Army of the Dead

Army of the Dead ★★★½

I’ll be honest. Until a about a month ago, I didn’t even realize this movie was finished, let alone about to come out. Guess I’ve been living under a rock when it comes to it? Whatever the case, Zack Snyder returns to the zombie genre with Army of the Dead, in which the accidental release of a zombie causes an outbreak that takes over Las Vegas, which has now been quarantined and serves as a “kingdom” for a hierarchy of zombies. Dave Bautista plays a former mercenary who’s asked to partake in a heist to steal money from a Vegas casino before the military nukes the city. Thus a team is formed to head in, fight off the hordes and different types of zombies, and hopefully get the money and get out in time and alive.

I think it’s important to know that I’ll be speaking as someone who is by no means a connoisseur of zombie movies. I’ve seen a decent handful of them and even consider the original Night of the Living Dead one of the greatest horror movies ever made. But there are a lot of popular/iconic ones that I’ve yet to see, including Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead (which this is not a sequel to). I also wouldn’t have been in any rush to see this had it not been for its one-week theatrical window and me having family visiting over the next several days, making my chances to see it in theaters greatly limited.

When Godzilla vs. Kong came out, the main thing its fans said was that they didn’t need any deep story or emotional core; they just came for the action and fun, and they got that. Well, that’s what Army of the Dead was for me: a movie that’s not profound in really any way, and certainly has issues, but had all the fun, violence, and visual splendor I wanted to see, and told an unremarkable yet competent story with characters likeable enough to be willing to go through it with.

Which is good, considering you’re with them for very long stretches with no action happening. After an opening credits sequence that’s so amazing it may be worth a ticket price alone, there’s a good forty minutes or so devoted solely to getting the team together and them preparing to go into the city. But even when they actually go in, the gore and action are pretty spread out and don’t really take up a majority of the running time … and honestly, I’m completely fine with this. In fact, I think it’s my preferred approach, one that’s just as much about the buildup and anticipation as it is the actual mayhem we hope to see. It makes the action all the more special when it does show up – more on how it was done in a bit – and keeps you excited for more of it rather than numb to it when it overstays its welcome.

What lets this film succeed in that where others fail, however, is that the cast of characters are enjoyable and interesting enough to hold your attention. Make no mistake, they’re not the best out there, but they have enough to be distinct and memorable, and the actors in particular bring a ton to them. Dave Bautista shows his range and is great to see in a leading role (that isn’t this); Matthias Schweighöfer takes a semi-stock role and has a ball with it; Ella Purnell plays Bautista’s teenaged daughter who’s actually the film’s best source of emotion rather than a bothersome kid character; and Tig Notaro’s time on screen is minimal, yet she’s maybe my favorite of the bunch thanks to the performance alone. So yeah, these guys are all fully watchable … though maybe not for quite as long as you are watching them. The movie didn’t have to be as long as it was. I didn’t have as much of an issue as I’m sure some will – I’d say ten to fifteen minutes at most could have been cut – but you’re probably going to get a bit antsy at least once.

But there’s another reason as to why the relatively sparse use of action worked as well as it did: it’s now able to go for quality over quantity, and the results are some awesome, disgusting sequences of gore and carnage. You’ve got heads being blown up, bodies squished and demolished, necks and bones mangled and snapped, several scenes that were genuinely shocking both for what you’re seeing and who it’s happening to … and a majority of it is admirably done with practical effects, ones that are enhanced by CGI rather than overshadowed by it. Even something like the fully-digital zombie tiger, which I do wish was mixed with an animatronic, still works because you feel the intensity and tension of his scenes. In keeping with the film’s spirit, they use him sparingly, but they save him up for one of the most gruesome kills of the movie, and undoubtedly the single most satisfying one.

Visually … well, come on, even people who hate Zack Snyder admit he’s great with visuals. Here, however, he himself is the cinematographer, and it shows. A couple of overused focus tricks aside, he excels in this role and offers so many shots that aren’t “pretty”, but stand out so well in this bleak environment and look like something right out of a graphic novel. If you have the ability and feel safe seeing it in theaters, I wholly recommend you do so. Don’t let the Netflix brand fool you; this looks, sounds, and feels like it was made for the big screen, and I’m grateful to have been able to see it that way and take in all its glory.

Speaking of bleak, though, this is very much trying to be a funny, goofball movie at times, and does that fairly well. But it also has some really dramatic, even downright depressing moments, heavily drawn-out to let their weight sink in. Some of these are startlingly good, whereas others feel either obligatory or forced. I feel like I’ve been saying this about a lot of movies lately, and I'm sorry for that, but these lighter and more serious tones don’t always mesh well together. It’s absolutely possible; we’ve seen it done many times, and even in this movie it sometimes works. But I feel like things would have been much smoother had the film either had more comedy more regularly to make it less jarring when it appears, or utilized more refined humor to blend it in better. Or maybe some of the dramatic scenes just didn’t need to be there, like a scene between Bautista and Ana de la Reguera that comes right out of nowhere and amounts to absolutely nothing, or a pointless “fake-out” making you think a character has abandoned everyone. Things like that pop up often enough where the film comes across as aimless in its intent and only serve to put a spotlight on how little there actually is to this story.

The final few minutes also felt a bit tacked on. I’m certainly not going to complain about any use of a Cranberries song (take a wild guess which one), but it felt very much like last-minute sequel bait. Granted, not including it would have left a loose end unresolved … maybe making it more ambiguous would have helped? Whatever the case, it’s not bad, it just doesn’t end the movie on as strong a note as it would have had it ended a bit earlier.

When I look back on Army of the Dead, it’s tough for me to land on a rating for it. I admit I’m being very generous in giving it a 7/10. Its high points are incredibly high, its technical proficiency is wonderful, and it skillfully goes the route of slowly yet satisfyingly delivering the bloody goods you came for. But the writing is very inconsistent, not just in how it mixes comedy and drama but even in how good it is at either one on its own. Some jokes land, some don’t, some emotional moments are great, some are flat … it can be all over the place. But it’s another case where it didn’t bother me that much because it was still able to allow me to enjoy the ride, and I walked out overall happy with what I saw. And even if you don’t think it all works, chances are anyone with an interest in it will feel the same.

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