The City that Never Dies
A review of Zack Snyder's Vegas zombie movie 'Army of the Dead'.
If I could tell you only one thing about Zack Snyder’s new film Army of the Dead, it would be this: It features a zombie tiger. This one fact would probably tell you everything you need to know about the gruesome, action-packed, grandiose zombie/heist thriller Snyder has put together for Netflix. It’s pure popcorn cinema. It’s over the top. It’s Zack Snyder.
The movie takes us to some time after a military transport crash accidentally sets loose a captive zombie outside of Las Vegas. The opening title sequence of zombies overtaking Las Vegas is morbidly hilarious exposition, with gory scenes of zombie strippers taking down a pervert in his hotel room, zombie bachelorette parties wreaking havoc on casino floors, zombie Elvis out on the streets, all while “Viva Las Vegas” plays. After seeing such scenes so early in the film, you might expect more dark humor to follow. There is almost none. I hate to complain about the movie I wish I’d seen instead of the one that was made, but even though the movie is thrilling and exciting, the title sequence shows that Snyder correctly realized there’s some humor to be mined from a zombie-infested Vegas. That he doesn’t really try for more is at least a little odd. Instead, the film plays out as a rather earnest heist/zombie thriller. Which isn’t a bad thing; fans of the zombie genre will quite enjoy the visual effects and the fight scenes, and Snyder’s particular style of violence and gore lends itself well to horror fare.
Following its failure to wipe out the subsequent zombie hordes, the U.S. government opts instead to wall off the city with stacks of shipping containers. A former mercenary Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) is called in by mysterious casino owner Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada), who asks Ward to retrieve $200 million from a safe in Tanaka's casino before the entire city is nuked in four days time to end the zombie threat. Ward assembles a team of experts and is joined at the last minute by his estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell), who is a volunteer at the quarantine zone next to Vegas that houses individuals who may have been infected but have not turned yet. Kate is trying to save a friend of hers who snuck into Vegas in an attempt to find money to buy her family’s way out of the camp.
The acting is great; Dwayne Johnson may be the most famous wrestler turned actor, but Bautista has demonstrated far better acting chops in serious fare than Johnson. The other leads turn in excellent performances as well, but it’s the relationship between Scott and Kate that provides the emotional core of the film, as the father and daughter reconcile while killing zombies, and both Bautista and Purnell stand out. The roles themselves are well-written, the plot is fascinating, and the dialogue is tight. We get to know each of the characters with very little backstory on them, learning about their personalities largely from what we see and hear as they carry out their mission. The action, as already mentioned, is thrilling, and early on it becomes clear that just because someone is a lead doesn’t mean they’re protected from death. The tension feels real, heightening the horror as you watch the zombie shootouts.
What further criticisms I have of Army of the Dead feel almost like nitpicking. The film is, for starters, a bit too long—as we learned from the Snyder Cut, nobody likes taking his time like Zack Snyder. There is a great deal of excitement and tension in the film, but there are more than a few scenes where the movie just lags. And a third act reveal of Tanaka’s secret plan doesn’t make a lot of sense: Without giving too much away, the $200 million was a decoy, Tanaka is after something else that, frankly, could have been obtained far more easily and with much less fanfare.
But in true Snyderian fashion, the movie more than covers up its shortcomings—it’s so engrossing and so easy to lose yourself in the excitement that you don’t even realize it’s anything other than entertaining you start to think about it afterward.