What to Watch Verdict
'Army Of The Dead' bluffs its way through a bonkers narrative written too frustratingly thin to support otherwise explosive action that splatters zombie heads like Jackson Pollock paintings.
🎰 Zombie tiger, duh.
🎰 Matthias Schweighöfer and Omari Hardwick.
🎰 Solid casino floor action.
🎰 Character development doesn't exist.
🎰 Rather ugly camerawork at times.
🎰 Zombie scourge is thinly written.
🎰 Hopes you think it's really really cool.
While Zack Snyder’s best movie is indeed a zombie thrillseeker, it’s assuredly not Army Of The Dead. The bright neon lights of Las Vegas’ strip are muted by apocalyptic overdramatization as Snyder and his co-writers (Shay Hatten, Joby Harold) suck the chaotic undead fun out of this Nevada run-and-gun The Walking Dead antidote. It’s in stark contrast to the terrifying zombification depicted in Snyder’s revolutionary Dawn Of The Dead remake (early runner lore), despite pushing further into communal zombie evolutions tease by George A. Romero in Land Of The Dead and beyond. Oh, and this movie hates women—or at least exposes Snyder’s infuriating narrative crutch since women are either abused or sacrificed for the sake of theatrics to the point where it’s the drinking game instruction of choice here.
Dave Bautista stars as Scott Ward, a burger flippin’ ex-mercenary who’s hired by Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) to smuggle $200 million from an industrial German casino safe before Las Vegas is nuked to cleanse a zombie outbreak. He assembles a team, depending on close contacts Cruz (Ana de la Reguera) and Vanderhoe (Omari Hardwick). Scott’s estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) is thrown into the mix when she becomes the only one who can grant them access to the restricted zone, also where one of her quarantine refugees has gone missing. It should be a smash-and-grab job, but advanced “Alpha” zombies with cognitive abilities pose a festering threat. Beat the clock, avoid nuclear annihilation, go home filthy rich—where’s the fun in properly executed plans?
Snyder’s apocalyptic universe workshops fresh zombie concepts but gets lost within inexplicable attributes that leave context for later reanimated sequels. Bites still transfer the viral infection, and victims become soulless wandering corpses hungry for flesh—yet some zombies shine blue fluorescence eyes? Or their faces look like robots from afar when riddled with bullets? Patient zero is a soldier boy that possesses Las Vegas’ showgirls, high rollers, and dealers alike, who is the ultimate “Alpha” surrounded by other alphas and more familiar walkers, aka “shamblers,” again unexplained. There’s a zombie tiger, a zombie horse, most zombies have orange-yellow eye outlines while others are the color of electric blue Gatorade—questions are plentiful. Like how the zombie squad titan's hair grows and his ability to love amongst other mortal functions between man and woman, because every zomboid king needs a graveyard-beautiful Queen (also because Snyder can’t even write a zed king without a zed queen to provoke tragedy).
Las Vegas’ rotten inhabitants challenge zombie lore and tinker with subgenre expectations in positive regard given the World War Z meets Ultimate Tag parkour aggression. There’s a gladiatorial primitiveness about Snyder’s monsters and had more emphasis relied on building blocks outside glowing blue ooze, randomness in cosmetic designs might stoke further intrigue. As is, we’re just here for Siegfried & Roy’s decaying tiger who patrols territory borders. The rest is wild, but undefined and haphazardly implemented.
Throughout Army Of The Dead, Snyder channels Michael Bay’s (lens) flare for the dramatic by zooming his camera on characters in the thick of emotional exposition. Maybe it’s Cruz and Scott sharing bottles of Miller brews sitting on car hoods (didn’t Transformers use this), or Scott’s food truck aspirations when talking to Kate, or the romantic sleeper agent who’s activated without warning—all while time couldn’t be more of the essence. Snyder so desperately wants to punish his characters, yet none of their self-assured deaths contain agency. Netflix posters paint Army Of The Dead in slot machine flashiness, but Snyder continually undercuts the extreme zombie warfare whether Scott bearhugs alphas or Vanderhoe revs his buzzsaw or Valentine munches her foreshadowed snack. Snyder’s simple misunderstandings of nuclear radiation fallout or moronic character choices that assure certain doom are poison to an already overlong script, not aided by an ugly cloud that looms over cinematography that’s mainly dusty dilapidation. Army Of The Dead is a rather unattractive movie at times that fails its logic rolls time and time again, especially when Tig Notaro’s recast smartmouth pilot is copy-and-pasted into sequences over Chris D'Elia’s original performance. How can Omari Hardwick’s existential badass be tied to a production that’s so dangerously dull?
I won’t decree Army Of The Dead a total bust because that’d be a lie. Matthias Schweighöfer’s soft-as-pudding safe cracker pairs sweetly with Hardwick's rougher bodyguard type, one shrieking at the sight of zombies while the other expresses exasperation. Violent gore explosions pulverize deadheads from headshots to Indiana Jones wall-smush traps, and the kills—while achingly meaningless—flaunt their Fangoria appeal. Army Of The Dead can become a wicked delight as Bautista bounds over blackjack tables with scantily clad zombies bursting like crimson water balloons upon bullet impact and gags like Guzman’s (Raúl Castillo) YouTube popularity as a shambler hunter. Snyder leans into a mashup of epic and eccentric, exemplified by character introductions staged like picture day in high school but with a discarded zombie pile pushed aside. Hot streaks are just typically met by coolers after not all that long.
Army Of The Dead is somewhat of a mindless mess that is failed by its blindly keep-pushing-forward screenplay on repeat. Zack Snyder’s operating on Sucker Punch levels when acknowledging the film’s own storytelling awareness, right down to woefully enthusiastic trauma since brutalizing and killing women (alive or deceased) is the only way Snyder understands how to empower their male counterparts. Although, zombie cinema faithful will find heist magnetism in a more I Am Legend world that Dave Bautista heroically commands more than once. Still, it’s an overall chore with scarce payoffs and far too many trademark Snyder needle drops of lackluster covers butchering classic tracks. Army Of The Dead plays by its own rules; they’re just arbitrary and coincidental in ways that downright insult audiences—and that’s after roadhead causes a zombie outbreak.
Matt Donato is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic who stays up too late typing words for What To Watch, IGN, Paste, Bloody Disgusting, Fangoria and countless other publications. He is a member of Critics Choice and co-hosts a weekly livestream with Perri Nemiroff called the Merri Hour. You probably shouldn't feed him after midnight, just to be safe.