It’s no secret that the most recent stage of Zack Snyder’s directing career has seen the auteur pushing his more serious, objectivist ideologies even more strongly into his film output than ever, leaning away from the schlocky fun of his earliest efforts to glean closer to movies with a denser “message,” a habit he kicked off in earnest with Watchmen in 2009 and hasn’t ever really looked back since. Which is what makes Army of the Dead, his newest film now on Netflix, such a weirdly refreshing movie for something so otherwise familiar and tired.
To be clear, the idea of making a “zombie heist” film is anything but tired, at least in theory. To break it down simply, Army of the Dead is a rollicking good time in the zombie action genre until it isn’t, when the wild euphoria and blood-soaked mayhem sadly tumbles and get infected by the sort of pretentious, teary melodrama Snyder can’t seem to reckon with ditching or at least improving upon as a filmmaker.
The film stars an eclectic ensemble headed by Dave Bautista as an apocalyptic mercenary turned fry cook in the years following a zombie outbreak that was (somehow?) contained in Las Vegas. The film’s opening prologue is one of its most daringly enjoyable romps, using the standard Snyder slow-mo to make light of the film’s background story, where a group of unsuspecting civilians have to brave hordes of “shamblers” terrorizing the Sunset Strip, only to be tossed into questionable quarantine camps immediately upon their escape.
The world is still cautious about letting anyone leave the general area, even though a lot of time has passed, and it probably doesn’t help that some of the survivors have actually been sneaking back into this zombie wasteland to loot the slot machines and buy their way out of captivity. Sure. Just go with it.
The heist comes in when Bautista is hired by a billionaire (Hiroyuki Sanada) to recover a massive sum of cash he left in a vault. For Bautista, this might be his chance to break out of his dead-end job and perhaps repair his damaged relationship with his daughter, and yes, the connection to Snyder’s tragic personal life is right there in the text and pretty unavoidable to recognize. If this was solely a movie about reclaiming tragedy through the medium of storytelling, Army of the Dead would already be punching way above its weight.
The team Bautista recruits isn’t exactly the most memorable, though, with few exceptions. He brings on a gunslinging streamer (Raúl Castillo) who’s made an influencer career out of fighting zombies. There’s Garret Dillahunt as the shady enforcer keeping tabs on behalf of the obviously evil billionaire. Matthias Schweighöfer plays an almost artistic safecracker who needs to be protected despite his inexperience. And the film smoothly replaces the helicopter pilot—previously played by Chris D’Elia, who was recast due to claims of sexual harassment—with Tig Notaro, a scene-stealing realist who amusingly joins the team somewhat out of boredom.
There are a lot of others involved, but they’re mostly stock characters intended to fill up the kill count, though Snyder does find restrained ways to break up the action without making everything feel like a predictable video game. It’s more like the tense, “anything can and will go wrong” mayhem of Valve’s Left 4 Dead, where the real excitement is in seeing new evolutions of the zombie horde and how they can present unexpected challenges both to the characters and this genre formula.
If not for its overlong running time and absurdist final hour, where most of the goodwill it’s collected gets squandered by increasingly awful character decisions that only work to extend the plot to insufferable levels, Army of the Dead would be one of the easiest zombie movies to recommend since One Cut of the Dead. Snyder clearly didn’t set out to mix things up too much compared to where he got his start with the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, a film with its own baggage in the way of dated themes related to some shaky philosophy. In a similar way, both films will appease a hungry section of zombie fans who want excessive, gory violence from the undead, but it’s hard to imagine everyone else wanting to come back for seconds.