Army of the Dead is an arduous blockbuster for the streaming age, a film that often can’t quite decide if it wants to be thrilling horror, as a serious ode to the Romero films of yore, or a poppy, fun-filled amusement park ride meant for popcorn-guzzling and not much else. It’s certainly meant for the big screen, with magnificent technical craft from top to bottom, it’s so wonderfully rendered and crafted that it’s often difficult to care too much that every thirty minutes you’re left wondering why you’re not having more fun with it. A mash-up of zombie lore and heist hijinks would typically signal the poppy amusement park ride, a film of outlandish characterization and funny jokes landing every other moment. But that wouldn’t be a Zack Snyder movie, would it? While its somewhat undercooked dialogue offers a possibility Snyder’s focus was elsewhere, perhaps on his much better and more involving Justice League for HBO, this is nevertheless a Snyder picture in totality, from the jaunty needle drops (how have the Cranberries’ iconic song never made it to zombie cinema before?) to the jaundiced fate that awaits our heroes. His has always been a rigorous exercise in blockbuster filmmaking, a style that often favors the beauty of sight and sound over heady notions of right and wrong, all the while chipping away at our hopes if not our spirits. Now, more so than ever, his is a personal exercise. At the heart of this horror/heist picture, amid all of the gunplay, gore, and amusing sideshow characters, is a story about a father attempting to reconnect with his estranged daughter before it’s too late. And there might even be a meaningful bit of pure, bloody science fiction coursing through its otherwise simple narrative.
Opening on a rollicking credit sequence, set to Elvis Presley’s classic ditty “Viva Las Vegas,” Army kicks off with a satirical bang. Buckets of blood, slow-motion, and a slice of capitalist satire make it a memorable short film of sorts as Snyder takes us through the origins of his cadre of Vegas grave-robbers. Dave Bautista’s Scott Ward has a history with the undead, having lost people dearest to him in the heat of battle. From here, the picture becomes a playful Getting the Team Together act of introducing the assorted colorful, down-on-their-luck characters who will jump at the chance at riding away with two million, two-hundred thousand, or twenty-five thousand bucks, depending on their status among thieves. Japanese billionaire Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) has hired them to make off with the monied goods of a legendary vault hidden inside one of the abandoned casinos in Las Vegas, now a walled-off city teeming with the undead. Some of them make an impression, like Omari Hardwick’s Vanderohe, a musclebound thief wielding a wicked circular chainsaw, or Matthias Schweighöfer’s endearing Ludwig Dieter, a German safecracker with a love of vaults and a lack of experience in zombie killing. There’s also Tig Notaro as a deadpan funny helicopter pilot, seamlessly replacing cancelled Chris D’Elia in post like she was on set the whole time. Joining them are apocalyptic guide Lily (French star Nora Arnezeder) and a Tanaka stooge (Garret Dillahunt) inevitably there to screw up everything. Lily’s our quintessential audience guide as well, there to differentiate the “shamblers” (slow, incompetent zombies) from the Alphas (fast, intelligent zombies) and to fill us and them in on the quirks of their evolving subculture. Fascinating details abound, from the history of uncrackable vaults to the manner in which these creatures conduct themselves around one another, as well as their peculiar differences. Some bear glowing blue eyes, others are more than meets the eye, or even capable of love.
Oddly enough, once they enter the undead enclave, the story slows down immeasurably. Sure, there are periodic action sequences, shootouts, and unnerving sequences (one of the best involves creeping past a horde of standing, sleeping zombies without waking them), but for the most part, any twists or turns relate specifically to how angry or content Alpha zombie Zeus happens to be as the would-be thieves travel across his kingdom. The picture feels less like an odyssey through the nine circles of hell and more like an A to B journey where B goes to hell. There’s plenty of possible setups and background lore-building for a sequel, but without any of those avenues fully explored in the here and now we’re left with the relatively simple problem of cracking a safe in the midst of a zombie outbreak. Nevertheless, Snyder finds ways to liven it up in spite of the short journey or limited reveals, such as a zombie tiger that gets a showcase kill against one of the more unlikable characters. There’s also a killer climax in a helicopter and the X factor of an impending nuclear bomb the government intends on dropping on Vegas. Consider the in-film President calling it a “fireworks show” and take a wild guess who that might be. Snyder, ever the cynic, apparently assumed Trump would win a second term. Stealing the movie right out from under Bautista and even Snyder himself is Dieter, a wide-eyed, lovable master thief who earns the much-ballyhooed prequel already in the can. He and Vanderohe begin as opposites repel and end as opposites attract. Apparently Matthias is a major star in Germany, so who knows why he never really made it across the pond until now.
On a heavier note, Bautista’s relationship with his twentysomething daughter is so poignant it’s difficult to ignore the elephant in the room regarding Snyder’s own family tragedy a few years ago. His heart is clearly in every second of screen time between Scott and rebellious Kate (Ella Purnell), and such commitment lends an emotional gravitas to the film it wouldn’t otherwise enjoy. So don’t go into it expecting all chuckles and cheery mayhem. This is closer to World War Z than Zombieland, a brawny crowd-pleaser with more on its mind than looting a vault or poppin’ a cap in the head of the undead. Theories abound as to why there are Easter eggs upon Easter eggs hinting at more than simple zombies afoot, including something extraterrestrial, something manufactured, and something that feels duly inspired by Snyder’s good friend Christopher Nolan. The latter is the most appetizing, a loopy wrinkle that may just ensure us a sequel no matter the dreary ending of it all or the indecisive plumbing of genre. And if said theory proves correct, indicating this ragtag group are actually victims of a repetitive, torturous game of life and death, then this may be a proper heir to George Romero’s social commentaries of yore after all.