Zack Snyder has been making comic movies almost exclusively for the last 15 years, starting with 300 and most recently with this year’s release of his extended cut of Justice League. That’s not a complaint, but it is interesting to me that he has come back to zombies after having finished that run, the genre that started his career.
It is my opinion that his remake of Dawn of the Dead, penned by James Gunn and released in 2004 as his first feature, is my favourite of Snyder’s films. His return to the genre is a proposition that I found exciting, and while it’s not a perfect movie by any stretch, Army of the Dead is his best movie in ages.
As the film begins, a military convoy headed through the Nevada desert from Area51 gets in an accident with a pair of honeymooners who are .. uh… driving distracted. The crash and resulting explosion release their cargo; a super zombie makes quick work of all the soldiers and then proceeds to Las Vegas. Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) is a hero of the “zombie war” that follows, and after the zombies are contained by a wall made of shipping containers, he ends up in the middle of nowhere, flipping burgers. He is approached by a former casino magnate played by Hiroyuki Sanada to re-assemble his team and empty the casino vault before the government nukes the city.
Yeah, it’s that kind of movie, folks. It is not what I would call deep thinking cinema, but it also doesn’t need to be. The assembled team includes Wards best friend Maria (Ana de la Reguera), a YouTuber famous for killing zombies with trick shots, a corporate stooge, a smuggler familiar with the city, and Wards estranged daughter (Ella Purnell) for good measure. The plot thickens because the zombie outbreak isn’t limited to just mindless, roaming, undead but also a higher order of thinking, organized, tribal zombies.
If you’ve watched movies before, then you will definitely be able to see what’s coming. You may not be able to tell who will die in what order, but you definitely know that some of them will die and that at least one of them will betray the team. That’s not to say there aren’t a few surprising moments or a few inventive deaths, but you’re definitely not going to be surprised by how the plot works itself out. This is partly because it leans heavily on zombie movie tropes but also because it takes influence from everything from other genre stories like Planet of the Apes and I Am Legend.
Where the movie does shine is with the case. Dave Bautista continues to be one of the more interesting sensitive giants in cinema today, Omari Hardwick and Matthias Schweighöfer have a great back and forth as an unlikely duo, and Schweighöfer, in particular, is animated and hilarious. The MVP for me, though, is Tig Notaro, who gets all the best lines, and whose live delivery is never not perfect for her character as the wise-ass helicopter pilot. Even more impressive is that Notaro was cast in the movie very late to replace Chris D’Elia (who is accused of sexual misconduct), so her scenes were added via green screens, tight editing, close shots, body doubles, and reshoots, and I honestly could not tell.
If you’re looking for depth, I am afraid to inform you that this is a Zack Snyder movie and that you will be disappointed. While there are some nice moments between Bautista and Purnell as father and daughter that do feel personal and like Snyder is still working through some stuff (Snyder’s own daughter took her own life in 2017), the President of the United States quoted as thinking blowing up Las Vegas with a nuclear strike on the 4th of July is “pretty cool” and “actually pretty patriotic if you think about it” is about as close as this movie comes to commenting on society.
Does that make it bad, though? No. What Army of the Dead lacks in nuance it makes up for with humour and action, and the whole thing evens out to be Zack Snyder’s most fun movie in years. I know that Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Justice League have their superfans, but I, for one, welcome Snyder’s return to making movies that aren’t super gritty and dark and that don’t take themselves way too seriously. I sincerely hope that Snyder makes many more movies like this one: fun.