Army of the Dead Movie Review
Written by Stuart D. Monroe
Released by Netflix
Directed by Zack Snyder
Written by Zack Snyder, Shay Hatten, and Joby Harold
2021, 148 minutes, Not Rated
Released on May 21st, 2021
Dave Bautista as Scott Ward
Ella Purnell as Kate Ward
Richard Cetrone as Zeus
Omari Hardwick as Vanderohe
Ana de la Reguera as Maria Cruz
Theo Rossi as Burt Cummings
Matthias Schweighöfer as Dieter
Nora Arnezeder as Lilly “The Coyote”
Tig Notaro as Marianne Peters
Raúl Castillo as Mikey Guzman
Garret Dillahunt as Martin
Hiroyuki Sanada as Bly Tanaka
There are only a handful of directors that immediately polarize a crowd and leave zero room for fence-sitting. Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead, 300, Watchmen, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice) is in the upper echelon of that group. When he misses the mark and overstays his welcome, he misses by a country mile, and the result is Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. When his aim is true, the result is a ballsy as fuck remake of THE great American zombie film with 2004’s Dawn of the Dead that kickstarts a decade of cinematic and small-screen zombie dominance that becomes reinvention and eventually over-saturation.
His visual style is so signature and his voice often so bloated that every Zack Snyder film feels like an event that you simply shouldn’t miss. Army of the Dead is Zack Snyder with the volume turned up to eleven in pretty much every respect and going back to the roots of what works best for him – extreme action and zombie horror. You’re still getting the abundance of slow-motion violence, wide-scale destruction, and that overblown expository title credit intro. You’re also getting half-formed backstories for every character that ultimately go nowhere and killer concepts that don’t fully materialize into anything on-screen. It’s a give and take.
Scott Ward (WWE legend Dave Bautista; Guardians of the Galaxy series) is a bad, bad man. He’s a winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor who saved untold people in Las Vegas after the undead and their Alpha, Zeus (stuntman Richard Cetrone) overtook the city. Sin City is now a walled-off no-man’s land, and Scott is flipping burgers in a greasy spoon and hiding from his problems. When the rich and powerful Bly Tanaka approaches him about a heist to steal two-hundred million dollars of his own “lost” money (which resides in a vault below his mega hotel on the Strip), Scott decides to put the team back together and secure the fortune that will make them all comfortable for the rest of their lives. Behind the walls of shipping containers, however, the dead have evolved into a society run by Alphas – juiced up, hyper-quick, relentlessly vicious zombies in thrall to Zeus. The paper-thin plan will take them into the heart of a city completely ruled by the undead (right down to Siegfried and Roy’s tiger, Valentine!) and set to be nuked in a matter of days on the Fourth of July.
Army of the Dead is one of those flicks that comes at you at warp speed with an opening that sets a tone that anyone with a dark sense of humor can appreciate. When you combine a convoy carrying unknown Area 51 cargo with a dude receiving some mind-blowing road head on a dark Nevada night, what could possibly go wrong? Then you tear ass into an intro that easily cost more than a lot of whole films while showing the entire timeline of the devolution of Las Vegas and the high spots of the most fleshed and important story of the whole film, that of Scott Ward and (to a lesser degree) his daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell; Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children).
I’m all about the practical SFX, and there’s plenty of wonderful work from the artists at Fractured FX (American Horror Story, Westworld, Brightburn) and a killer undead horse design from SFX legend Gabriel Bartalos (read my interview here). When you’re dealing with the widespread destruction that Snyder clearly gets off on (and really, who doesn’t?), the CGI has to be on point. Army of the Dead excels here as well, even delivering a viciously timed and executed neck snap that rivals the “oh shit!” moment of the restaurant kill in The Invisible Man.
The humor never overpowers the action, and conversely the action blends quite well with the more purely horrific elements. The social commentary of the Quarantine Zone and Infection Camps is pointed enough to sting a bit without being all up in your face; neither is it a motif. That’s the thing about Snyder, when he’s firing on all cylinders, he throws everything at the wall to see what’ll stick because he’s giving you two-and-a-half hours of movie.
I liken his best movies to a good pro wrestling match. Sit down and enjoy the high spots and the framework story that is, if you’re being honest with yourself and not too cynical and high-minded about the art of film, more than enough to carry what you’re asking the film to do. That being said, Army of the Dead walks a fine line between easily having fifteen to thirty trimmable minutes and still being entertaining and conceptual enough to say, “screw it” and enjoy the ride.
I’m still a little bitter about the missed opportunity of the massive piles of sun-mummified “shamblers” just inside the triple-high walls. You don’t hint at a concept like the awakening of them all when it rains and not deliver on it! I DEMAND SATISFACTION. Seriously, though…that is a concept that needs to be explored. I mean, who doesn’t want to see a Society-esque dogpile of thousands of interlocked zombies come back to life?! We could’ve used a little more for Hiroyuki Sanada (LOST, Westworld) to do, as well. Just sayin’.
Dave Bautista has fully transformed himself at this point from one of the faces of the WWE for the 2000s and early 2010s to superhero scene-stealer to well-rounded action beast and sneaky good actor. I found myself wondering in at least two places during Army of the Dead when Dave Bautista became this polished. Similarly, I want to see more of French-born beauty Nora Arnezeder, who turns in a scene-chewing and stealthily badass performance as the “Las Vegas Coyote” and Alpha expert, Lilly. She’s low-key incredible.
For that part, no one here is miscast, and everyone plays their roles admirably. Army of the Dead can claim one of the more fun long-form montages in film history with the putting together of the team. There’s never a bad time for a montage; the action film requires it, in fact. When you put Snyder’s love of the action and horror tropes with admittedly on-the-nose flavor for cover songs (and the great Richard Cheese!!), it’s easy to have a good time.
It’s cool when you can see that a director is having fun making the exact movie they wanted to make; you feel that. It translates. Army of the Dead is a movie to be enjoyed in theaters. It’s Zack Snyder, the man who made his name on Dawn of the Dead and 300, making a zombie action flick that’ll remind everyone of what they wanted out of World War Z. It’s a summer blockbuster for people with drive-in tastes. How can you not get behind that?
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