2021 might just be the year of Zack Snyder. You’ve had Zack Snyder’s Justice League, which was a rounding success, and now Army of the Dead. Is Army of the Dead as big of a cinematic triumph? It’s not. But that’s not without saying that it does a fine job in a genre that’s quite frankly oversaturated. Zombies have been a big deal in horror since Night of the Living Dead and they really haven’t ever gone away since then. Other monsters ebb and flow in popularity, but zombies are pretty constant.
Zack Snyder is no stranger to zombies either, his big break was a remake of Dawn of the Dead, that in the scope of remakes, is not bad. We all know his style at this point. If you’ve seen one Snyder film, you can guess about what the next one will bring. Lots of slow motion, some licensed music, and stylized action sequences. This review won’t delve into spoilers for the film, but if you’ve seen a zombie film, you might be able to guess some of the story beats.
The cast is headlined by Dave Bautista and Army of the Dead also stars: Ella Purnell, Ana de la Reguera, Omari Hardwick, Theo Rossi, Matthias Schweighöfer, Nora Arnezder, Hiroyuki Sanada, Garret Dillahunt, Tig Notaro, and Raul Castillo. The ensemble cast is really the shining point of the movie. There are a lot of moving parts between our heist team here, and they all fit together magnificently.
But let’s dive a bit deeper into Army of the Dead.
Predictability Drives Army of the Dead, At Certain Points To A Fault
When you say the words, “zombie heist”, those are two pretty firmly entrenched genres of horror and action. So like we love with genre bending movies, you take one thing and add it to another and get magic. Army of the Dead does that really well. You have the well trodden path of genre filmmaking here, so there are some beats you have to hit. For heists, you need to build the team, have them sort of interact in a low stress situation, and then see who’s going to gel and who isn’t. That’s pretty standard for almost every heist film out there (minus Die Hard).
Once you have that, you add the zombie elements to it. This time, we’re not dealing with your normal Romero zombies though. You have a hierarchy. There are the grunts that are mindless, drones. Then, like the opening of the film shows, you have the alphas. In this film, even those are sort of split. Some are weaker than others for story purposes and moving the plot along. But the big baddie, Zeus, is no joke. He’s fearsome, and deadly. That gets me to a side point here about the “zombie hierarchy” in the film.
Side Point About Zombie Hierarchy
Yes, there’s zombie love, hierarchy, and almost philosophy at play in Army of the Dead. I don’t normally like this kind of stuff in zombie films because it ends up being contrived and shoehorned in to make it seem like it’s more thought provoking. “Oh but what if the zombies had feelings and could make a society!” It’s the sign of a dying genre.
In this film however, you get a bit of the zombie hierarchy stuff mixed in with your traditional zombie lore. So it doesn’t hit you over the head with it. Thank goodness. Zeus is the alpha that started the entire Vegas outbreak, and he has a Queen that the humans reason with through sacrifice and tribute. It’s pretty simple, and it helps them explain why the group can’t just walk to the Casino with the vault.
Storytelling 101 just called, you passed.
Back To The Regularly Scheduled Zombie Film
Make no mistake, this isn’t in the same universe as Romero’s Zombie films though. It’s it’s own entity entirely. That really helps it stand out from the pack. Dave Bautista is a highly decorated veteran of the “Zombie Wars” that flips burgers for a living now. He’s given the opportunity of a lifetime from Tanaka (Sanada), rob a vault in Vegas, and get $50 million. It’s such a simple premise that it’s a wonder how no one had thought of it for a movie up to this point.
Whatever you’ve seen in the trailers, the end product isn’t as action filled as what’s shown. You get a site of some of the best action scenes in the film, but they did save most of the good stuff for the movie. The Zombie Tiger is part of the best section of the film near the end. So if that excited you from the trailer, just watch out, it gets better.
Highlights From The Cast Of Army of the Dead
Bautista is obviously great in his role, he’s great in everything he does, taking sometimes subpar material from writers Joby Harold, Zack Snyder, and Shay Hatten. Some of the writing is just far too on the nose and gives away exactly what happens in the film. Schweighöfer’s turn as Dieter and his relationship with Omari Hardwick’s Vanderohe, is the best part of the crew that goes into Vegas. You can see them go from annoyed with one another to friends. It’s a fantastic progression that lightens up the proceedings of a darker film.
Nora Arnezeder’s character should have been just a throwaway way to get the group into Vegas, but she adds an edge that makes Coyote stand out. If we get a prequel or any expansion of this universe, she’d be the first character I’m going to for that film.
Tig Notaro Steals The Whole Show
Outside of that, Ella Purnell carries a lot of the weight of the film’s last act on her shoulders, particularly the ending of the film. She does an admirable job anchoring some heavy scenes. Let’s get to the showstopper here though. That would be Tig Notaro’s Peters.
This one has a slight tinge of controversy to it, but let’s get it out of the way. Chris D’Elia filmed this role with the cast but was replaced by Notaro after stories broke out about his harassment of women. So they did reshoots with Notaro and replaced every scene with D’Elia, with Notaro.
Not only does Notaro steal every scene that she’s in, but I can’t imagine anyone else playing this role after seeing the film. She lightens up the mood, she’s badass, and she’s integral to the film. You can’t tell at any point that this was someone who was digitally put into the film through green screen and other special effects.
Doesn’t Fall Short Of Expectations, But Does Fall Flat In Some Moments
I’m not sure what your expectations of the film were, or other reviewers, quite frankly, but I wasn’t expecting a full on reboot of the zombie genre. It’s a fun action horror movie that does have some pretty tense moments. You get a little bit of horror, a bit of comedy, a lot of action, and some human stuff in the beginning and middle sections that sort of slow the film down. The bits with the zombie hierarchy could have gotten in the way of a good action film, thankfully they didn’t. Zack Snyder also doesn’t bog down the film with too much of his own flair. I personally like his films, but sometimes he does get in his own way.
What you end up with is a really superb zombie film. Through it all, that’s more than you can ask from a film like this. It doesn’t get in it’s own way and you’ll be entertained along the way.
For people thinking that Netflix got in the way of his creative vision, they did not. This is a full 2 hour and almost 30 minute film. Nothing was wasted, but I feel like it could have like 20 or so minutes cut out of it to make it more cohesive and snappier. For a film that required reshoots and was derailed by the COVID-19 Pandemic, Army of the Dead does more to help the zombie genre than hurt it.
Check it out on Netflix right now!
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