It was difficult not to get a little excited when I first watched the trailer for Army of the Dead. A heist movie set during a zombie attack with David Bautista, Tig Notaro, and Hiroyuki Sanada? It sounded like a dream come true. And after Zack Snyder proved that his version of Justice League was the superior version, it’s exciting to see him take on a fun genre-mixing movie like Army of the Dead. Except, instead of being fun, Army of the Dead often drags. It wastes an exciting cast, relies heavily on familiar tropes, and its weirdest, most exciting zombie twist is left unexplored.
So let’s start with the good before we move on to the bad. The cast is massive, but despite that, they lean into their roles, fulfilling every zombie movie stereotypical trope out with ease. Bautista plays Scott Ward, the leader of the group, a gruff and tough mercenary with a tragic backstory and a soft spot for his estranged daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell). At his side is an underused Omari Hardwick who plays Vanderohe, and a level-headed Ana de la Reguera who plays Cruz. Both Cruz and Vanderhoe have a history with Scott, which is played out in an enjoyable if long-winded intro, detailing how Las Vegas fell.
What is impressive for this movie is how easily all of the characters stand out, despite there being ten members of the group that go into a locked-down Las Vegas. You know every character’s motivation and modus operandi, which serves a memorable cast. There’s the quirky and eccentric safecracker, Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer); the smuggler named Lily (Nora Arnezeder) who is literally a coyote that smuggles people in and out of the quarantine zone; smart-mouthed Tig Notaro is playing herself as Peters, the comedic and snarky helicopter pilot; Raúl Castillo plays clout-chasing Mikey Guzman who also brings along his friend Chambers (Samantha Win); and of course, there’s the slimy “company man” Martin, played by Garret Dillahunt, who is oh so easy to hate, one wonders why no one shot him right at the outset of the mission.
The downfall of having all these easy to recognize characters means that the actors pretty often have to overact. While in a regular zombie movie, that wouldn’t be a problem, you’d probably even expect it, but often times Army of the Dead tries to straddle that line between ridiculous and somber and it doesn’t work. A lot of these scenes come with Purnell and Bautista who play a father-daughter duo who have been estranged for years. Amidst fun characters, Purnell’s Kate is a killjoy. Her reasons for being in the quarantine zone, while altruistic, are foolhardy. It’s not like the scenes are necessarily bad, but they throw off the momentum of the film, and in a heist movie, it’s all about momentum.
But more than that, Snyder has a serious dialogue problem. The biggest dialogue issue I have when watching movies is that most people don’t talk the way movie characters do. And no one talks the way Scott and Kate talk in this movie. Weird lines that are meant to be funny and dad-jokey feel incredibly forced. It’s no fault of Bautista’s, who is doing his best, the lines are simply trash. To a lesser extent, it happens to the other members of the cast too. It’s a problem that Snyder has always had. The script also credits Shay Hatten and Joby Harold (which is concerning for Obi-Wan fans out there since Harold is scriptwriter on the Disney+ series), but these intimate scenes have Snyder written all over them.
And much like the classic zombie movie, characters all conveniently wear plot armor like their lives depend on it. Dillahunt’s smarmy Martin realistically should have been thrown to the proverbial wolves very early on in the story since it seems like literally no one trusts him, but he represents Sanada’s Bly Tanaka, the mysterious billionaire who has hired them all to break into his own casino and get out with a bunch of cash before Las Vegas is nuked by the government. The same goes for Kate Ward, who is the only untrained member of the group but manages to get far on her own simply because she is the heart of the story.
The problem with this is that it gets tiring, quickly. The people who can’t die, don’t. At least until they completed their jobs. Then we get a bloody death but we all kind of saw it coming. It’s unexciting and from something that had so much promise, it was disappointing how formulaic the final act felt. This is only made worse by the fact that Army of the Dead actually has a really intriguing zombie plot. Instead of the shambling group of mindless undead, there is motivation and cognizance. It’s ridiculous and outrageous, but it’s the exact kind of ridiculousness that I signed up for. This is all hidden under the bluster of the rest of the movie, and while it holds the most surprising moments, it has the shortest screen time.
Army of the Dead is sure to be enjoyable to many people. And perhaps on a second watch, I might enjoy it more for what it is. But it’s far too familiar to be called innovative. It’s a Synder production through and through, which is a style that I’ve long grown out of, but for those who like Snyder’s cinematography style and the music he chooses to score his scenes with, this should be a blast. If all goes well for those fans, it’s likely Army of the Dead will produce at least one sequel, and it already has an animated prequel in the works. But I’ll continue to mourn this movie for what it could have been.
Army of the Dead streams on Netflix on May 21, 2021.