To say that director Zack Snyder has had one hell of a year would be an incredible understatement, and I mean that in the best way possible. Anyone unfamiliar with the events that have transpired since his last film can easily find the details online, so I won’t reiterate them here. As Confucius once said, “our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall”, and I find it almost poetic that Snyder’s return to filmmaking, after an almost five year hiatus, would also be his return to the beloved zombie genre. Having begun his film career back in 2004 with his remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, fans such as myself often wondered when this return would take place. As it turns out, seventeen years later, amid a global pandemic, the timing couldn’t be more perfect.
Interestingly enough, the idea for Army of the Dead actually spawned soon after Dawn of the Dead was released. Joby Harold had penned the script, and another director was set to be at the helm. Once budgetary restraints put a halt on production, Zack and producing partner (now wife) Deborah Snyder thought it best to revisit the idea at a later time. When Netflix came along and offered to resurrect the project in 2019, Snyder teamed up with Shay Hatton to rewrite the script from scratch, aspiring to develop it into something he would direct himself. I imagine that this also allowed him to modernize the story a bit in order to inject some more relevant social commentary because, as I’m sure some horror fans will agree, most of the best zombie flicks have an underlying political message.
The film opens up with a military convoy transporting a large container of unknown contents from Area 51. Two of the soldiers make a facetious conjecture about the payload, which serves as one of the only clues that the audience receives regarding the events that follow. While en route to their destination, the convoy is suddenly struck by an oncoming car driven by two extremely distracted newlyweds, leaving the container in a compromised state. The soldiers soon discover that the container housed a superhuman zombie who then proceeds to kill off most of the team and infects the two aforementioned members. These three zombies make their way to the nearby City of Las Vegas where they begin the outbreak that eventually forces the government to quarantine the entire city off from the rest of the world.
We are then introduced to some of our lead characters, including Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), Maria Cruz (Ana de la Reguera), and Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), in a lively opening montage which emulates those from Snyder’s previous films such as 2009’s Watchmen. Snyder seems to have quite the knack for these types of openings; always making them stylistically striking but never lacking substance. We see these characters aid the evacuation of Las Vegas before jumping forward in time and finding Ward working at a burger restaurant. He is approached by Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada of Ringu fame), a casino owner who offers him a cut of money if he and a team of his choosing successfully steal the two hundred million US dollars that are sitting in a vault of his casino in Vegas before the military destroys the city with a nuclear strike the following day. Ward, feeling like his life went nowhere after the outbreak, ultimately agrees and recruits his former teammates along with a few newbies to pull off the scariest heist ever attempted.
The opening scene with the military convoy reminded me of a schlocky B-movie but with an obviously bigger budget, and I instantly knew I was going to enjoy the ride. Snyder always wears his influences on his sleeve and has even cited Aliens, The Thing, Planet of the Apes, and Escape From New York as inspirations for this film. I often see people criticize filmmakers for openly referencing other works but I personally find it exciting. What sets these creative choices apart from being straight rip-offs is the skill of the director behind the camera. Snyder’s signature style is present in every frame, and his passion for filmmaking is evident not only through his eclectic influences but also through his careful attention to detail. These details are often overlooked because of how grand in scale his films tend to be, but they become much more obvious upon multiple viewings. Having full control over his creative choices this time around, Snyder manages to still keep things looking grand but feeling much more intimate at the same time.
This intimacy is equally procured by the impressively diverse cast. Bautista was delightfully impressive in a more grounded role than I’m used to seeing him in; the only other time I’ve seen him in a non-comedic role was in Blade Runner 2049, but he was limited to only one extended scene. As the leading man, Bautista is given much more room to demonstrate his range and is exceptionally outstanding when sharing a scene with Ella Purnell who plays his daughter Kate Ward. Kate ends up joining the heist team despite Scott’s objections as they traverse a post-apocalyptic Las Vegas. Ana de la Reguera and Omari Hardwick are equally likable; the latter of the two shares some great moments with Matthias Schweighöfer’s character Dieter, a German safecracker who adds an ample amount of frivolity to the group. The most effective action sequence is given to stunt woman turned actress Samantha Win who plays Chambers, the formidable companion of Raul Castillo’s character Mikey Guzman. Every cast member, including the ones that I’ve failed to mention, brings their A game, but it must be noted that comedian Tig Notaro was originally not in the film at all. Notaro had to be digitally inserted to replace Chris D’Elia, who was dropped by his talent agency after being accused of sexual misconduct. You really can’t tell that Notaro was green-screened into the film unless you REALLY try hard to notice it, and although I’ve read that she was nervous to take on her first acting role, she definitely held her own and contributed to the levity also provided by Dieter and Mikey.
An amazing cast in a zombie film would have nothing to do without the zombies themselves! Taking the fast zombie approach a few steps further this time around opened the door for more than one standout, but the peremptory zombie queen was by far my favorite. Played by Athena Perample, the Alpha Queen instantly reminded me of Angela from Night of the Demons if, instead of floating down dark hallways, she crawled around like a feral animal or a spider. The king to this queen is the superhuman zombie from the opening sequence, and he’s been up to much more than just eating people. Played by Richard Cetrone, this questionably malign killing machine is no doubt the most intimidating of the bunch, having usurped the throne to Vegas and leading the titular army of the dead. Having him ride a zombie horse with its skull exposed while rocking a long black cape definitely made for a remarkably striking image, and it was this same image, along with the inclusion of a zombie tiger, that confirmed just how much fun the production had with the material. Netflix has proven time and time again that they value the creative integrity of the artists they hire, which is why I believe they will continue to achieve success.
Army of the Dead successfully mixes the classic heist genre with bloody zombie action, and it does so with a runtime that allows each character to shine. There is enough heart in the story to satisfy more casual viewers, but also plenty of undead carnage for horror fans looking to get their zombie fix. While no movie is made for everyone, Army of the Dead is overtly aware of its target audience and knows exactly how to please them. Those of you who do end up enjoying the film as much as I did will be happy to know that a prequel titled Army of Thieves has already wrapped filming and news of its release will be coming soon. The prequel will focus on Schweighöfer’s character Dieter during the early stages of the outbreak and will show us how he ends up where he is at the beginning of Army of the Dead. The franchise will expand even further with an anime-style series titled Army of the Dead: Lost Vegas that will also take place before the events of this film, and will follow some of the already established characters along with some new ones. More news of this release will also be coming soon.
Army of the Dead is currently playing in select theaters and will stream on Netflix starting May 21st. For those of you who are comfortable going to the cinema now, I strongly recommend seeing it on the big screen. It’s one of the most cinematic films to come out of Netflix’s library by far, and I think its amusing soundtrack and efficacious sound design are best suited for a theater sound system. However, because we are still dealing with our own real life non-zombie pandemic, I can understand the desire to see it in the safety of your home. If you already have an existing Netflix subscription, the film will be accessible free of extra charge, so it’s a win-win situation! And speaking of winning.. ALWAYS BET ON DEAD.