Army of the Dead: Almost Dead on Arrival


Clay Enos/Netflix

Dave Bautista and Ella Purnell’s father-daughter chemistry helps save “Army of the Dead” from becoming unwatchable.

Note: This movie is rated R for “strong bloody violence, gore and language throughout, some sexual content and brief nudity/graphic nudity” according to the Motion Picture Association of America

“Army of the Dead” marks Zack Snyder’s first non-DC Extended Universe feature-length film since 2013. Although it falls short of excellence, this Netflix original has enough chemistry and innovative zombie violence to save it from being boring Hollywood drivel.

The premise of the film is simple. Las Vegas has been taken over by zombies and Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) is hired to form a rag-tag team of zombie-killing experts to infiltrate the city and get out with the multimillion dollar score without being turned into a zombie themselves. And for added incentive, the team has only days before the city is annihilated by a nuclear missile. 

“Army of the Dead” starts with an amazing, stylized battle-to-the-death opening credits sequence between the zombies and the people, set to “Viva Las Vegas.” This self-aware bonanza of cartoonishly violent zombie murdering is so fun that it should honestly be its own movie.

Snyder’s talent for immersive and engaging worldbuilding creates a mood that mixes delightfully giddy violence full of the extravagance of Las Vegas with an underwhelming yet satisfying emotional undercurrent (albeit one made stronger by our own emotional connection to a viral outbreak). This strength of worldbuilding delivers a thoroughly enjoyable first act filled with both almost charmingly gratuitous violence and excellent visual storytelling.

This isn’t Snyder’s first zombie movie, but his “Dawn of the Dead” remake didn’t really break any ground in the genre of the flesh-eating undead. That’s not the case with “Army of the Dead.” Although not a film of the same caliber, “Army of the Dead” joins the ranks of Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” and Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” because it presents a society of zombies, with run of the mill undead and what the film calls “alphas”: super smart and super deadly. There is also a zombie tiger that devours a guy, so that’s cool.

However, the script is unwilling to delve into the more interesting parts of the zombie culture or its effects on humanity and seems to even abandon some parts of it. Why make a big deal out of a zombie fetus if you’re not going to follow through on that? What’s the deal with the ritual of turning someone into a zombie? Is the film’s commentary on migrant facilities and the current political landscape lazy and uninspired? Unfortunately, “Army of the Dead” just isn’t brave enough to answer those questions. Except the last one. The answer to that is undoubtedly yes. 

The same qualities that made the first act of the film so great make the second and third acts tiresome. Per usual, Snyder becomes too engrossed in the worldbuilding and forgets to let his movie breathe a little. The pacing goes haywire and you’re left hoping that the characters will stop talking and start killing zombies again. 

Snyder’s penchant for unnecessarily complex storytelling really holds this movie back from being fun. Not all of this can be attributed to Snyder though, as the film’s script suffers from the classic “too many characters syndrome” that plagues (no pun intended) team-orientated movies like “Rogue One.” To its credit, “Army of the Dead” handles the syndrome better than other movies but still ends up resigning some potentially interesting characters to one-liners that become repetitive very quickly.

The movie isn’t all bad, though. Even during the arduous third act, the chemistry between Bautista and Ella Purnell, who plays his daughter Kate Ward, is enjoyable and even a little emotional at times. Likewise, the tough, chainsaw-wielding Vanderhoe (Omari Hardwick) and the effervescent, safe-cracking Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer) have hostile to friendly back and forth that is one of the better parts of the film. Comedian Tig Notaro, who plays Marianne Peters, the quirky helicopter pilot, has excellent timing and chemistry with the rest of the cast, despite being digitally added in after Chris D’Elia was exposed for sexual harrasment and violating child pornography laws. Despite not filming with her co-stars (and apparently never even having met Bautista), Notaro is delightful and plays the role better than D’Elia ever could. 

The fight scenes, although numerous, really aren’t that bad. Snyder is often criticized for his use of slo-mo, but it’s a benefit, not a hindrance to this movie. The zombie killing felt very video game-esque, but “Army of the Dead” deftly leans into it with first-person and over-the-shoulder shots, which highlight the deliciously dark violence that’s ubiquitous in the movie. In fact, the creativity of the violence really sets this movie apart from other Hollywood shoot ‘em ups. 

All in all, “Army of the Dead” is pretty unexceptional, despite its innovations in the field of zombie cinema. The fact that the movie ends with the Cranberries’ song “Zombie” pretty much tells you all you need to know.  If you like Zack Snyder, you’ll like “Army of the Dead.”