Army of the Dead (2021) Review

SURVIVORS TAKES ALL IN THIS MINDLESS

(YET FUN) ZOMBLIE FLICK


 

Film director Zack Snyder has had an interesting career in the film industry. While he made his directorial debut with the zombie horror movie Dawn of the Dead in 2004, Snyder quickly became a more recognizable name with his sophomore film 2006’s 300; an action historical genre feature that is based on the events of the Battle of Thermopylae during the Persians Wars that was based off of the graphic novel of the same name by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley. From there, Snyder found himself directing several big and visually epic blockbuster graphic novel / superhero features, including 2009’s Watchmen, 2013’s Man of Steel, 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, as well as 2017’s Justice League and the 2021 director’s cut dubbed Zack Snyder’s Justice League. In amongst those motion picture endeavors, Snyder directed other projects such as 2010’s Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole and 2011’s Sucker Punch; both were known for being “visual” movies and had Snyder signature styles of directing throughout. Additionally, Snyder also produced and wrote the screenplay for some of his feature films as well as other films that were tied to previous projects (i.e., 300: Rise of an Empire and Wonder Woman). Now, after the much praise he received from 2021’s Zack Snyder’s Justice League, Snyder (along with Netflix) returns to the director chair and goes back to his zombie horror roots with the release of Army of the Dead. Does this undead zombie endeavor prove to be entertaining or has the whole “zombie apocalypse” narrative being beaten to “death”?

THE STORY


When an unexpected accident occurs during a military covert transportation in the wilderness of Nevada, a hellish nightmare begins with rise of a different sort of zombie. These undead creatures are fast, organized, and difficult to kill, quickly feasting on the nearest humans they can find, spreading pandemic plague of death to the region. They’ve turned to the once flashy city of Las Vegas into their undead kingdom, with the government walling off the gambling “Sin City”, leaving it to those who work in quarantine camps on its outskirts. Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) is the owner of the Olympus casino, and he has a special offer for to those who seeks fortune; approaching ex-military man Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) and requesting his services to help retrieve a sizeable amount of money left behind in the casino’s vault. With only 96 hours to pull off the lucrative heist before the government plans to drop a nuclear weapon on Las Vegas, Ward gathers a team for the mission, including safecracker Ludwig Dieter (Matthias Schweighofer), mechanic Maris Cruz (Ana de la Reguera), soldier Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), trigger man Mikey Guzman (Raul Castillo), and pilot Marianne Peters (Tig Notaro) With the team assembled, the group is joined by tracker Lily (Nora Arnezeder) and Tanaka’s security officer, Garret Dillahunt) as added support to the heist mission as the team embarks into the lion’s den of the ruined, zombie ridden realm of Las Vegas. However, Ward’s estranged daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell), who’s out to rescue a family trapped inside the hot zone, joins the team, complicating the crew’s objective as Ward and company navigate this new zombie kingdom; being watched from afar by its overseer undead overlord.

THE GOOD / THE BAD


Personally, I am a fan of Zack Snyder movies. While I can honestly say that I didn’t see Dawn of the Dead (Snyder’s first film), for many of you know that I am not a huge fan of horror movies, I can happily say that I’ve the rest of his directorial film works in his career. Of course, I loved his movie adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300 in his 2006 picture and was my first introduction to the director’s unique style of storytelling. Naturally, I followed this movie up with 2009’s Watchmen film adaptation to be great as well; loving Snyder’s visual direction for the project and I was definitely intrigued by the whole darker comic book narrative vibe. Plus, I remember everyone talking about how the Watchmen series was one of the most “celebrated” graphic novels all time, so I definitely keen on seeing it. After that, Snyder’s foray into the superhero genre with the DCEU was a bit of mixed feelings. Yes, I personally loved (and still do) his interpretation of Superman in Man of Steel, but I felt that the director was sort of “jumping the gun” in trying to do too much with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice by serving too many masters of story threads (i.e., a sequel to Man of Steel, an origin story for Batman, soft introduction to Wonder Woman, and expanding the DCEU). However, with the recent premiere of his alternative cut to 2017’s Justice League (Zack Snyder’s Justice League), I was definitely surprised that Snyder’s efforts within the DCEU and I sincerely hope that WB considers restoring his vision for the DCEU. All in all, I think that Zack Snyder is a solid director that deserves a little bit more credit than what he’s been given. Also, I forgot to mention that I really loved Snyder’s Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole. It was very stylish and a tad bit darker for a kids movie, but it was still a great film…. kind of wished that Snyder himself (or another director) would release another movie of this potential franchise.

This brings me back around to talking about Army of the Dead, a 2021 zombie horror / action movie and Zack Snyder’s latest film. After the whole WB “will they, won’t they” release his cut of Justice League, I remember hearing that Snyder was going to be a new movie and it was going to be a about zombies. After that initial report, I didn’t hear much about the project, especially with most hype surrounding Snyder’s name (on the internet) was about the upcoming release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League. However, that changed when the movie trailer dropped for Army of the Dead online. From the trailer alone, it looked very interesting. Of course, I’m not super keen on the whole “zombie” aspect as the market and overall appeal has been overly saturated (more on that below), but I was definitely interested seeing the movie for the heist aspect, Snyder directing the feature, and for Dave Bautista being in the lead role. Plus, I found it quite interesting the film debuted on Netflix after WB, who originally was going to release the film, wasn’t that interested in the project and that Netflix bought the right and disturbing for the feature. So, with the heightened success Zack Snyder’s Justice League, I was planning on seeing Army of the Dead on Netflix, even though my local movie theater was showing the film a week before its release on the streaming service. I decided to wait a few weeks after the movie released on Netflix because I was a bit too busy with work and a few projects that I needed to get done. Now, I finally had the chance to sit down one afternoon and watch Snyder’s Army of the Dead. And what did I think of it? Well, it pretty good, but nothing super grand. While there are issues I have with the movie, Army of the Dead is pure mindless zombie flick that proves to fun at times and adequately entertaining. It’s not the be “be-all-to-end-all” of zombie movies nor is it Snyder’s best work, but its still worth a look.

As clearly said from the last paragraph, director Zack Snyder directed Army of the Dead and seems to be going back to his original cinematic roots. While the director has become accustomed to doing the superhero variety of late (as mentioned earlier on), Snyder’s first endeavor was of the horror zombie grouping with the release of Dawn of the Dead in 2004. Thus, Snyder seems to be going back to his “zombie roots”; finding Army of the Dead more of an enhancement to what he was able to first achieve within his first directorial feature film. Snyder himself has always had a “good eye” for visual directions and cues, which has made his past film both quite unique and memorable. Turning his attention back on the zombie horror genre, Snyder just doesn’t go for the classic zombie apocalypse aspect like so many others have done in the past and decides to shake things up with his movie. How so? Well, for starters, Snyder seems to blend the idea of splicing the zombie narrative with a heist premise, which (in my opinion) is pretty different and something that I wouldn’t expect as usual zombie movies are about fleeing and running in terror from place to place or lame side stories from the survivors. Additionally, building upon that notion of heist, to set the film’s main setting in the city of Las Vegas was really different and utilizing the heist format within that context was pretty neat. To see zombies dressed as Elvis impersonators or even an undead zombie tige (wow…. did not see that coming). There were a few other narrative beats and scenarios that were also different, which definitely added to the interesting flavor that Snyder did when approaching such a project. I did like the idea of how zombies had a leader and was more intelligent; having more of an aggressive tone and kept his undead minions subservient to him, which gives off an impression that the zombie themselves are a bit more organized rather than running amok across the nation. I know that these might sound simply gimmicks to the feature, but it was enough for me to make me interested in the film’s premise.

Personally, from his past experiences of action sequences and climatic points, Snyder makes Army of the Dead have a big explosive third act. There are a few good action scenes here and there throughout the movie, but the real “highlight” of the movie comes during the film’s climatic point, which goes “balls to the wall” crazy with guns blazing and zombie killing that, while feeling a bit elongated at moments, was definitely a good treat to watch. Plus, I did like how Snyder has his more signature treatment of utilizing the film’s “R Rating” by making the film have that gory violence stretch with the zombies and how they attack people. Yes, it was all a bit mindless at times, but Snyder made the whole zombie feeling quite nuanced and held my interest, which is probably why I felt I liked it a bit more than some others have given credit for this movie. All of this makes for a quite a different and entertaining film. I’m not one that usually finds a lot of interest in zombie stories, especially since the fell that the market is a bit saturated (more on that below), but I felt that Snyder did something unique with the premise and made Army of the Dead have tad bit more creative life that the usually run-of-the-mill undead post-apocalypse endeavor.

Within its presentation, I would say that Army of the Dead is one of the better releases from Netflix and definitely has that big Hollywood studio feeling from onset to conclusion….and that’s a good thing. With a moderately production budget (roughly $70 to $90 million…give or take), Snyder and his team smartly utilized their budget correct; resulting in a movie that doesn’t look cheap (i.e., made on a dime) and feels like a summer blockbuster endeavor, which is what I think Snyder was going for with this project. Depicting Las Vegas as a ruined and desolated looking place that is filled with undead zombies was quite interesting to see and the movie’s background setting and aesthetic made it believable in my opinion. Thus, the film’s “behind the scenes team”, including Julie Berghoff (production design), Sophie Neudorfer (set decorations), Stephanie Portnoy Porter (costume designer), and the entire art direction team for the efforts made in making this movie a reality. Also, I do have to mention that the film’s make-up and hair team (too many to name, but the entire team) did some fantastic in bringing the various zombie beings to life in very detailed / intricate way. Plus, I also do I have to mention that some of the cinematography work by Snyder himself is pretty great with slick camera movements / angles to give that “cinematic” quality of which he is known for in his movies. Lastly, the film’s score, which composed by Thomas Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL), who has collaborated with Snyder before, delivers a solid musical composition with Army of the Dead and bolsters the film with plenty of bombastic tones and soft moments for character dialogue. I really do love his work. Additionally, I did like how the film used Las Vegas themed / style songs a few times in certain scenes, which (again) added a different flavor thrown into the mix.

Unfortunately, there are a few problems that Army of the Dead can’t overcome and sort of drag the feature down a bit from reaching cinematic zombie glory. Perhaps the biggest culprit of criticism is what many would to expect from a zombie style movie…. its writing. Yes, the script shaping / handling in the movie is rather flat and a bit unimaginative at times; going through the motions of what many would expect to see in a zombie apocalyptic setting. Of course, the whole “heist” and “vault infiltration” angle is quite unique and different (as I mentioned above), but the rest of the film plays out in a very predictable (and almost formulaic) manner. Basically, if you’ve seeing one zombie horror / action movie or even a heist movie…. you’ll definitely know how Army of the Dead is going to play out. Thus, beyond the film’s initial setup in its world building, much of the film is rather straightforward with little bit of surprise twists and turns…. well maybe barring one or two and that’s it. This is also coupled with the idea of just simply lazy writing, with the movie’s script being penned by Snyder himself as well as Shay Hatten and Joby Harold. While the main narrative story is pretty straightforward (though still not completely new or refreshing), the script tries to develop some of its characters; unpacking a lot of backstory character issues, which are interesting, but never fully panned out correctly; resulting in a missed opportunity for its characters (more on that below).

Additionally, Army of the Dead is a bit lopsided in both its runtime and overall tone for the film. First, the film’s runtime clocks in at 148 minutes long (two hours and twenty-eight minutes) and it really does feel that long when watching the movie. As many know from his previous works, Snyder is well-known for creating elongated feature films that sometimes strain on what is actually necessary and Army of the Dead is no exception to his past endeavors; feeling overly long and tad tedious to warrant a nearly two- and half-hour movie. Personally, I think that the film could’ve been easily trimmed down a good half hour or forty minutes and still probably gain a solid presentation without sacrificing much. Granted, there is a lot of moving parts and characters to fully examined, but that doesn’t seem to pan out correctly, with characters (as I mentioned above) get shortchanged and / or are caricatures that are thinly sketched beyond their initial heist setup or personas. As for the tone, Snyder has always kept his feature in a more serious almost brooding manner (see Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice). Army of the Dead, however, is wonky at it sometimes tries to be really serious with its undead situation, but other times it tries to be lighthearted with some of its character-built style moments. Unlike Zombieland and its 2019 sequel, which has a good balance of zombie action and raunchy comedy angst, Snyder has difficult in managing these two aspects and creates a sort of unbalanced feeling within the film’s tone and its quite hard to juggle to wants to be.

The cast in Army of the Dead is an also a sort of mixed bag as some are good and others are just plan forgetful. It’s not worth a lack of trying from its cast and the written trying to blend a new layer into these respective characters to the story. That being said, character themselves are mostly thinly sketched and some of the acting talents is rather broad and bland. That’s not to say that the acting is cringeworthy or terrible…. just that the they can’t make the characters that quite memorable. Perhaps who serves the best (and who certainly does carry the movie) is former wrestler / now actor Dave Bautista. Known for his roles as Drax in the MCU movies (Guardians of the Galaxy, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. II, and Avengers: Infinity War) as well as Hotel Artemis and Stuber, Bautista has certainly become a big ticketed star with his acting career taking off and has become more of a household name among the causal moviegoers out there. However, much like other wrestlers that have turned actors (i.e Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson” and John Cena), Bautista has been more delegated to more comedic roles. Thus, it’s quite clear to see why Bautista would want to play the lead role in Army of the Dead and I do have to say that he does a good job in the role. Again, while Bautista has been doing more comedic interjections with him past projects, he certainly seems more “at home” within his character of Scott Ward, who is more of stoic action leading man with tragic backstory to boot. There’s definitely a grit to Ward throughout the movie and Bautista seems to be aware of that; playing up the pain that he carries and the situation he’s dealing with. Plus, Bautista handles the film’s action sequences quite well. All in all, while it may not be his most memorable in his career, I think that Bautista was great as Scott Ward and definitely handles himself well in the lead role as well as carrying the screen presence for much of the feature.

Behind Bautista, there are several supporting players that make up Ward’s heist team that have large screen time than others and / or part of Ward’s storyline. The latter is given to the actress Ella Purnell (Wildlike and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children), who plays Kate Ward, Scott’s estranged daughter. While Purnell is okay in the role (i.e., not bad, but neither quite memorable), she gets along with Bautista in the movie and definitely can handle her own in the movie. There just something missing that Purnell can’t make the character reach that special “X” factor. The former is given to actor Omari Hardwick (Power and Kick-Ass), who plays the character of Vanderohe. Like Purnell, Hardwick is fine in the role and gets a lot more screen time, but the character is just another team member in the heist tropes as the more experience soldier like Ward is. Thus, while Hardwick is a good actor, his character is just mediocre, which is both okay and a bit disappointing as there could’ve been more to him. The same can also be said with actress Nora Arnezeder (The Words and Safe House), who plays the coyote smuggler Lily. She definitely has a lot of screen time and Arnezeder does a decent job in the role, but I felt that the screenplay could’ve done more for the character to development rather than a generic one.

While those supporting characters might be “okay-ish” in the movie, I do have to say that the character of Marianne Peters makes a memorable role, especially given the circumstances that surround the develop / acting of Peters. How so? Well, for those who don’t know, Peters, the film’s snaky “tough-as-nails” pilot, was originally played by actor Chris D’Elia (Undateable and Half Magic), but was cut from the film’s final version due to on-set sexual misconduct. D’Elia was then replaced by actress Tig Notaro (One Mississippi and Instant Family), who (in my opinion) seems like a better choice. Granted, much of Notaro parts were done with green screen as the filmmaker’s dropper her into the feature in post-production, but I felt that Notaro makes the character memorable in her own right, especially with the situation that both she and the film was placed under with the character.

Who is also surprising in the role are actually the two main zombies in the film (aka Zeus and the Queen), who are the suppose leaders of the zombies that dwell within Las Vegas. True, there isn’t much character development within their roles or not that much spoken dialogue (beyond grunts and screeching), but I do have to say that Snyder does a good job in making these zombie leaders both memorable in the film and making them slightly more interesting that just the run-of-the-mill undead beings. Plus, I do have to give credit from stuntman / actor Richard Cetrone (Captain America: Civil War and Wonder Woman) and stuntwoman / actress Athena Perample (Them and WandaVision) for their portrayals of Zeus and the Queen.

The rest of Ward’s team, including actor Matthias Schweighöfer (You Are Wanted and Joy of Fatherhood) as Ludwig Dieter, actor Raul Castillo (Ghost Tape and Wrath of Man) as Mikey Guzman, actress Huma Qureshi (Lelia and Maharani) as Getta, actor Garret Dillahunt (Raising Hope and No Country for Old Men), fill in the rest of the supporting players, while actor Theo Rossi (Sons of Anarchy and When the Bough Breaks) as the sleazy security guard enforcer Burt Cummings and actor Hiroyuki Sanada (The Wolverine and Mortal Kombat) as business tycoon Bly Tanka round out the rest of the minor supporting players.

Again, none of them give any particularly bad performances when on-screen and do acknowledge that the film’s script tried to give them their own inane quirks / amusing personas. However, none of them truly standout, with most (as to be expected from both a horror movie and a zombie flick) as mostly cannon for the feature and nothing more. Perhaps eliminating one or two of these characters would’ve been beneficial to the story (as a whole) by giving a bit more room for other character develop. The flip side to this point of criticism is that I really didn’t expect these characters to have fully developed or well-rounded character development, especially in a zombie apocalypse project. That being said, I did kind of want to see more, especially with the film’s bloated runtime.

FINAL THOUGHTS


Its survivor takes all as a team is assembled to pull off a heist in the zombie filled city that was once Las Vegas in the movie Army of the Dead. Director Zack Snyder’s latest film mixes that the classic tropes of a heist narrative and mixes with the post-apocalyptic zombie premise into something that is quite unique and strangely entertaining. While the feature does struggle a few times in trying to balance those two ideals as well as having a bloated runtime, tonal issues, and several bland supporting characters, the movie still manages to find an enjoyable with its interesting premise (as mentioned) as well as Snyder’s direction, concept ideas, an explosive third act, and a strong performance from Bautista in the lead role. Personally, I liked this movie. As said, I’m not so much a super fan of zombie movies, but this film definitely felt a bit different (in a few areas) and held my interest. Thus, my recommendation for this is a sold “recommended” one, especially for those who looking for a zombie distraction or something worthwhile to watch on Netflix. There already has been talk of doing two prequel spin-offs, with one being a film titled Army of Thieves and an animated series titled Army of the Dead: Las Vegas are scheduled to be released on Netflix (release date TBA). To me, it will be interesting to see where these two projects will take the established film world. In the end, while not perfect, Army of the Dead still manages have plenty of punch within its undead heist adventure, with Snyder delivering mindless (yet still fun) zombie flick.

3.7 Out of 5 (Recommended)

 

Released On: May 14th, 2021
Reviewed On: June 21st, 2021

Army of the Dead  is 148 minutes long and is rated R for strong bloody violence, gore and language throughout, some sexual content and brief nudity/graphic nudity