Invoking the late icon with sequined jumpsuits and sculpted waves of black hair, Elvis impersonators are already the walking dead—Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead only takes the extra step of turning them into flesh-eating zombies. Parachuting onto Netflix after a limited theatrical release, Snyder’s exhilarating return to the zombie genre turns the hedonistic joy of “Viva Las Vegas” into the rallying cry of the damned.
Army of the Dead
Zack Snyder (director, screenwriter, cinematographer), Shay Hatten (screenwriter), Joby Harold (screenwriter)
Dave Bautista, Ella Purnell, Omari Hardwick, Ana de la Reguera, Mattias Schweighöfer, Nora Arnezeder, Hiroyuki Sanada, Tig Notaro (cast)
May 21, 2021
It has been over half a century since George A. Romero reanimated the concept of the cinematic zombie in Night of the Living Dead. In 2021, any film that presumes to put “of The Dead” in its title needs to stand out from the slow, shambling horde of zombie media. (Meanwhile, The Walking Dead only feels like it’s been going on for half a century.)
Army of the Dead begins with a bang, or rather, an explosion: just outside Las Vegas, a mysterious military convoy goes up in flames, unleashing the superhuman zombie “Zeus” (Richard Cetrone) from his confinement. Swarmed by legions of the undead, Las Vegas is the epicenter of a massive outbreak that is…quickly contained when the military walls off the city. Within the first fifteen minutes of the movie, the zombie apocalypse has been averted. Army of the Dead is about what happens next. It turns out that there’s still meat on this genre’s bones.
In an eerily prescient bit of filmmaking, most people are eager to move on from the epidemic that killed thousands. Only the survivors, like Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), who killed his zombified wife, and his estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell), a volunteer at the resettlement camp outside the city, can’t forget. Scott once saved the life of the Secretary of Defense; now he’s slinging hash in a diner. So, when casino owner Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) offers him a cut of the $200 million that’s just sitting in an abandoned Vegas vault, he’s in no position to refuse.
Army of the Dead is an explosive, tantalizing genre mash-up: imagine Dawn of the Dead sinking its teeth into Ocean’s Eleven. No heist film is complete without a “getting the crew together” montage, and Snyder assembles a crackerjack team of mercenaries and wildcards. There’s Cruz (Ana de la Reguera), Scott’s old flame from the “Las Vengeance” days, deadpan helicopter pilot Peters (Tig Notaro), and Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), who speaks philosophically and carries a big saw. New faces include German safecracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer), Lily (Nora Arnezeder), aka The Coyote, who sneaks people back into the city, and, as a last-minute addition, Kate, who wants to find a friend that Lily left behind. In a reversal of the typical zombie movie formula, Scott and his crew aren’t trying to escape the city but infiltrate it—all that’s standing between them and $200 million is Zeus, his army of the dead, and the nuke the President is about to drop on Sin City. Today’s gotta be their lucky day, right?
Alternately weird and funny and ultraviolent, Army of the Dead is the kind of popcorn flick I’ve been missing. Zack Snyder’s unrestrained excess juices up the film’s inherent pulpiness—it couldn’t have been made by anyone else. Returning to the zombie genre for the first time since his 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, this is Snyder at his most self-assured and self-referential. (It’s also arguably a sharper critique of materialism than the shopping mall-set Dawn.) He plays to his strengths; Army of the Dead delivers a stunning opening sequence with gruesome action choreographed to a lounge lizard cover of “Viva Las Vegas” by Allison Crowe and Richard Cheese that slowly curdles into a funeral dirge.
Having already helped create the ever-controversial “fast” zombie, Snyder pushes the concept further. “They’re not what you think they are,” Lily warns the unsuspecting mercenaries. Zeus and his army of Alpha zombies aren’t just faster than your average shambling corpse, they are also stronger and smarter, with their own animalistic society rising out of the ruins of Vegas. You can never accuse Snyder of being subtle (even the needle-drops are more like nuke-drops here), but Army of the Dead is probably the polarizing director’s most accessible film. This is a shotgun wedding between high and low art; references to Greek mythology and Wagner’s Ring Cycle play the slots next to a zombie tiger named Valentine and a Liberace impersonator who tickles the ivories while Rome (or at least the Olympus hotel-casino) burns.
Army of the Dead is the launching point of a new franchise; a prequel directed by and starring Schweighöfer, Army of Thieves, is already in the can, and an animated series about the fall of Las Vegas is also in production. Netflix is banking on audiences wanting more of this world and its characters, and their confidence is well-placed. Besides the world-building (“Remember to like and subscribe!” says one character after shooting a ghoul in the head: zombie-slayers are the new influencers), the film juggles its large and likable cast extremely well. Army of the Dead takes its time to establish these characters; beyond the cash, they all want something, whether it’s closure, a challenge, or redemption. Hardwick and Schweighöfer are an endearing comedic duo, and Tig Notaro—seamlessly sewn into the film via green screen to replace Chris D’Elia after a sexual misconduct allegation—has real action chops; I can’t imagine the movie without her. But Dave Bautista carries the film on his broad shoulders, delivering a soulful performance as a guy who wants to do right by his daughter—and maybe start a food truck, something with grilled cheese or tofu. (You know, vegetarian.)
Unfortunately, the film has one fatal flaw, like a zombie bite on the arm. At two hours and 28 minutes, Army of the Dead is too long, and by the third act it starts to feel like the hangover after a Vegas bachelorette party. The film also misses some opportunities with its setting; it spends a good chunk of time running through desolate hotel hallways instead of embracing the neon chaos of the Strip. (Zeus would fit right in with the creepy animatronics at Caesar’s Palace.) Still, Army of the Dead delivers feverish spectacle while being grounded by a winning cast. Ten years after Night of the Living Dead, George Romero pushed the zombie film in a bold new direction with Dawn of the Dead. Now, with Army of the Dead, Zack Snyder has made his own, ah, Dawn of the Dead.