Review by C.J. Bunce
Zack Snyder finally did it. Despite taking on a heist movie and a zombie picture in a major action movie, he wrote a script and delivered the type of action blockbuster he has not yet been able to create. Army of the Dead is his first movie to get it right, a load of tropes, a mash-up of genre ideas, a tightly written story with a great cast, and wall-to-wall fun. Not a comedy like Shaun of the Dead or iZombie, Army of the Dead features the right amount of humor for this story, while incorporating all the expectations of any fan of the father of the genre, George A. Romero. Rivaling the incredible action and effects in 6 Underground, it also rises to become one of Netflix’s most promising productions.
It all starts with a newlyweds leaving Las Vegas. At the same time they are driving the highway, a caravan of trucks transporting a government secret is heading toward them. Flash forward 5 years later and Las Vegas has entered the realm of New York City in John Carpenter’s Escape from New York and Seattle in iZombie. Barricaded off and secured from the rest of the country, nobody goes in or out as it has been infested with zombies. These aren’t your typical shambling goons, but an upgraded version with hierarchy–a king and queen–communication and coordination. A Japanese-American executive played by Hiroyuki Sanada (Mortal Kombat, Westworld, The Wolverine, Lost) brings an offer you can’t refuse to an ex-military hero named Scott, played by Dave Bautista (Blade Runner 2049, Hotel Artemis, Spectre, Guardians of the Galaxy) in his own best dramatic performance. The exec has $200 million in a vault in the basement of a casino. If Scott can get it out, he gets to keep $50 million. Snyder adds in a ticking clock–the U.S. government decided to just nuke Vegas instead of dealing with it another way, leaving Scott 48 hours to assemble a crew and 32 hours to get in and out.
Bautista fills that larger than life tough guy role perfected by John Wayne (think Rio Bravo) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (you’ll catch many scenes here echoing pieces of his bigger than life characters in Predator and Commando). Bautista continues to challenge himself and bring a certain charisma, sensitivity, and authenticity to his performances. Here he expands on that quiet hero from the beginning of Blade Runner 2029.
The story–again, written by Snyder–is better than Romero’s last novel, The Living Dead, reviewed here at borg last year, which also featured a good assemblage of characters. The Living Dead was also spectacularly long–too long–and Army of the Dead also clocks in at just less than 2.5 hours. But Army of the Dead feels anything but long. The action is non-stop, and the opening 20 minutes contains all the stakes and storytelling another movie might have drawn out to a compete 2-hour movie. Underneath the story is the weirdest romance you may ever see, but definitely what you’d expect from zombie horror–a fantasy forming the surprise backbone running along with the heist plot thread. Along with the story, Snyder, serving as both director and cinematographer, incorporates use of some slick vintage camera lenses, which gives a moody, blurry effect to the film, which works quite well.
The Ocean’s Eleven throwbacks are artfully applied (think Dean Martin’s vs. George Clooney’s), including the Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven hiring of the (big) team, which includes a fun set of players. Ana de la Reguera (Nacho Libre, Cowboys & Aliens) plays Scott’s partner, forming a perfect pair supplying good chemistry. Omari Hardwick (Riverdale, Gotham, Law & Order) is a tough soldier from Scott’s past. Nora Arnezeder (Riviera, Berserk) is a coyote familiar with the ways of getting people in and out of Vegas. Mathias Schweighöfer (Valkyrie, The Red Baron) plays a strange German safecracker. And Ella Purnell (Never Let Me Go, Kick-Ass 2) plays Scott’s daughter, adding that obligatory family-squabble plot thread into the mix. If successful, the crew plans to escape via helicopter abandoned on the casino tower, to be piloted by one of the film’s best characters, the always funny Tig Notaro (Star Trek: Discovery, Community, Bob’s Burgers).
The special effects in the trailers seemed lacking, so it was a surprise at how well they were incorporated. This isn’t that lame “piles of bodies” moving CGI stuff of World War Z. A zombie tiger, created in CGI based on a real white tiger, is another of the film’s best features, a realistic giant cat, believable as zombified and humorously based on the famous cats of Siegfried & Roy (who both passed away this past year). Even better may be the horse ridden by the king of the zombies, an actual horse zipped into a zombie costume with CGI applied later. The zombies are zombies–so commonplace today you either get the makeup right or you don’t, although the queen zombie has that vibe of Sofia Boutella in The Mummy. But the movie is more than the special effects.
Look for a few familiar actors known for their great bad guy roles, Life’s Roman Nevikov and Burn Notice’s Simon Escher, Garret Dillahunt, and Luke Cage’s Shades Alvarez, Theo Rossi, both back as questionable characters. Stunt woman and Snyder movie staple, actress Samantha Win (Justice League, Wonder Woman) plays another good addition to the heist squad.
It does have a Bone Tomahawk and They Come at Night level of violence, with lots of goo and gore, a 1980s movie’s worth of bullets, gunfire, and body count (so keep the young ones at bay), but it’s all relevant to the story and appropriate to the horror genre. Better than other big, dark action movies, like Mad Max: Fury Road, audiences will be glued to the screen from beginning to the end–a satisfying ending that has an equally good coda setting itself up for a possible sequel. Tom Holkenborg (Terminator: Dark Fate, Tomb Raider, Deadpool, Mad Max: Fury Road) brings yet another solid action score. One negative note (and there aren’t a lot here): the production over-uses that 21st century cue for doom, the sudden, chair-shaking, synthesized bass-drop noise. Enough already! Snyder dodges the over-used use of popular songs, this time by using covers of songs by Elvis, The Doors, CCR, and more, providing a more subtle statement of mood.
Finally, as a fan of fantasy I love that title–the movie may not have The Lord of the Rings’ coolest tribe of dead warriors, but the film delivers the fun you’d want from something called Army of the Dead.
A beginning out of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A zombie film at the top of the genre. A fun action/heist story. Consider this the Zack Snyder movie worth your time. Skip the theater offerings and stay home and watch Army of the Dead, a great movie mash-up of genres and a must for zombie fans. It is streaming now exclusively on Netflix.