At this late stage into the zombie movie/tv/book game, the question that comes to mind whenever a new project in the genre debuts is what it has to add to the larger canon of zombie lore that’s given us an entire taxonomy of fictional flesh-eating ghouls. Familiar as Army of the Dead’s constituent parts will be to fans of the genre, the movie pulls them all together into a surprisingly enjoyable, if at times emotionally-overwrought shoot-em-up that speaks to a lot of pandemic-era anxieties.
Army of the Dead, directed by 300 and Justice League’s Zack Snyder, could accurately be described as formulaic in many moments. But the movie’s familiar beats all work as reminders of the filmmakers’ self-awareness about the cinematic space they were working in. Army of the Dead’s not as interested in reinventing the zombie as it is being an undeniably fun zombie tale, and the movie’s informative, visually-sumptuous establishing scenes convey that truth well.
Early into the film, after establishing how the zombie plague broke out, Army of the Dead also shows you how the rest of the world quickly went back to normal after the outbreak was contained to Las Vegas. Jarring as that idea might be when you’re first presented with them, it’s one of the many ways that Army of the Dead feels as if its nodding to the realities of our world, which is still in the midst of a global pandemic that’s left millions dead. The juxtaposition of an apocalyptic pathogen with people’s “normalcy” recurs throughout Army of the Dead to varying degrees of success, but few instances work quite as well as the quick montage that fills in the gaps between the first outbreak and Vegas soon being cordoned off by the US military.
Each of Army of the Dead’s soldiers of fortune have their different personal reasons for venturing back into Vegas, and perspectives on what sort of place the world’s becoming. Mercenary-turned-fry cook Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) lives with the guilt of having had to kill his zombified wife in front of their now-estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell), a World Health Organization worker stationed just outside of Vegas. For others like Scott’s friend Cruz (Ana de la Reguera), former soldier Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), and streamers Mikey Guzman (Raul Castillo) and Chambers (Samantha Win), the zombies are a constant source of stress they all want to escape from in the existential sense. But with the zombie population trapped within Las Vegas thanks to a massive (though, honestly, not massive enough) barrier composed of shipping containers, it’s somewhat easy for those not within the city’s immediately vicinity to go about their lives as if everything’s normal.
For most of the country, the government’s plan to full-on nuke the city is only more reason not to worry about the new city of the dead. But to billionaire Billy Takana (Hiroyuki Sanada), Vegas’ imminent destruction presents the opportunity of a lifetime. Scott has enough common sense to raise an eyebrow when Takana comes to him offering up a cut of the $200 million dollars locked in a casino’s safe deep within the zombie’s territory, and insists that retrieving the money would be a simple walk in the park. But his suspicions aren’t enough to overshadow the promise of how that money could change Scott’s life, something that he has in common with everyone else he recruits to work on Takana’s suicide mission.
Scott and his fellow lethal taskrabbits don’t exactly see themselves as gig workers, but that’s very much what they are as they venture behind the zombie’s lines with Scott and a woman known only as ‘Coyote’ (Nora Arnezeder) taking point in the wasteland. One of the more surprising things about Army of the Dead is how early on it reveals the unique qualities of its zombie horde rather than trying to treat it as a shocking revelation that wasn’t featured heavily in the movie’s trailers. Not long after the humans set foot in Vegas, they’re met by the zombie queen (Athena Perample) and her undead tiger, and everyone with a heartbeat begins to realize that they aren’t exactly dealing with regular shamblers.
Army of the Dead gives you just enough information about how its zombies work to make them equal parts fascinating and terrifying, as you see them sprinting at breakneck pace or shouting at the sky to alert their peers to the presence of living meat. Coyote’s understandings of how the zombie’s social dynamics work provide some insight into the threat they’re up against, but the movie makes clear just how little its humans truly understand about the zombies, which all serves to underline how desperate they all are to be running errands in a hot zone.
But what all the humans all have in common is a desire for freedom that a sudden influx of cash would make easier to realize in a world that somehow wasn’t completely preoccupied with the existence of zombies. As much time as Army of the Dead spends humanizing its protagonists, who the protagonists are is a matter of perspective, as the movie isn’t wholly on the humans’ side all throughout. Sympathetic as characters like Scott and pilot Marianne Peters (Tig Notaro) are, you also get a sense of what’s motivating the zombie king Zeus (Richard Cetrone) beyond an insatiable hunger, and one of the major twists of the story is meant to make you reconsider your feelings about the undead that you came into the movie with.
Like Snyder’s previous big-budget action movies, Army of the Dead is both strengthened and hamstrung somewhat by the amount of attention given to an emotional subplot involving the strain between loved ones. Much as the scenes between Scott and Kate hum with a compelling, heartfelt energy, their moments of emotional honesty all end up being somewhat frustrating given the circumstances they’re in. Sure, everyone has feelings, but when the matter at hand is getting in and out of zombie-infested territory, every time the film slows down a bit to give a character a moment of earnestness feels like a warning that they’re about to get got.
That being said, Army of the Dead has more than its fair share of bombastic spectacle, and features one of the most enthralling, close-quarters fight sequences that immediately makes Win one of Army of the Dead’s breakout stars. Aside from a handful of cringeworthy jokes that do Army of the Dead no favors, and being just a hair too long, the movie more than stands on its two legs—and does a solid job of translating many of the anxieties people are feeling here in the real world to the big and small screens.
Army of the Dead hits theaters on May 14, ahead of hitting Netflix on May 21.
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