In 2004 Zack Snyder and James Gunn revitalized the zombie genre with the Dawn of the Dead remake. Both went on to find fame doing comic book adaptations. Now seventeen years later Snyder returns with Army of the Dead. Originally conceived as a sequel of sorts to DotD, it fuses zombie horror with the heist/action genre. Is it a triumphant return to the land of the living dead, or was this army defeated before it even took the field?
Army of the Dead unleashes the zombie apocalypse on Las Vegas by way of a guy getting some road head and veering into the path of a military convoy. The resulting crash unleashes Zeus (Richard Cetrone, The Cabin in the Woods, Thor), a zombie created by government research. Zeus promptly wipes out the remaining soldiers and infects Sin City.
Vegas is walled off, quarantined. And eventually scheduled for a nuclear strike to cleanse the infection. However, sitting in the basement of Bly Tanaka’s (Hiroyuki Sanada, Mortal Kombat, The Wolverine) casino is $200,000,000 in cash. Not wanting it to go to waste he hires Scott Ward (Dave Bautista, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Man With the Iron Fists) to put together a team to go in and recover it.
Dodge the military and zombies, grab the cash and get out before the nuke drops. Simple right?
With an estimated $70,000,000 budget, Army of the Dead is probably the most expensive zombie film made after World War Z. It’s certainly the most expensive zombie film I’ve seen. And therein lies the problem. This could easily have been a lean ninety-minute thrill ride made for half the price. Instead, it bloats out to two and a half hours, a full half an hour longer than Romero’s Dawn.
And much of it is easily disposable. After a fast and gory opening, the film bogs down in talk as Ward puts his team together. Much of this could have been condensed and/or simply disposed of. The same with the subplot that sees Ward having to bring his daughter Kate (Ella Purnell, UFO, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children), who hasn’t spoken to him since she saw him kill her infected mother, along on the mission. The attempts at serious, emotional dialogue between them is embarrassing.
Once we finally get into Vegas, Army of the Dead comes out with its one big twist, and I don’t mean Valentine the zombie tiger. There aren’t just the expected mindless zombies. Those are the Shamblers and the least of the team’s worries. The Alphas, led by Zeus and his queen (Athena Perample), are the real threat. Fast, still possessing some intelligence and even capable of emotion. And then Tanaka’s man Martin (Garret Dillahunt, Fear the Walking Dead, No Country for Old Men) has to go and decapitate the queen.
The last half hour or so is a fairly balls out and bloody bit of business but it just takes way too long to get there and misses too many good opportunities. When they first enter the quarantine zone they find a pile of sunbaked zombies which, we’re told, reanimate when it rains. That’s a great setup, right? But then it doesn’t rain. At another point one of the team double crosses someone and leaves them for the zombies. They instead find a way out, but the expected confrontation between the two never happens. and the whole reason for Kate coming along is tossed away with a casual, off-screen resolution.
Worst of all, the film is way too light on action. It opens on a strong note and the last half hour, as noted, is almost non-stop action. But in between, there’s really only a brief burst when they enter the city. Army of the Dead is more interested in being a heist film than an action or horror film and it’s not that great of a heist film.
Army of the Dead isn’t bad to the point of unwatchable. When it does give us action it’s well done. There are also some good suspense scenes such as when the team tries to get past some sleeping zombies. It also delivers some impressive gore including a brutal mauling from the walking dead tiger. It even hints at some Romeroesque social commentary, but leaves them undeveloped as well. Given the cost of the film, and the ideas it raises and squanders, Army of the Dead ends up being thoroughly underwhelming.
Since it’s streaming on Netflix it’s worth a watch if you’re a subscriber and don’t mind hitting fast forward occasionally. But if I had paid to see it in the theatre I wouldn’t have been happy.