Zack Snyder has had quite the 2021 and we aren’t even halfway through the year. Back in March, fans of his DC Extended Universe movies finally got their eyes on his much-hyped and long-awaited “Justice League” extended cut (aka The Snyder Cut). As expected it stirred up plenty of buzz both from die-hard fans and committed haters. But Snyder had another movie in his back pocket, one backed by Netflix and only a couple of months away from release.
The news of Snyder’s “Army of the Dead” caught a lot of people’s attention. In a nostalgic sense you could call it a return to his zombie roots for the 55-year-old filmmaker who made his directorial debut with his 2004 “Dawn of the Dead” remake. Since then Snyder has used some big hits and a few flops to hone his own distinct cinematic style. One that’s rooted in visual storytelling and that isn’t afraid to ‘go big’. In many ways “Army of the Dead” is an agglomeration of Snyder’s past work – a movie ripe with his signature flourishes, excesses, and indulgences. It pulls from nearly every film in Snyder’s catalogue to delivery something beefy, action-packed, often gory, at times funny, and always self-aware.
At its core the story (written by Snyder, Shay Hatten, and Joby Harold) can be best described as a zombie heist film with a strong survival-horror flavor and a dash of family drama. As with most of Snyder’s movies, a heavy emphasis is placed on setting up his richly detailed world. It begins with a prologue revealing what led to Las Vegas becoming the epicenter of a zombie outbreak. That’s followed by a very Snydery slow-motion mini-movie with the opening credits baked in. As various covers of “Viva Las Vegas” play in the background, this grisly yet almost jaunty interlude shows how the infection spread across Sin City, plunging it into chaos and turning the vacationers, gamblers, showgirls, and even the Elvis impersonators into flesh-eating ghouls. Meanwhile soldiers blast through the undead, eventually walling off the city with stacks of shipping containers.
From there Snyder moves to his characters, fleshing out some of them and wisely sticking with big personality over lengthy backstory for others. It’s the right move because in films like this one thing is for certain, some characters are destined to be zombie food. Here, the beefy wrestler turned actor Dave Bautista stars as Scott Ward, a short-order cook and the former leader of a mercenary group known as Las Vengeance. He was among the soldiers who fought to contain the zombies in Vegas, but all he got for his efforts was a dead-end job, an infected wife, and a fractured relationship with his daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) who works as a volunteer at a quarantine camp just outside of the wall.
While flipping patties at a dried-up burger joint, Scott is approached by billionaire Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) who has $200 million stuck in a vault beneath his Vegas hotel and casino. He offers Scott a job – infiltrate the zombie-infested wasteland and smuggle out the cash before the government drops a small nuke on the city. If Scott succeeds he can keep $50 million and divide it among his crew any way he pleases. And just like that, the basis for the heist angle is established.
It doesn’t take long for the embittered down-on-his-luck Scott to take the job. He put his life on the line to save the world and got nothing in return. Maybe a big cut of a $50 million payout will help make up for it. So he assembles his team of specialists: his old flame Maria (Ana de la Reguera), the buzzsaw-brandishing Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), Dieter the safecracker (Matthias Schweighöfer), Mikey the sharpshooting YouTuber (Raúl Castillo), and the stogie-chomping pilot Marianne (Tig Notaro). Tagging along is Tanaka’s shady head of security Martin (Garret Dillahunt) who seems to have other interests besides retrieving his boss’ money. Even Kate finds a way to join the team.
Leading them behind the walls is a coyote for hire named Lily (Nora Arnezeder). She not only knows her way around the treacherous living-deadscape, but she’s a key source of information both for the team and for the audience. She’s how we learn about a stronger, faster, and more organized group of zombies. Ones that communicate, strategize, and even have their own leadership. As you can probably guess, that adds a whole new layer of danger to the mission. And all while the government is only hours away from nuking the city. The clock is ticking.
From there it’s pretty easy to get a sense of where things are heading, but watching Snyder fill in the details is half of the fun. Who makes it out and who doesn’t? Do they get the money? What’s with that roaming zombie tiger? All obvious questions and Snyder has a great time answering them. He full-on embraces the well-established zombie tropes of the past (you know, shoot them in the head, kill the brain, don’t get bit, etc.). At the same time he stretches the genre’s bounds by adding some twists of his own. Most of them work and help distinguish his film from other zombie flicks. But other choices, though original, aren’t as effective and occasionally slow the film’s otherwise kinetic pacing.
In addition to the terrific slow-motion opening montage and the fun world-building, the film is full of other Zack Snyder signatures from the hilariously fitting song drops to its longer running time. And Snyder shot the film himself which means you can expect a visually immersive setting and plenty of eye-popping (and head-popping) action sequences. Yet amid the blood, brains, and bravado he still manages to give each character their moments. Bautista gets high marks as does Schweighöfer, Arnezeder and the scene-stealing Hardwick.
“Army of the Dead” comes with pre-packaged franchise ambitions and Netflix has already shown they are ready to invest. A prequel and an animated series are already in the works. Meanwhile “Army” makes for a good launching point and ends in a place tailor-made for a sequel. While Snyder’s obvious creative freedom adds some bloat to the story, you have to love his vision and his commitment to it. And as far as big blockbustery popcorn entertainment goes, Snyder delivers exactly what he promises. “Army of the Dead” is now show in select theaters and premieres on Netflix May 21st.