Army of the Dead

Army of the Dead ★½

“What if, just once, we did something for us?”

Zack Snyder’s ‘Army of the Dead’ displays and sustains the filmmaker’s signature brand of punch-drunk verve: the Netflix film’s opening sequence is a lunatic mini-masterpiece, cannily mixing tropes of zombie cinema with Las Vegas kitsch. It turns out that a zombie invasion was kicked off by a dude, distracted while getting a hummer while driving, who collided into a military vehicle carrying something top secret and very, very nasty. Not long afterward come the zombie strippers and Elvis impersonators, who literally make a meal out of everyone in Sin City: carnage that’s lent an aura of debauched glee by Richard Cheese and Alison Crowe’s cover of Elvis’ “Viva Las Vegas. Snyder stages this prologue with thunderous crassness, enriching it with a derivative but compelling subtext by linking the undead to how a place like Vegas is designed - underneath its patina of carefully cultivated good cheer and adventure, to suck people dry. Unfortunate, the go-for-broke curtain-raiser writes a check that the remainder of the very long, very indulgent ‘Army of the Dead’ labors mightily to cash.

To be clear, there are no proper rules in making art, but we should take a moment to establish a few. For one, unless you’re George A. Romero (specifically the Romero of ‘Dawn of the Dead’), you have no fucking business making a two-and-a-half-hour zombie movie. In ‘Army of the Dead,’ Snyder fuses two genre templates that generally benefit from tight pacing (the heist film and the zombie invasion thriller) and slows the hybrid plot down to a crawl. Perhaps after all the warring gods and mythological symbols of Snyder’s unexpectedly poetic cut of ‘Justice League’ (the Snyderiest of all Snyder films), zombies felt too small for the filmmaker, and so he inflates, inflates, inflates. ‘Army of the Dead’ is nothing but self-conscious touches and curlicues - and while some are amusing, cumulatively, the result is interminable.

The film’s plot, such as it is, concerns a group of Grade-A bad-asses who are cajoled into breaking into a casino safe in zombie-invested Vegas and lifting millions before a nuke is to be dropped on the city to relieve the country of its monster problem (said nuking will happen on the 4th of July because the President thought it “would look cool” and be “patriotic if you think about it”). Think Carpenter’s ‘Escape from New York’ merged with Cameron’s ‘Aliens’ and Soderbergh’s ‘Ocean’s Eleven,’ with an unexpected touch of vintage Romero allegorizing, with the trapped zombies initially evoking, tastelessly yet nervily, migrants penned in detention camps. The crew is a disappointment, though, as only a few characters stand out amid a clutter of generic (and prolonged) exposition.

As Scott Ward, the group leader, Dave Bautista exudes his usual soulfulness, contrasting starkly against his intimidating frame. As the buzzsaw-carrying Vanderohe, Omari Hardwicke feels authentically volatile, as does Garrett Dillahunt as the guy who’s preordained to betray the group. And as a helicopter pilot who might as well have been named “Comic Relief,” Tig Notaro (who digitally replaced Chris D’Elia) is refreshingly dry and absurdist. But the other characters have less presence and personality and are subsequently lost in the chaos. ‘Army of the Dead’ is marred by a sense of dutifulness (would it surprise you that The Cranberries’ masterpiece of alt-rock, “Zombie,” is used here).

Given the safecracking plot and the potential of nuclear annihilation, you’d expect ‘Army of the Dead’ to have a certain ticking-clock element to it. Astonishingly, it doesn’t (or, more precisely), Snyder doesn’t allow us to feel a sense of dread or propulsion as he limps from one bizarre zombie set piece to the next. Most brazenly, he doesn’t even show any interest in the chess-like strategizing that’s often among the chief pleasures of the heist film. Instead, we spend time on things like distinguishing between two types of zombies: the mindless, insatiable ghouls we’ve seen in hundreds of other (better) movies and alphas who have intelligence, speed, and are, perversely, kind of sexy in the tradition of the Na’vi of Cameron’s ‘Avatar.’ One of the zombies appears to have a queen so that when the ragtag band of humans kills her, things get personal for King Zombie. This is all as brainless as it sounds, and Snyder (as is his want) offers such details up with deadly solemnity. Superheroes lend themselves to mythologizing and, occasionally, even to Snyder’s Wagnerian pretensions. But zombies are less accommodating.

Such baroque flourishes weigh ‘Army of the Dead’ down and compete with why most people will see this: for the flashy gore and action, which Snyder delivers with a flair that grows increasingly monotonal. Still, specific images stick, including that zombie tiger seen in the trailer and a tableau of the undead by an empty swimming pool that suggests a zombie Last Supper - honestly, itself worthy of Romero. The annoying thing about Snyder is that, for all his obvious talent, he often tries too hard to transcend the essentially adolescent material that continues to fascinate him. In his better films, he gets by on swagger. Here, though, laboring to make a different zombie movie - one that’s worthy of his fans’ cult-like devotion - he fails to make even an adequate one.