Zach Snyder’s Zombies

‘Dawn of the Dead’ Meets ‘Ocean’s 11’

Army of the Dead, a slick but basic caper movie with lively corpse-strewn set dressing, is the product of what Jerry Lewis might have called The Total Film-Maker: Zach Snyder wrote, produced, and directed this zippy comic-horror-thriller, and was even his own cinematographer. Which essentially makes him the Steven Soderbergh of brawny, gun-crazy, pyrotechnic tentpoles.

Still, just seeing Las Vegas turned into a walled-off city of shuffling ghouls is kind of an irresistible premise. Topless zombie chorines? A zombie Elvis impersonator? A goddamned zombie white tiger straight out of some hellzapoppin’ Siegfried and Roy extravaganza? I’ll take that bet.

Also echoing Soderbergh, Snyder here does his own spin on the casino heist—except much dumber and with fewer pretty-boy matinee idols. Shady Japanese billionaire Mr. Tanaka (Hioyuki Sanada) commissions Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) to “put together a team” for what should be a “simple in and out” operation. Cue the Rick and Morty snark. Anyway, go into the quarantined zone, sidestep all the flesh-eating monsters, and loot a high-security, elaborately booby-trapped underground vault. He promises to pay Ward and his crew $50 million. Complications ensue.

ARMY OF THE DEAD ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Zach Snyder
Written by: Zach Snyder
Starring:   Dave Bautista, Ella Purnell, Omari Hardwick, Ana de la Reguera, Mattias Schweighöfer, Tig Notaro
Running time: 148 min

One of those complications: a 32-hour countdown before a low-yield tactical nuclear bomb, which the government will drop on the 4th of July, wipes out Vegas and its doomed denizens. Of course. Because, says a reporter quoting our unnamed President, it’d be “cool.” Insert now-dated Trump zinger here. There’s also a blessedly brief and half-hearted stab at culture-war politics, when Donna Brazile butts heads with Sean Spicer on a faux-CNN network and whines that the terminally infected are actually “political prisoners.” Ugh.

Army of the Dead is curiously named, although you could make a case for it since Patient Zero for this latest zombie apocalypse is a straight-out-of-Area-51 U.S. military lab experiment gone wrong. Also because our hero Ward is a broken-down combat vet reduced to flipping burgers at a roadside diner. The team he assembles is sprinkled with other jarhead-type bruisers, all sharp-shooters and ass-kickers, plus a cigar-chomping Tig Notaro as a fuck-it-all helicopter pilot.

She has one of the best moments in the film, by the way, when Ward recruits her for the near-suicide mission and she sight-unseen accepts based solely on her share of the money. “100% I’m in. $2 million? That’s a lot of cash. Listen, I hate my life so deeply.” “You sure you don’t want to know?” says Ward. “I bet it has something to do with a helicopter?” she replies.

Army of the Dead cold-opens with a frisky prologue that shows a top-secret convoy code-named “The Four Horsemen” getting into an explosive city-limits highway crash that unleashes a superhuman zombie: buff, quicksilver, and sentient. Then the fun begins, with Snyder flexing his extraordinary knack for dialogue-free slow-mo opening-credit narratives. So much blood spurting, so many bombers strafing the Vegas strip. It’s absolutely dazzling. But it’s also a tough act to follow, as the inventive visuals quickly plateau into purely functional filmmaking. By the halfway point, despite the carnage, the movie is ambling just as much as the corpses. There’s an overkill to all the killing.

Hollywood’s zombie dramas are just target practice these days, big-business plot points for video games and TV shows alike. The glassy-eyed shamblers are a catch-all for American malaise and lemming mindlessness. It’s been decades since the horror trope was seriously freighted with metaphorical weight. George A. Romero pioneered that type of mirror-to-society social commentary with his groundbreaking, ground-shifting Night of the Living Dead, followed by its equally subversive satirical sequel Dawn of the Dead. But don’t expect any heavy-lifting from Army of the Dead. It’s simply out for a good time, putting its own spin on the house-always-wins morality show that is Sin City.

Snyder technically has undead street cred: he launched his film career by remaking Dawn of the Dead in 2004, right before the chest-thumping 300 turbo-charged his Hollywood career. It’s oddly refreshing to see this 17-years-later follow-up emerge cicada-like—only a few months after the epic-length Snyder Cut of Justice League made its own improbable back-from-the-dead debut on HBO Max. Looks like some projects won’t stay buried. And, for Snyder, this one-two punch plays more like a resurrection. Considering the portentous ending, Netflix will probably be lining up the sequel to Army of the Dead. Spoiler: The locale will be Mexico City. Brace yourself for a bonafide Día de los Muertos.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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