ARMY OF THE DEAD (NETFLIX) (2021)
SYNOPSIS: From filmmaker Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen, Zack Snyder’s Justice League), ARMY OF THE DEAD takes place following a zombie outbreak that has left Las Vegas in ruins and walled off from the rest of the world. When Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), a 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 quarantine zone to retrieve $200 million sitting in a vault beneath the strip before the city is nuked by the government in 32 hours. With little left to lose, Ward takes on the challenge, assembling a ragtag team of experts for the heist. With a ticking clock, a notoriously impenetrable vault, and a smarter, faster horde of Alpha zombies closing in, only one thing’s for certain in the greatest heist ever attempted: survivors take all.
No offense to Zack Synder, but whilst he may have felt vindicated finally being able to showcase his cut of ‘Justice League’ to the world, we were not quite as enamoured with the four-hour long superhero noir. Indeed, so much had been said of that HBO Max special that we’d wish some of that attention were instead spent on his latest project, which was bankrolled by Netflix for close to $100 million with the luxury of complete creative control.
Oh yes, sitting through his two-and-a-half hour zombie thriller, there is no doubt Zack Synder had ultimate freedom as a filmmaker in ‘Army of the Dead’. Co-written, shot and directed by Synder, there is lots of plot in the movie, which is at once a zombie movie, heist caper and a sentimental father-daughter reconciliation drama. It isn’t surprising given what it tries to be all at the same time that the parts are stronger than the whole, but there is still plenty of gory fun to be had in this pastiche that hold up despite its obvious excesses.
The opening is particularly illustrative of this. A pre-credits sequence shows a newly wed groom getting a blowjob from his bride while driving in the Nevada desert, ramming into a top-secret military convoy and setting its bloodthirsty prisoner free. Then comes the smash-bang opening credits set to Richard Cleese’s cover of ‘Viva Las Vegas’, which sees zombie showgirls, pageant queens, Elvis impersonators and hotel maids overtake unsuspecting tourists on the Strip, before the United States Government decides to contain the threat by walling off the entire city with stacks of shipping containers.
What follows is typical of any heist flick: after accepting the offer by sly casino magnate Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada), Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), a former decorated Vegas hero now working a grill in a dead-end diner, assembles a ragtag team to infiltrate Sin City and retrieve $200mil from the vault underneath Tanaka’s casino. The rough-and-tumble mechanic Maria Cruz (Ana de la Reguera) is Ward’s trusty lieutenant. The rest of the crew comprise the chainsaw-toting Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), the crackerjack helicopter pilot Marianne (Tig Notaro), the zombie-hunting YouTube sensation Mikey Guzman (Raúl Castillo), his friend Chambers (Samantha Win), and meek German safe-cracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer).
Ward is also joined by his estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell), who insists on tagging along to locate her friend Geeta (Huma Qureshi) after finding out that the latter had been lost in the city. Their guide is the French ‘coyote’ Lily (Nora Arnezeder), an experienced smuggler who explains how the giant piles of desiccated zombies will come back to ‘life’ when it rains or the difference between the shamblers and the Alphas; in particular, it is the Alphas whom the gang will have to confront after one of them commits an egregious act that breaks the peace, and let’s just say this class of the intelligent undead are one of Synder’s ingenuities.
Establishing the roster of characters does take a full hour and demand some patience on the part of his audience, but at least Synder makes the character introductions pay off later when the action kicks in. In between, there is some impressive world-building around the ruined kingdom of Las Vegas: from the imposing leader (Richard Cetrone) of the Alphas and its grinning queen (Athena Perample), to the Greek references such as the towers of Sodom and Gomorrah of the casino they have to rob, and to a zombie tiger named Valentine that was also the name of the feline of the late Siegfried & Roy’s signature Vegas stage show. Synder has vision all right, though these details are somewhat lost amidst an overstuffed plot.
Despite a promising first half, the latter half descends into generic action spectacle that unfolds within a predictable story of double-crosses and side missions. Nevertheless, those looking for blood and guts will not be disappointed once Synder unleashes the bullets, what with plenty of zombie flesh exploding in all directions and bad guys ending up as Strip steak in brutally satisfying ways. It is Synder for better and for worse, though you have to hand it for Synder for delivering such visual flourishes as Bautista shattering zombie heads with his ammunition while jumping from one roulette table to another. There are also a couple of well-crafted nail-biting sequences, like one where the gang has to make their way through a maze of hibernating flesh-eaters, or another where Scott and the Alpha king fight mano-a-mano in a helicopter careening over the Las Vegas skyscrapers.
Indeed, ‘Army of the Dead’ is undeniably the movie Synder had set out to make from the get-go, so you should know going in what to expect from the filmmaker of such blockbuster fare as ‘300’ and ‘Sucker Punch’. You can even tell from the movie’s key emotional arc between Scott and Kate that Synder intended for this to be a sincere movie for his fans. For that matter, despite its clearly indulgent runtime, we did enjoy this as a gleeful example of a Zack Synder film, so as long as you know what you’re in for, you’ll likewise not be disappointed.
Review by Gabriel Chong