The zombie apocalypse comes in many forms. From crazed, ultra-violent flesh eaters in action thrillers, à la “World War Z” or “I Am Legend,” to comedic takes on hunting the undead, like “Zombieland” and “Shaun of the Dead.” There have even been romances and musicals involving the undead, which means that with zombies, nothing is off-limits.
Zack Snyder himself has even explored the genre once before in 2004’s “Dawn of the Dead,” which certainly landed on the more violent end of the zombie spectrum. Now the director is once again slaying zombies – and while the gratuitous violence hasn’t changed, Snyder has found a way to bring a seemingly new, self-contained twist to the genre.
Netflix’s “Army of the Dead” delivers the familiar thrills and gore of a Snyder action-adventure, but also manages to incorporate an impressive amount of heart thanks to the surprising emotions displayed by its rag-tag band of heroes. While it won’t change the history of cinema, or even rewrite the zombie subgenre, “Army of the Dead” doesn’t need to be anything more than what it is – a gruesome, comedic thrill ride.
I’ll be the first to admit that my zombie apocalypse knowledge is far from extensive, but I’ve seen enough dystopian wastelands to know the major tropes. What I haven’t seen, however, is a world in which the undead are not running rampant, but instead are confined to a singular area. The situation here is totally under control, unless you cross over into their turf – and that’s exactly what “Army of the Dead” does.
After a lone zombie breaks free from Area 51, it’s not long before the neighboring city of Las Vegas is overrun by hungry, infected zombies. But unlike other worlds in which the spread quickly circulates around the globe, America was ready for this terrifying outbreak – the zombies are confined to Sin City, and Vegas is annexed from the U.S. and left as a sealed-off zombie wasteland.
There is absolutely no need for anyone to ever enter this hellscape again, but one factor can always convince desperate people to throw caution to the wind: money. Days before the U.S. is set to nuke Las Vegas and rid the world of zombies once and for all, zombie-slayer-turned-fry-cook Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) is approached by wealthy business man Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) with an irresistible offer.
With government forces evacuating Las Vegas ahead of its destruction, now is the perfect time for a last-minute heist. Buried beneath a Vegas hotel lies a vault with $200 million inside. If Scott can fend of the zombies and retrieve the loot, $50 million of it will go to him and his team. With little to lose, Scott accepts and gets his zombie hunting team back together for one last job – but it may not be as straightforward as he thought.
While some of these films can be bogged down with longwinded exposition detailing the zombies’ origin, the spread of their virus, and the current state of events, “Army of the Dead” delivers a quick and stylish introduction to everything viewers will need to know – all set, of course, to “Viva Las Vegas.” Snyder wastes little time, opting to focus on the here and now of the current mission rather than the minute details of the situation as a whole. This freedom allows Snyder to do what he does best: gnarly action – and there’s plenty to go around here.
From Bautista’s sharpshooting to the revving chainsaw of Omari Hardwick’s Vanderohe, there’s no lack of creativity when it comes to slaying monsters. The blood spurts high and jaws will drop – or be forcibly ripped off of a face. The zombies themselves execute impressive attacks as well, far beyond just a simple bite and infect. Instead, their assaults on the living are just as angry and violent, which results in a wild, action-packed film.
Beyond the gristly violence, much of “Army of the Dead’s” charm stems from its eclectic band of heroes, filled with both veteran and rookie zombie hunters alike. Bautista leads the crew and displays a surprising blend that’s part stone-cold killer and part regretful father, as he tries to make amends with his daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell) who is also on the mission.
Other standout members of the crew include Tig Notaro’s wisecracking helicopter pilot Peters, and the easily-spooked code breaker, Dieter, played by Matthias Schweighöfer. Blending a zombie film and a heist film together opens the door to a myriad of genre pitfalls that could sink this ship – namely, the heist film character tropes. While the muscle, the getaway driver, the techie and more traditional characters are still front and center, the film allows each to have surprising moments that help them escape feeling like stereotypical archetypes.
While Snyder tries his best to incorporate a dramatic and emotional B-plot to elevate “Army of the Dead” above just another zombie flick, the depth is not quite there to take things to the next level. When trimming down exposition and character development on the front end, this is the price paid on the back end. The main emotional conflict between Scott and Kate is compelling enough to get viewers rooting for their survival, but it won’t stick with anyone once the credits roll. At the end of the day, any emotion here is drowned out by the gallons of blood spilt – but when you’re watching a zombie apocalypse, sometimes that’s OK.
By returning to his gory genre roots in “Army of the Dead,” Snyder has found an avenue in which his hyper-masculine characters, excessive violence and playful over-stylization can all blend together and deliver an all-out blast.
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.