At this point, the name Zack Snyder signifies something very specific. Mostly, overly-violent, overtly operatic spectacles. We know there will be a hunky movie star saving the world (only because he has to). There will be eye-popping action and brain-numbing effects. There will be explosions. Does Army of the Dead break the mold? Heck no. Snyder wouldn’t dare, and thank goodness he doesn’t.
The film opens in magnificently exorbitant fashion, with a montage of zombies running through the streets of Las Vegas, moments away from taking over the city and casinos. While Viva Las Vegas blares on the soundtrack, bombs go off in the distance and zombies tear into mounds of flesh, the military builds a wall around the City of Sin, so no one can come in or out.
Like Snyder’s best movies (Dawn of the Dead, Justice League: The Snyder Cut), the opener is a thrill and a shot of adrenaline, the first course in a 12-course-meal of death, destruction, and deliciously gruesome gore. The scene also introduces and kills off characters, and illustrates the situation that finds Vegas four days away from a nuclear bombing, with survivors and refugees quarantined on the outskirts of town.
Our hero, Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), is one of those survivors, though he doesn’t live anywhere near Vegas. He is in a tough spot. When a casino owner (Hiroyuki Sanada) offers him $50 million to retrieve $200 million from his casino vault, he has no choice but to take the job. He needs the money. So he assembles a massive motley crew of zombie-killing oddballs (Ana de la Reguera, Tig Notaro, Matthias Schweighofer, Omari Hardwick, Raul Castillo, Nora Arnezeder, Samantha Win, Garret Dillahunt, Colin Jones and Ella Purnell as Scott’s estranged daughter) and embarks on a mission that seems impossible. How do you pull off a heist in a sea of zombies?
Snyder keeps the questions coming and the crew on their toes, maintaining the pace at a rapid clip, which breezes past any plot holes or unnecessary exposition. The visual style is epic and evocative, and it swaps the director’s usually gray palette for casino-colored hues. The images are saturated and full of life, cast in a bright golden pall, as if shot through a “magic hour” Instagram filter.
Snyder also elicits some vibrant performances from the cast, especially Bautista, who continues to prove that he’s better than your average wrestler-turned-actor. He’s got chops when it comes to action choreography, while the script allows him to branch out in more diverse directions than his role in Guardians of the Galaxy.
While the lively tone undermines any social commentary (is the outbreak a metaphor for COVID-19?), Army of the Dead’s furious, ferociously paced direction, is cathartic and the go-for-broke action at the center of it all is compelling. The exciting exploits are what keep Dead alive. There’s more mayhem in the final two minutes than most blockbusters have in two hours, and you won’t be able to take your eyes off the screen. With zombie tigers, zombie queens, zombie kings and even a zombie Elvis rearing their ugly heads throughout, watching this one is like hitting the monster jackpot. ❖