Review: Zack Snyder's overlong 'Army of the Dead' bites off more than it can chew
Courtesy of Netflix
Following 2004’s explosive and eerily unforgettable debut “Dawn of the Dead,” Zack Snyder emerged at a time when distinct visual styles and storytelling mediums were getting bogged down with lazy special effects and boring script optics. His appreciated, but not beloved, George A. Romero remake was unique in that it came prior to the zombie boom, before “The Walking Dead” and countless imitators clogged the airwaves and made flesh eating ghouls a redundant stain on horror cinema. Snyder’s “Dawn of the Dead” also had real stakes, honest performances, and made the wise decision of equipping zombies with the ability to sprint like hyenas. All such camaraderie, sense of discovery and community is missing in his latest return to zombie cinema: “Army of the Dead,” an overlong and imbalanced action flick that can’t keep its head on straight literally and figuratively.
Not a zombie apocalypse film, but a zombie heist film - perhaps the first of its kind - Snyder isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty and throw his signature slow-motion flair and blood spattered grittiness that made “300” an epic roundhouse kick in the nerve system, “Army of the Dead” suffers from a lack of amazement and all-around enjoyment. The film peaks within the first 20-minutes with a banging opening credit sequence (another Snyder trademark) which tells an entire story and lays out the low concept. What follows is a creative disappointment, especially riding the high of Snyder’s recently released “Justice League” cut which I found myself engulfed in, the expectations for a silly zombie movie seemed reasonable, but there’s only so much dismemberments that can sustain two hours and thirty minutes. Eventually, something’s gotta give, but at least there’s a solid cast.
“Army of the Dead” - like all zombie films - begins with an uncontrolled outbreak that bleeds into a nearby city. In this instance, Las Vegas is the target demographic as the undead chompers munch on prostitutes and casino patrons over the stylized opening credits, revealing the so-called “zombie wars” mentioned in passing. The government has managed to seal off a containment zone within sin city’s walls, keeping millions of infested zombies locked inside their own undead wasteland. On the outside, a nuclear decimation is planned, much to the bemoan of civil rights activists, a political wink and nod Snyder throws in for obvious reasons. That doesn’t stop a wealthy venture capitalist Bly Tanka (Hiroyuki Sanada - wasted in a thankless, purely expositional role) from hiring a band of mercenaries - headed by Dave Bautista’s Scott Ward - from infiltrating a highly secured vault inside an abandoned casino loaded with millions in cash. The mantra of the squad being: “What do we have to lose!”
Aside from Bautista’s ringleader, there’s his estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell); auto mechanic and obligatory love interest Cruz (Ana de la Reguera); Tanka’s self annotated security liaison who is clearly a bad guy played by Garret Dillahunt; Tig Notaro wisecracking pilot Peters (the sole beacon of comedic relief); Omari Hardwick’s chainsaw wielding Vanderohe; and Mattis Schweighofer persnickety safecracker. They each fall into their stereotypical roles with ease, but their dull chemistry creates an environment of strained boredom.
Snyder tries filling gaps with plot devices around his moral code and rules of engagement when it comes to his zombie universe. For example, there are factions of undead warriors called “alpha’s” roaming the desolate wasteland, and the group even stumbles across “hibernating” zombies. By the time we finally get to some decent hard R-rated carnage, you’re trying to pinpoint what species of zombies we’re up against. One such alpha, or “The King,” is a relentless killer who becomes a thorn in Ward's side as the group races against the nuclear clock. Several subplots and red herrings exist to inflate an already elongated runtime, when all I wanted was “Ocean's 11” with zombies.
Snyder has always been keen on the length of his films - his aforementioned “Justice League” cut was four hours - and now that he’s working within Netflix’s ecosystem, he’s free to strip away the leashes of traditional studio moviemaking. I’m sure “Army of the Dead” is the best version of the movie he wanted to make and if Netflix’s entire business model is to generate subscribers and garner eyeballs, this gutless zombie thriller should fit the bill, but its lack of brains (and overall sense of fun) could bite them where it hurts.
ARMY OF THE DEAD will have an exclusive one week theatrical engagement starting Friday, May 14th before streaming on Netflix Friday, May 21st.