finally finds its footing. The first act takes a long time to get going, but as soon as the bullets start flying, they don’t stop. It’s as if somebody put James Cameron’s Aliens, John Carpenter’s Escape from New York and the Snyder’s own Dawn of the Dead in a blender before injecting it with steroids and making it drink nothing but Red Bull, which is meant as a compliment in this case.