REVIEW: Army of the Dead (2021)

Dave Bautista in Zack Snyder’s ‘ARMY OF THE DEAD.’ — Photo: Clay Enos / Netflix.

Directed by Zack Snyder — Screenplay by Zack Snyder, Shay Hatten, and Joby Harold.

There is always something special about films that return a filmmaker to his beginnings in some way, shape, or form. Such a film may not always end up as a ‘return to form,’ but for a filmmaker to return to his roots is undeniably exciting. Before Zack Snyder became a fanboy favorite as the director of multiple different graphic novel adaptations such as Man of Steel or 300, his very first feature film was the 2004 remake of the 1970s horror classic Dawn of the Dead. The remake, which was written by James Gunn, is still my favorite film that Snyder has directed, so I was naturally very excited when it was announced that he was returning to the zombie horror sub-genre with Netflix’s Army of the Dead. Although it’s certainly not as good as his previous zombie flick, Snyder’s latest film is definitely worth checking out on Netflix.

In Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead, the city of Las Vegas, Nevada has been quarantined in an attempt to contain the hungry, fast, and surprisingly intelligent zombies who have all flocked to the ‘Sin City’ and popular tourist attraction. The film follows a group of mercenaries — led by Scott Ward (played by Dave Bautista) — who has been hired by the wealthy Bly Tanaka (played by Hiroyuki Sanada) to infiltrate the sealed-off city and recover $200 million from a casino safe before the city is destroyed in a tactical nuclear strike. But not everyone in the mercenary group should be trusted, and it soon becomes clear that they weren’t briefed on every detail relating to the mission.

As I’m sure fans of the hugely popular Dead Rising video game-franchise will agree, when the zombie horror subgenre is paired with Las Vegas, Nevada, you could be in for a treat. Though if you’re expecting to watch a film version of those very entertaining games, then you may be disappointed by just how serious this film is. Army of the Dead is frustratingly tonally inconsistent. Although the dialogue, setting, the almost Zombieland-inspired title sequence (Zack Snyder loves elaborate title sequences, and this sequence is a real highlight of the movie), and the behaviour of some characters (such as Tig Notaro and Matthias Schweighöfer’s characters) may lead you to think this will be pure tongue-in-cheek zombie movie entertainment, much of the film is nothing like that.

I wish this film was sillier. I watched the movie with my family, and, throughout the film, my sister kept saying that some of the zombies reminded her of Evil Dead. While I definitely see what she means, I wish Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead was more like Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2 or Evil Dead III: Army of Darkness. From start to finish, I wanted someone’s performance to be lifted straight from Bruce Campbell’s Ash Williams, but only Schweighöfer’s Dieter-character and the opening credits sequence ever got close to striking that tone.

Sometimes it felt like Dave Bautista’s character (as well as his character’s daughter) was in a different movie than the rest of the cast, most of whom seem to be acting out some kind of zombie version of James Cameron’s Aliens. The pacing of the film also gets in the way of the entertainment. It feels almost predictable to state that Snyder’s latest film is overlong when you consider that his previous film, Zack Snyder’s Justice League, was a four-hour-long director’s cut, which could’ve left thirty minutes on the cutting room floor and still been a huge improvement on Joss Whedon’s theatrical cut. Frustratingly, I also think Army of the Dead could’ve been improved if twenty-to-thirty minutes of footage had been cut from the film.

For example, the film takes too long to set itself up, even though it is fairly simple what this movie is all about. This is just a heist film with criminals and handymen breaking into a forbidden zone to recover something. If you’re a zombie movie aficionado who also pays attention to films that are not in the English language, then that description may remind you of a film that was released just last year. I am of course talking about the much anticipated South Korean zombie sequel Train to Busan: Peninsula. Unfortunately, I don’t think either of them really scratched the right itch for me. Don’t get me wrong, I think both of these film are very entertaining in their own ways, but neither of them are all that memorable to me.

One of the reasons why this film is even a little bit disappointing to me is that it sets up some interesting twists on zombie movie lore, but then it doesn’t really do anything with that setup. For example, at one point, one of the characters in Ward’s crew comes up with a better and more original idea for the plot while they’re literally standing in front of the vault that they’ve been sent to empty out. This is basically a fake twist and, since his idea seems so fresh, it is genuinely disappointing when it is revealed to just be a joke of some kind. As for general zombie lore, I thought there were some really interesting ideas here. For example, there is a scene in which it is mentioned that zombies may act differently when it rains, but then it never actually rains in the movie. That’s just one of several interesting ideas that are under-explored or almost unexplored.

I know that I have sounded very negative thus far in my review, but I have to say that I still had a good time with this movie. I actually watched it twice in two days, and I think there are some genuinely good things about it. I think that some of the action is really cool, I think some of Snyder’s slow-motion shots are neat (I don’t always like his insistence on slow-motion), and the film sets up a potential sequel that I would happily watch. I also think it is always nice to see Dave Bautista in such a significant role. He can be an entertaining lead actor, and I think that this is a nice (albeit flawed) showcase for him. But my favorite thing about the film, by far, was Matthias Schweighöfer’s character. Admittedly, sometimes it did feel like he had been taken out of another movie and inserted into this for no reason in particular, but I thought that he was genuinely entertaining to watch.

On the flip-side, the thing that I disliked the most about the film was the fact that Zack Snyder, who also served as his own director of photography, was way too enamored by shallow focus shots, of which there is an overabundance. The overuse of shallow focus shots genuinely became incredibly distracting for me, and I also think that it looked cheap. I’m sure Snyder had his reasons for choosing this style, but I definitely think it hurts the final film. So, in summation, Zack Snyder’s latest film is bloated, distracting, and even somewhat derivative, but it is, nevertheless, a more-than-serviceable popcorn flick, which should appeal to audiences on Netflix who, understandably, still don’t feel comfortable with going to a movie theater during a global pandemic. There is a lot of fun to be had with Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead, it would just have been so much better if it had leaned just a little bit more into the horror comedy genre, which it seemed perfect for on paper.

6.5 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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