By Benjamin Rose
Aight, lets cut the shit. In 2021, it would be a valid question if a subgenre as cliched as the zombie horror flick was worth revisiting even if we weren’t in the midst of our own proto-apocalypse. In Covidverse, that scenario is almost quaint. Worse still, with a mere 6/10 on IMDB and 70% critical score on Rotten Tomatoes, the numerical powers that be would all but suggest that Zack Snyder’s Army Of The Dead is no more than a serviceable horror flick, neither bad nor good so much as watchable but forgettable. Sounds reasonable, no? Yes, it does.
Except in much the same way that spontaneous combustion, geocentrism, phrenology, and other vaunted theories of the scientific community eventually proved to be, these postulates are wrong. AofD is not a passable action flick or good-not-great Dave Bautista vehicle. It’s an excellent film that takes an ingenious idea, embraces the silliness of it, and then earns its 2 ½ hour runtime with a brilliant mix of humor, horror, and aestheticized violence. It’s a genre piece, so don’t expect much more than a few hamfisted references in the realm of social commentary, but then again, this is a film about mercenaries infiltrating a zombie dystopia Las Vegas to rob a casino. Art has no obligation to be political. All the better when it doesn’t fuss about trying to be. Twitter will live.
The premise: after two drunks plough into a military transport carrying an experimental superweapon (read: zombie), the convoy gets slaughtered and the zombie runs wild in Vegas. Soon, in a brilliant bit of visual exposition, we have an opening credit sequence of classic Vegas tunes layering a debauched orgy of undead violence as Dave Bautista and other military personnel fight their way out of the city. Mind you, this is just the opening credits. Backstory out of the way, Bautista’s character, Scott Ward, is now a burger flipper while his daughter Kate is a humanitarian volunteer in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Vegas. This camp is run according to the finest standards of American internment, meaning Trump Administration-approved parameters for militarism, sexualviolence, poverty, and all-around fuckery. The plan, a year into the outbreak, is to nuke the Strip and evacuate the remaining refugees, hopefully not in that order. Kate’s friend Geeta is hoping to infiltrate the Strip with the help of a coyote, steal funds, and buy her and her children’s way out of government confinement. After being threatened with rape by camp police grunt and resident asshole Cummings, Geeta makes the attempt and disappears.
Meanwhile, Scott is approached by Bly Tanaka, an unscrupulous Japanese billionaire with plans to rob a major casino of $200 million by sending a team of infiltrators. Scott is recruited as team leader, and with the help of his old battle buddies Vanderhoe, Maria, and helicopter pilot Marianne Peters, begins assembling a team. They are joined by thrill-seeking influencer Mikey Guzman (famous for headshotting zombies on Tiktok or whatever); German safecracker and Wagner enthusiast Dieter; Guzman’s friend Chambers; Lily the coyote; Martin, a stooge of Tanaka; and Kate, who is desperate to find Geeta. Cummings is also recruited for the team as a human sacrifice to the zombies in a bit of deserved but totally unsettling comeuppance.
The zombies, or rather the sorta sentient alphas among them, have effectively established a “kingdom” in the ruins of the Strip, with some basic aspects of social structure and ritual as might be expected in chimps or gorillas, for example. They have also turned a giant tiger from Siegfried and Roy’s into an undead monstrosity. Under Lilly’s guidance the team makes its way to the casino through a mixture of stealth and gunplay until, in a moment of glory, they accomplish their objective and bask in the riches to the sound of music from Der Ring des Nibelungen. Until a casino TV turned to the news informs them that the missile launch has been moved up and they have 90 minutes till Armageddon. Add in a major twist that involves, of course, Martin decapitating the zombie leader’s queen so Tanaka can sell the zombies as bioweapons and you have a predictable but nonetheless masterfully executed race to escape the Strip before death closes in. Feats of inestimable gruesomeness and glory ensue.
Army of the Dead is not an innovator in either the zombie horror or men (and women) on a mission action genres, but it doesn’t need to be. The tone ranges from tongue-in-cheek to claustrophobic, grim, and horrifying. Jump scares and overreliance on poor lighting typical to the horror genre are eschewed in favor of savage combat (including copious head explosions) that mostly takes place in the stark light of day. At a long runtime and with an ensemble cast, there’s little time for deeper character development, but this is not a flaw so much as a convention of the genre, where the need for relatable heroes intersects with the impracticality of fleshing everyone out so fully until its a four hour film.
In the end, we get sketches and types, and most of the cast is charismatic and working with good enough dialogue on the whole as to eschew boredom. The downside is that some actors feel underutilized. Tig Notaro as Peters is a scene-stealer, whereas Omari Harwick and Matthias’s Schweighofer’s slow-burn bromance is a fun and ultimately poignant take on the cool hand meets annoying rookie dynamic. Other characters are more mixed, lowering my score a little below where I would like it. The film never finds a strong human villain. Tanaka is too absent, while Cummings and Martin adhere too closely to asshole white guy stereotypes to offer much. In the end they’re more pathetic than compelling, whereas Raul Castillo’s Guzman brings charisma but feels shortchanged. Beyond the expected quips and swearing in Spanish, we don’t get any insight into his social media zombie slaying, a great concept that’s just kinda dropped as an afterthought. He’s basically an underdeveloped “Cool Chicano Dude”. His relationship with Chambers (an early casualty) gets short shrift. Are they friends? In a relationship? Casually fucking? At some point Snyder and his co-writers just forgot.
The film’s real star is Nora Arnezeder’s Lily, who for much of the mission provides the cold-eyed leadership and in-depth ranger experience of the Vegas ruins necessary to get the job done. There’s an argument to be made that she would’ve made a better protagonist than Bautista’s Scott, whose tiresome and hackneyed father-daughter conflict with Kate forms the film’s lowpoint. This is a decentralized film, and Bautista brings the grizzled physicality necessary for an action hero, yet he’s weirdly the most humorless among them, given his hilarious Guardians of the Galaxy work. That’s a misfire, and it has unintended the effect of making his costars way more interesting to watch. This is the script’s fault rather than his own. Like the film as a whole, the squad works in its entirety but frays a bit in the fine details.
If the film’s mediocre and uneven character work is what’s driving the lukewarm critical and audience response to Army of the Dead, this is in my view missing the point. Its strength lies in repurposing worn-out tropes to craft a thoroughly enjoyable popcorn experience unburdened of deep intentions or straining after innovation. It is expertly paced, choreographed, and irreverent, elevating a subgenre riddled with boredom and bullshit to make a slick action flick with very high highs and forgivable lows. No one would call Army of the Dead ‘Art’ with a capital ‘A’, but it is nonetheless wickedly fun blockbuster fare that shows Netflix is capable of churning out expensive, ambitious action films much better than Mosul or Extraction. Viva Las Vegas.