Dir: Zack Snyder. Starring: Dave Bautista, Ella Purnell, Omari Hardwick, Ana de la Reguera, Theo Rossi, Matthias Schweighöfer, Nora Arnezeder, Hiroyuki Sanada, Tig Notaro. 148 mins
Zack Snyder’s future with Warner Bros, and with his DC Comics universe, tends to be a raw subject these days. So there’s a logic to his latest, Army of the Dead, and the director’s own nostalgic retreat into his origins. In 2004, he made his feature debut with a remake of George A Romero’s zombie classic, Dawn of the Dead. With Army of the Dead, a project that sat with Warner Bros for over a decade before it was snapped up by Netflix, the director paraglides off that same source material to create something original and thoroughly Snyder-esque. His film is a Baroque tapestry of blood, bullets and bones – one that’s never short of memorable imagery, even if its symbolism is so obvious that it feels like it’s being screamed through a megaphone.
There’s nothing all that revolutionary here, though Snyder – alongside screenwriters Shay Hatten and Joby Harold – is clever to mash up the zombie and heist genres, creating a brand new cocktail of familiar beats. This is Dawn of the Dead meets Ocean's Eleven, as a group of ragtag volunteers enter the zombie-infested city of Las Vegas in order to retrieve $200m still sitting in a casino vault. All we really know about these characters is that they’ve suffered greatly – a slo-mo opening credits scene, set to an extra-kitsch cover of “Viva Las Vegas” by Richard Cheese and Allison Crowe, shows them hacking, slashing, and surviving their way through the initial outbreak. Friends and loved ones die along the way.
And for what? Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) saved the secretary of defence and received the presidential medal of freedom, but still spends his days flipping burgers. When recruiting his closest ally, Maria Cruz (Ana de la Reguera), he argues that it’s time they finally do something for themselves (the job comes with a hefty cut). Army of the Dead is most interesting for the way it folds in Snyder’s usual cynicism. What controls the narrative isn’t the intervention of reanimated corpses, but the baseline greed of its human characters. Even the heroes aren’t spared – this is the rare heist film where the team aren't promised an equal cut, since Scott knows some are easier to exploit than others.
At the heart of Army of the Dead lies the belief that very little separates us from the brain-dead and ravenous. There’s an intriguing moment, early on, where Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), another hero of the outbreak, admits that he’s become haunted by the faces of those he has killed – a reminder that these vicious masses were once people just like him. Snyder’s film is rife with political symbolism – reminders that this was created during the Trump era. There are border walls, refugees, and a president who thinks setting off a nuclear bomb on 4 July would be “really cool and the ultimate fireworks show”.
But these images all feel like the beginnings of sentences that Snyder never bothers to finish as, soon enough, the director finds himself wrapped up in the same semi-religious imagery that haunted his DC movies. His “alpha” zombies aren’t just stronger and faster, they’re built like primordial gods and dwell in a literal Olympus (the name of a fictional casino clearly inspired by Caesars Palace). The humans, meanwhile, find their basest desire – money – sitting in a vault beneath two towers named Sodom and Gomorrah.
It’s all weightless grandeur that stretches the film to the two-and-a-half-hour mark, overloading an otherwise pleasantly grisly thrill-ride. The kills are gory, imaginative, and well-executed – the inclusion of a zombie tiger (formerly owned by Siegfried & Roy, of course) is a small stroke of genius. Bautista finds a few moments of pathos as a father trying desperately to reconnect with his daughter (Ella Purnell). Comedian Tig Notaro is a welcome presence as a blunt, unsentimental helicopter pilot – Snyder deserves credit for painstakingly inserting Notaro into his film through a combination of reshoots and CGI wizardry, in order to replace Chris D'Elia after the latter was accused of sexual misconduct.
It’s clear, however, that Snyder wanted Army of the Dead to be much more than just some passing, self-contained piece of entertainment. Both a prequel and an anime series are already in the works, which the film hints at without ever really justifying. We may be living in the superhero age, where films can no longer simply be films, and are instead chapters in some larger vision – but all these ideas and ambitions muddy Army of the Dead when they should be amplifying its simple pleasures.
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