After a zombie outbreak in Las Vegas, the city is walled off and abandoned to the undead. While the displaced citizens hunker in rundown refugee camps outside the perimeter wall, a veritable army of the dead throngs the Strip. Not to worry, though: a quick tactical nuke will soon be taking care of the problem. That is rather inconvenient for billionaire Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada), as he has $200m stashed in casino vault that he’d really rather not see atomized. As is the way of such things, he recruits ex-soldier and top notch short order cook Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) to put together a ragtag team for a daring heist… and that’s your lot, really.
It’s hard to remember the last time a Zack Snyder film could be legitimately described as fun, but Army of the Dead is easily his most purely enjoyable flick since, oh, at least 300 and arguably his remake of Dawn of the Dead. This is a gleefully gory romp that assumes the audience is canny enough to be across their zombie lore, as well as the raft of films Zack is, er, homaging – everything from Aliens to Escape From New York, An American Werewolf in London to Apocalypse Now. It’s a groovy, gutsy good time that skates by on sheer charm and chutzpah for the most part, as long as you don’t think too hard about some of the logic leaps and broader implications of what the narrative is doing and saying (and besides, those leaps aren’t that long in the final analysis.
Snyder adds a few new (or newish) wrinkles to the zombie canon as well. Yes there’s zombie tiger and a zombie horse, but there are also a class of zombies called Alphas that are smarter than the average bear and able to plan and organize. The zombies of Las Vegas have themselves a Warrior King, Zeus (Richard Cetrone), who commands them from horseback, leads them into battle, and wants revenge for the death of his Zombie Queen (Athena Perample). So, if you’re hankered for a steel cage smackdown that pits Batista against Zombie Braveheart, you’re onto a good thing here.
Army of the Dead very much runs on the Rule of Cool, but it does have some interesting subtext about the way we treat refugees and displaced people, and the way we “other” people and cultures we don’t understand – yes, even zombies (shades of I Am Legend, but more Richard Matheson’s novel than any of the film adaptations). It falters a bit when dealing with emotional conflict and trauma – Bautista’s Scott Ward has PTSD from having to stab his zombified wife through the head, and it’s alienated his daughter Kate (Ella Purnell), a WHO working helping Vegas refugees who he needs to help the team get into the city. Their dynamic almost works, but something vital is missing, and its absence makes the emotional, character-building scenes drag. We could be watching the crew battle zombies, after all.
So, the crew: there’s old mercenary buddy and trusted 2IC Maria (Ana de la Reguera); social media star and sharpshooter Mikey (Raúl Castillo) and his partner Chambers (Samantha Win); tough guy soldier Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick); highly strung safe cracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer); and “coyote” Lily (Nora Arnezeder), who specializes in smuggling people in and out of the city. There are also a couple of cannon fodder assholes in the form of security guard Burt (Theo Rossi), who is known for forcing himself on refugee women; and Martin (Garret Dillahunt), Tanaka’s tag-along head of security who you just know is gonna betray the team at some point, and then meet a suitably grisly end.
But the MVP is Tig Notaro as helicopter pilot Peters. Notaro was a late addition, being brought in to replace disgraced comedian Chris D’Elia. All her stuff was shot solo and digitally inserted in post, a tricky technical exercise which just so happened to enable to inclusion of the most fun character in the whole enterprise. God bless Notaro with her aviators, cigarillo, and deadpan delivery – she elevates the whole thing. Her cynical, “hate my life” chopper jock is the Han Solo of the movie, the person whose job it is to undercut the sometimes mawkish seriousness of other characters and make the film actually fun. It’s a subtle, demanding job, and she totally nails it.
At 148 minutes Army of the dead is easily 20 minutes too long, and they are very much minutes you could lose without harming the film one iota. And it definitely feels like it was one more draft away from polished when it went into production – there are a number of minor inelegancies that could have been fixed with a line or two, or a quick once over with the metaphorical toolbox (I’m not worried about the perceived “rules” of zombiedom here, but that concrete saw being set up so prominently and ultimately not being used for much bugs the hell out of me). But really, these gripes are barely worth the mention. This is a dumb fun slaughterhouse of a film, and if you think it sounds like your jam you’re almost certainly right. (7/10)