Lions and bears and zombie tigers, oh my…
…I know, I know. That’s an overused phrase, but you don’t get to write about zombie tigers too often, especially ones as cool as that which appears in Zack Snyder’s epic zombie film, Army of the Dead.
Written by Snyder (Dawn of the Dead 2004, Justice League), Shay Hatten (John Wick: Chapter 3) and Joby Harold (Awake), Army of the Dead takes place sometime after a zombie infection spreads through Las Vegas, which is sealed off from the rest of the country to prevent further spread. With the city just days away from being nuked on the 4th of July, Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) hires ex-grunt Scott (Dave Bautista) to put together a team with a mission of retrieving a whole lot of money out of a safe deep in the heart of Vegas. Anxious to escape the hell his life has become, Scott and his team head inside the city, unaware of just how deadly the zombie threat truly is.
What follows is a rock’em, sock’em good time for zombie fans…when the film isn’t dragging its rotting feet.
Snyder is well acquainted with zombies, having gained quite a bit of fame with what many consider to be an exceptional remake of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, so it’s understandable that fans would be hoping for more of the same with Army of the Dead, but outside of the gore, Army is an underwhelming experience by comparison.
Following an opening which sees the zombie apocalypse brought on by a military transport and some newlywed road head—I would expect nothing less from a Snyder film—we’re treated to opening credits depicting the Vegas invasion. This credit sequence is pure, glorious zombie carnage that showers the audience in more blood than you see in some entire horror films, along with topless zombie strippers, explosions, and a whole lot of walking undead. Jaws are ripped off. Zombies are machine-gunned into bits and pieces. All of it accompanied by a cheery soundtrack befitting of the big ole grin plastered on my face. Those first fifteen minutes of Army of the Dead are zombie heaven.
Unfortunately, Army of the Dead never quite matches that same energy again, and shambles along in-between the action like a zombie just begging for a bullet to put it out of its misery.
You could argue that Snyder’s work has always been more style over substance, and Army of the Dead is no exception. Running at a much too long 150+ minutes, Army takes its sweet time introducing its team of likeable but uninteresting mercenaries. In fact, after the opening credits, we don’t get back to the zombies until a little over fifty minutes in, which makes the ineffective character building feel all that more of a slog. The Ocean’s Eleven style “putting the band back together” act introduces us to a group of people down on their luck and willing to risk it all for some cold, hard cash. A few of the standouts include ruthless guide, Lilly (Nora Arnezeder), Tanaka’s stooge, Martin (Garret Dillahunt), helicopter pilot Marianne (Tig Notaro), who steals every scene as the witty comic relief, and Scott’s estranged daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell), who invites herself along after a friend of hers goes missing in the city. Altogether they’re a fun bunch but none are developed well enough to pack the emotional punch that would warrant the slowed down pacing, which makes the misuse of the runtime that much more mind-boggling.
Lucky for Army of the Dead, the Escape from New York meets Aliens with zombies plot keeps things lively otherwise.
The zombie genre has grown a bit rotten as of late, and Snyder infuses the undead with some new life here in ways that would please Romero himself. As some of you probably know, Romero’s Day of the Dead was originally supposed to see “smart” zombies that carried guns, and while Army isn’t that ambitious, it does employ some unique ideas, such as a Zombie King and Queen—oddly the most empathetic characters of the film—who have the power to make fast-moving, intelligent undead like themselves as opposed to your standard shambler. Highly protective of their kind, they’re reminiscent of the Queen Alien from Aliens, a film which Army steals quite a bit from, along with others, all the way down to lines such as “you don’t see them fucking each other over”.
As expected, Army is at its best whenever it allows itself to let loose and let the bullets fly, and there are plenty of moments that should get your cold, dead heart pumping. That’s no surprise. What is surprising is the overall lack of visual style and eye-popping set pieces you’d expect with Snyder allowed to run free in a Vegas setting. After weeks of neon-posters and with knowledge of his past work, it’s shocking that Army is arguably one of Snyder’s blander films stylistically. We also never really see Vegas utilized to its full potential. Julie Berghoff’s production design is exceptional, with some truly well-crafted sets, but with so many iconic locations in Vegas, it’s surprising to see the film reduce most of its action to hotel hallways and underground basements.
Army of the Dead runs too long and occasionally loses steam while attempting to carry an emotional weight that’s never really there, but between Call of Duty: Zombies style action, jaw-dropping gore and a goddamn zombie tiger—which does indeed, have its moment(s)--Army of the Dead is an entertaining enough epic zombie adventure that doesn’t rewrite the book on the undead, but sure as hell enjoys pumping it full of bullets.
Army of the Dead is now on Netflix.
By Matt Konopka