Producers: Deborah Snyder, Wesley Coller and Zack Snyder Director: Zack Snyder Screenplay: Zack Snyder, Shay Hatten and Joby Harold Cast: Dave Bautista, Ella Purnell, Omari Hardwick, Ana De La Reguera, Theo Rossi, Matthias Schweighöfer, Nora Arnezeder, Hiroyuki Sanada, Garret Dillahunt, Tig Notaro, Raúl Castillo, Huma S. Oureshi, Samantha Win, Richard Cetrone, Michael Cassidy and Athena Perample Distributor: Netflix
Zack Snyder is not a man to do anything on a small scale. Recently he presented his four-hour director’s cut of “Justice League,” and now he returns to the horror movie roots of his 2004 remake of “Dawn of the Dead” with this zombie epic that not only runs two-and-a-half but contains a veritable explosion of violence, blood, gore and goofy action. Gluttons for mindless, ugly mayhem will enjoy “Army of the Dead,” but many viewers will find it’s a pretty overstuffed, bombastic brew.
Before the titles flash on the screen, a fourteen-minute prologue explains the zombie outbreak that has led Las Vegas to be walled off from the rest of the world. A gargantuan, grotesque, super-fast specimen of the species—origin unexplained—escapes from a caravan of military trucks manned by heavily-armed guards headed by Sergeant Kelly (Michael Cassidy), turn the soldiers into ghouls, and leads them to Vegas. Then to the strains of “Viva Las Vegas” a long series of jump cuts under the titles shows the city being overwhelmed by the ever-growing horde of undead, the authorities and muscular civilians like Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) unable to stem the tide.
The wall around the city is the result, but in constructing it the government has entombed great amounts of cash in the casino vaults, and now it intends to obliterate Vegas with a nuclear blast to end the undead problem once and for all. Before that can happen, casino owner Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) enlists Ward, now a humble short-order cook in a sleazy diner, to assemble a crew to enter the city, liberate $200 million from a vault under his old establishment, and return to the outside world before the bomb is dropped.
Scott jumps at the lucrative but dangerous project and gets his squad together pronto, a typically ragtag bunch of tough guys and gals. They include some old friends: his old flame Cruz (Ana de la Reguera), a mechanic; buzz-saw-wielding soldier Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick); and cigar-chomping helicopter pilot Peters (Tig Notaro). Added to them are sharpshooter and internet celebrity Guzman (Raúl Castro) and his partner Chambers (Samantha Win), along with master safecracker Ludwig Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer).
But that’s not all. Ward takes the opportunity to ask his daughter Kate (Ella Purnell), a quarantine camp worker who’s estranged from him because she holds him responsibility for the death of her mother, to enlist Lily (Nora Arnezeder), a French smuggler, and Burt (Theo Rossi), a hard-nosed guard, in the mission; and Kate herself insists on going when she learns that her friend Geeta (Huma S. Oureshi) had entered Vegas on a rescue mission. Finally, there’s Martin (Garret Dillahunt), Tanaka’s man, embedded in the group supposedly to provide information on the casino layout but perhaps with more sinister purposes in mind.
Snyder puts this large ensemble through its paces, the crew’s job made more difficult by the fact that the ordinary run of zombies, “shamblers” as they’re called here, are directed by a advanced “alpha” couple, Zeus (Richard Cetrone) and his queen (Athena Perample), who are both exceptionally ferocious and able to think strategically. As if that weren’t bad enough, there’s also a zombie tiger called Valentine, the remnant of a famous casino act that has lost none of its appetite or agility. (One wonders who might have gotten intimate enough to have turned the animal, but that’s a question better left unexplored.)
The screenplay jumps back and forth among the various players, with plenty of action-packed sequences notable for their gore and CGI effects (as well as moments of sudden death and unexpected self-sacrifice) alternating with quieter, more introspective moments, as those in which Scott and Kate haltingly rebuild the father-daughter bond. A good deal of rather puerile humor finds its way into the mix as well, courtesy mostly of Schweighöfer’s none-too-heroic safecracker and Notaro’s cynical Peters. It’s not really more tasteful than the attempts at serious commentary—allusions to government policies like quarantines that are obviously intended to be seen as reflecting current social and political issues—but goes down rather more easily.
The suspense is supposed to be ratcheted up by an announcement that the bomb drop is moved up, putting the team under pressure to speed up their efforts even as the zombies get increasingly threatening, but Snyder seems more interested in cramming as much into the movie as he can than in generating any serious tension. He’s after big, splashy stuff, and certainly delivers lots of it, though the beats are rarely other than predictable, down to the overextended finale and the coda that suggests a sequel might be in the offing. (Actually, spin-offs are already underway.)
To that end, the movie is big in terms not only of length but of visual pizzazz. Julie Berghoff’s elaborate production design is certainly eye-catching, and it’s hard to fault the effects work, all captured with virtuosic glee by Snyder, acting as his own cinematographer. Dody Dorn’s editing contributes to the hyperkinetic feel, while the score (original music by Tom Holkenborg, with interpolations that run the gamut from Elvis to Wagner) adds to the battering-ram impact of the whole. The acting, from Bautista on down, has more of pose than depth to it, but the cast certainly brings vigor to their work.
“Army of the Dead” won’t disappoint the inveterate cadre of Snyder fans, the ones whose activism eventually wheedled out of Warners the “Justice League” cut they demanded. And devotees of zombie movies and other assorted juvenile gore-fests in video-game mode will find much to enjoy here. Too much, in fact: as the movie lumbers along like an elephant constantly sent into paroxysms by the squealing of a mouse, one might be inclined to imagine how Roger Corman could have told this story so much more economically—and probably more effectively—in eighty minutes back in 1958.
But the present is the age of spectacle, and this bloated, derivative action movie, with its indebtedness to a wide range of other pictures—it’s really a crazy mash-up of “Escape from New York,” “Aliens,” and “Ocean’s Eleven” (the latter quite appropriate, given that the screenplay steals from so many sources)—will undoubtedly satisfy the more adolescent impulses of today’s audiences. For some of us, though, it will remain a nasty, indigestible hodgepodge.