Army of the Dead marks director Zack Snyder’s return to the zombie genre since his feature directorial debut Dawn of the Dead, a remake of the George A. Romero zombie classic. The film also marks the first Snyder film not rooted in the world of DC universe since 2011’s Sucker Punch. Seeing as I think Dawn of the Dead is Snyder’s best film as a director, as well as not being the biggest fan of Snyder’s DC universe, I was more excited than I usually would be about a Snyder film.
Army of the Dead is Snyder’s best film since 300. This isn’t the super-slow-motion, all style no substance Snyder that has plagued his filmmaking for the last decade. This is a movie that felt like Snyder went back to his Dawn of the Dead roots not only in subject, but in directing as well. It’s violent, bloody, funny, and loads of fun.
A group of military men are transporting something very private and very dangerous across the Nevada desert. They don’t know what it is and think it could be anything from aliens to Big Foot. When a mindless couple crashes into the military vehicles, it lets loose what they’ve been transporting: a zombie.
But it isn’t a normal zombie. The military men shoot hundreds of bullets at the zombie with no effect. After the zombie demolishes the military it runs across the desert and ends up in Las Vegas, where the zombie attacks Vegas tourists, leading to the entire city becoming a zombie haven.
With Vegas taken over by zombies, the government has decided to nuke Vegas as a last resort to end the zombie invasion. But before they do this, Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) wants to get $150 million in cash that he has in a vault below the Vegas strip. He hires Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), a highly decorated military veteran now working at a burger joint. Ward recruits a team of his former military team and a few stragglers to complete this mission.
Army of the Dead is mostly a zombie-action movie, but it’s also a heist movie. The “hire a team to steal money from below Las Vegas” has a very Ocean’s 11 vibe to it and there are some similarities between the two. Each have a leader who knows a bunch of people, most of whom come from very different backgrounds, that will help complete the mission in Las Vegas and they hit a few snags along the way. The biggest difference between the movies is like looking at the difference between the leaders of the two respective heist groups. In Ocean’s 11 we have Danny Ocean, played by the devilishly handsome George Clooney, a calm, cool, and collected career thief who’s always thinking six steps ahead of everyone else and knows exactly when to put pressure on a person and how much pressure to put on. In Army of the Dead we have Scott Ward, played by the massively buff Bautista, who is all brute force. A shoot first, bust through anything in his way military guy. Army of the Dead isn’t concerned about being a cool and suave heist movie. This is a movie that wants to bludgeon you with violence and action and Snyder delivers in spades.
The action is best in a Snyder movie since 300, where his infamous slow-motion close-ups began. It was cool then, but got really redundant when he used it in every movie and hit its absolute worst and annoying in 2021’s Zack Snyder’s Justice League, where roughly ten-percent of the film was in slow-motion and features a slow-motion close up shot of a sesame seed flying off of a hamburger bun. Snyder eases up on the slow-motion and a lot of the glossy action he’s come to use a lot in his films and instead gives us gritty, brutal violence, not shying away from the gore of the zombie genre but also giving us thrilling shootouts and fight sequences. There are a number of great set pieces that show Snyder doesn’t need a ton of fancy effects to give us great action.
Though I’ve always thought Snyder was a visually interesting director, I have never been a fan of him as a writer. Most of his screenplays, majority of his ones in the 2010’s, always felt over-stuffed in plot and thin in character. Army of the Dead might be Snyder’s best screenplay to date. Co-written with Shay Hatten and Joby Harold, this is a tight, lean, relatively straight forward movie, which allows Snyder to ensure the action sequences are awesome and the performances from his cast are solid while also giving us an interesting, story. The plot is very familiar and it is a bit thin in terms of its characters, to the point where I didn’t know most of their names and when they died I really didn’t care, but there is some cool, unique zombie stuff that I haven’t seen before and a decent amount of emotion throughout. Bautista is excellent as Ward and the character with the most development. Ward isn’t wildly original, but he serves the film and Bautista makes it work. I also enjoyed the performance by Nora Arnezeder as the mysterious and bad ass Lilly.
My relationship with Snyder as a filmmaker has been a complicated one, from really enjoying his films to absolutely loathing some of them. Army of the Dead is the kind of Zack Snyder movie I like. A simple, effective, thrilling, action-packed movie with a fun ensemble and cool visuals. Now that it looks like Zack Snyder’s run in the DC world is over, I hope Snyder continues to make movies like Army of the Dead while continuing to improve as a screenwriter and keeping his films visually interesting.
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