A brief introduction that involves a super-zombie escaping from a military convoy leaving Area 51 establishes that this latest cinematic zombie outbreak is somehow contained to the city of Las Vegas and that many of the heroes that will carry us through the film we’re about to watch are ex-military still living and working in the vicinity. Thus director Zack Snyder’s (Dawn of the Dead, 300, Justice League) Army of the Dead moves us through an adventure that is at all times a heist film, an action adventure, a family drama, a comedy, and even a love story (between two zombies, of course). In other words, this one is a lot of movie.
In the wake of an admittedly very exciting opening sequence—during which we meet major players such as Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), Cruz (Ana de la Reguera), and Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick)—we discover that Ward has now become a short-order cook in a diner located surprisingly closet to Vegas for reasons never made clear. Speaking of things not being made clear, and knowing his love of franchises, I’m genuinely shocked Snyder didn’t set this film in the same cinematic universe as his remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, especially since the zombies in Army (frequently called “shamblers”) seem to be the same fast-moving, super pissed-off creatures from Snyder’s solid 2004 outing. But I digress…
Ward is approached by former casino boss Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada), whose massive losses have already been reimbursed by his insurance company. But he knows $200 million in cash is in a vault under the Vegas strip that he wants Ward to recover for a healthy fee. All he has to do is find a way into Vegas, sneak past thousands of zombies, and break into a virtually impenetrable vault to get it. Ward assembles a sizable team, including Cruz and Vanderohe, as well as a gamer-turned-zombie-killer Mickey Guzman (Raul Castillo); safecracker Ludwig Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer); professional Vegas coyote Lilly (Nora Arnezeder); Chambers (Samantha Win); the head of Tanaka’s security team, Martin (Garret Dillahunt); an abusive security guard (Theo Rossi); and helicopter pilot Marianne Peters (Tig Notaro, who shot her scenes after the movie was done filming, to replace the character’s original actor, comedian and sex pest Chris D’Elia).
Oh, and because fleeing and killing zombies isn’t exciting enough, the U.S. government has decided the only way to deal with Vegas is to nuke it out of existence about 32 hours after Tanaka makes his offer.
Also on the trip is Ward’s estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell), who wants to search for a friend who was snatched up by a new breed of Alpha zombie called Zeus (Richard Cetrone), whose majestic, acrobatic ways make him seem like a member of Cirque du Soleil: Zombie Edition. Ward lost Kate’s mother just as Vegas was being sealed off, and he thinks that his daughter has never forgiven him for it, so a great deal of Army of the Dead is about father and daughter repairing the damage between them, and in the process, discovering why she actually cut him off. You’d assume during a mission in which silence and time and focus might play key roles that these two could not interrupt life-or-death moments for family meetings. But you’d be wrong.
Aside from the Wards, other factions begin to form among the many characters but none quite as odd and enjoyable as the combo of Vanderohe and Dieter, who have very different means of expression but grow to appreciate each other’s brand of being focused on their jobs. Lilly and Martin also spend a great deal of time attempting to figure each other out. In many ways, their mutual ruthlessness shows that they are cut from the same cloth, but they use this shared trait to find ways to betray each other as Martin’s true purpose on this mission is made clear. There’s also a zombie white tiger, who fights alongside the shamblers and provides us with one of the greatest kill sequences in any zombie movie.
Snyder expands his zombie universe somewhat, showing us how these more advanced zombies are capable of planning, organizing, and following Zeus when he communicates that these invading humans should be left alone for a time (that order basically changes to “Kill them all” later in the film). But the true focus of Army of the Dead is a healthy combination of pure action and very messy killing of both humans and zombie (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that some of the human characters don’t make it; if you think that is a spoiler, then you’ve clearly never seen a zombie movie), and that’s fine by me. Unlike Romero, Snyder doesn’t bother much with subtext, although if you squint, you can see a metaphor buried amid the piled-up bodies about how the rich manipulate the poor into doing their dirty work. And I’m pretty sure the portrayal of the never-seen U.S. president and his impulsive decision making is meant to emulate someone we know (and let’s not get into what the Wall around Vegas might represent).
The heist itself is so remarkably anticlimactic, I’d say it qualifies as a McGuffin—an excuse to let these capable actors cut loose, giving enough energy to make the film’s two-and-a-half-hour running time go by fairly painlessly. Not everyone in the cast gets standout moments the way others do, but that would almost seem impossible with a lineup this massive. But above all else, Snyder’s Army of the Dead is quite a bit of fun, punctuated by ambitious and fully frenetic set pieces. As much as it would like to be, it’s not a particularly deep film, but it does make the effort in places. I can say this: it would be a blast to watch this one with an enthusiastic audience.
The film opens theatrically on Friday, May 14, and will be available on Netflix beginning May 21.
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