Chocolate and peanut butter. Slashers and R-ratings. Movie theaters and audiences who know how to shut the hell up. Some things go together so beautifully that they become the ideal. Bringing together zombies and an elaborate heist setup feels like a similarly minded stroke of genius as both subgenres — the latter in particular — have delivered more than a few true bangers over the years. Happily, while there are some undead bumps along the way, Zack Snyder‘s Army of the Dead hits the beats you expect from both heist films and zombie flicks while still managing to deliver some fresh mythology of its own.
In a reveal that should surprise no one, secret military transports and road head don’t mix nearly as well leading to a zombie outbreak that decimates Las Vegas. The once neon-lit city goes dark as the undead are walled up within and stragglers hole up in refugee camps outside. The US government has impending plans to nuke the mess right off the map, but while most sensible people head the opposite direction a ragtag group of mercenaries, weirdos, and broke fools is heading towards the heart of it all. Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) is heading up a team with plans to infiltrate the zombified city, crack a casino vault, and escape with two-hundred million dollars in cash. What could possibly go wrong?
Anyone who’s seen a heist film (or a zombie movie for that matter) should know enough to expect that nearly everything can and will go wrong, and Army of the Dead delivers on that expectation. Snyder and co-writers Shay Hatten and Joby Harold also deliver an abundance of zombie mayhem, bloody carnage, and deadly wrenches thrown into their ticking clock scenario. The human side of things are entertaining even as they feel familiar, but the film finds enough fresh angles with its undead population to keep the meat on its narrative bones from growing stale.
From its slow-motion opening montage — an epic short film in its own right that gifts viewers with enough gloriously stylish carnage for a whole movie — to later zombie attacks, we’re introduced to two different breeds of the undead. The shamblers do exactly that motivated only by a desire for human flesh, but the alphas are something altogether different. They’re smarter and capable of exhibiting both hierarchy and ritual, and while the shamblers are easy targets the alphas land the team in all manner of dire situations. Oh, and did I mention there’s also a zombie tiger and an undead horse?
Army of the Dead‘s visual style fluctuates at times as Snyder moves the action from sunny slaughters to massacres on the casino floor, but while most of it holds up and works well to build the world of the film, some elements fall short. It’s a CG-heavy endeavor, albeit one blended with real-world locations and practical effects, and some of those visuals feel a bit off. From strangely metallic-looking zombie faces to some iffy digital insertion, they’re distractions from an otherwise well-crafted world. Tig Notaro‘s presence is a CG mine-field all its own as she was brought on after production wrapped to replace a different performer, and while some of it looks pretty flawless other shots aren’t so lucky. (It should be noted that the screener provided, while made available just four days before release, was technically labeled as a work in progress.)
There’s no arguing with the blood and gore, though, even as it also finds life through both CG and practical effects. Zombies and humans alike are sliced, diced, shot, chewed up, and torn apart with abandon, and it’s all pretty dam delightful for genre fans. Sound design is equally pleasing as the tearing of flesh and bone is paired with the jangle of slot machines and gun fire. Song choices and needle drops, an expected element of any Snyder film, are the usual mixed bag as slow covers and rocking originals penetrate your ears. Ending the film on The Cranberries’ “Zombie” is an especially perfect, if not subtle, choice.
It’s ultimately the script where most critics will find fault with Army of the Dead, and those critiques will be hard to argue against. While it never drags, the two-and-a-half hour film does spend too much time in its build up — it’s a full fifty minutes before the team enters Las Vegas — before cutting loose, and character motivations/behaviors are mostly pretty familiar. Oh, and the less said about the obnoxious Sean Spicer cameo the better. Other elements, particularly those surrounding the alpha zombies, succeed far better. From an undead queen to a cape and helmet-wearing king, this breed of the undead offers some interesting and/or fun complications and revelations along the way.
The cast is wholly game for the ride starting with another strong turn from Bautista. He’s a gravitational force due as much to his charisma as to his counterintuitive blending of size and emotion, and you can’t help but root for his character’s desire to open an artisan grilled cheese food truck. The rest of the ensemble is rarely less appealing with the likes of Garret Dillahunt, Ella Purnell, Omari Hardwick, Nora Arnezeder, Matthias Schweighöfer, and Hiroyuki Sanada delivering some combination of laughs and/or thrills. Samantha Win is a particular standout as her character Chambers is arguably the toughest badass and offers up the film’s first of two nods to Aliens (1986).
Army of the Dead is a big and bloody blast made by the same guy who made Dawn of the Dead (2004) which killed off the entire cast in the end credits, so proceed at your own risk. It works, though, and should appeal to horror fans and action junkies alike with its bullet-spitting hardware and blood-spewing zombies. Neither heist films nor zombie movies offer guarantees when it comes to their protagonists’ fates, and a pairing of the two promises to be equally dangerous for all involved. From a newly married couple to a father/daughter reunion, emotional moments in this world come at the risk of being devoured by an undead Elvis impersonator. I’d say more, but what happens in Vegas sometimes dies in Vegas. It’s a gamble, really.