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ARMY OF THE DEAD (2021) review

May 22, 2021


written by: Zack Snyder, Shay Hatten and Joby Harold
produced by: Deborah Snyder, Wesley Coller and Zack Snyder
directed by: Zack Snyder
rated: R (for strong bloody violence, gore and language throughout, some sexual content and brief nudity/graphic nudity)
runtime: 148b min.
U.S. release date: May 14, 2021 (theatrical) & May 21, 2021 (Netflix)


It’s been seventeen years since Zack Snyder played with zombies when he helmed a remake of George A. Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead”, a solid entry into the horror genre and different enough in its own right to make any doubters sit at the edge of their seat. The director returns with “Army of the Dead”, not a direct sequel but since the last three words are the same, one could easily say he’s returning to the world he remade. This time, Snyder co-wrote the screenplay and also lensed the movie himself, serving as his own cinematographer. Like “Dawn”, Snyder is working with an ensemble cast for “Army”, but the difference here is how a straightforward heist plot is injected into a world that’s more massive in scale, offering adrenalized action horror with a few unique twists for the genre. Granted some of those twists made me shake my head and some found me chuckling and I suppose those are exactly the responses Snyder is going for.

The movie opens with an explosive motor vehicle collision between a distracted newlywed couple and a military convoy along a barren Nevada highway during the wee smalls hours of the morning. The cargo the crew was transporting from Area 51 escapes and the only survivors wind up being quite deadly (and not so…alive) as they make their way to Las Vegas.

Snyder then uses an infectious opening credit sequence (with plenty of the director’s trademark slo-mo action synced to a grating version of “Viva Las Vegas” by Richard Cheese and Allison Crowe) to propel viewers into how a zombie plague that has consumed Sin City. From zombie topless dancers to a roaming zombie tiger, the Vegas strip has turned into a no-man zone that the government has closed off with giant walls that encompass the entire city. It’s during this sequence we also get to know the main players we’re about to follow in this story and I found myself impressed with how Snyder does so in such a fluid and economic fashion.



With Vegas closed off, it becomes the domain of the undead, home to fast and typically furious zombies. Of course, that all depends on your definition of a zombie. Snyder made it clear that he’s a fan of speed freak zombies in “Dawn of the Dead”, as opposed to the slow crawl zombies are known for. That’s fine, there’s room for all kinds of zombies. I have my own perimeters and definitions for zombies though. I believe zombies were once dead and when they come back to life and want to feed on flesh until their brains are destroyed, those are zombies. So, the key thing is…they have to have died. Dead. Anything else, like Snyder’s speed zombies – and Danny Boyle’s in the two “24” movies – are infected super freaks with a craving for flesh.

They’re someone’s version of zombies, but not mine. Still, I’m willing to go with it and that’s kind of how you have to approach what Snyder is doing here, because although some unique things are done here, there still outlandish and you really gotta be on board with it all or you’ll wind up getting a headache from all the eye rolls.




As refugees living or working in quarantine camps just outside the Vegas walls, things are kind of in a stand still with the government getting ready to drop a contained nuclear solution. However, imagine all the money that decadent oasis in the desert made daily and now defunct and gone. One could also imagine there’s still money in Vegas, just sitting there…in bank and casino vaults.

That’s supposedly why a mysterious billionaire named Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada, last seen in “Mortal Kombat”) enlists the help of former mercenary Sam Ward (Dave Bautista) to gather a crew, break into Vegas, and steal over $200 million from a sub-level vault located at the fictional Olympus casino hotel. He visits Ward at his workplace, where he’s found flipping burgers at a greasy diner, estranged from his daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell), after his wife/her mother died. It doesn’t take long to think through the offer, with Ward not having much of his own to show for after fighting for his country, it’d be nice to do a little something for himself for a change…at least that’s what he tells Maria Cruz (Maria de la Reguera), his mechanic colleague from back in the day. Is he saying that to convince her or himself? While she’s with Ward, there’s an apprehension. Maybe she’s joining to keep on eye on him, to ensure this deal is legit.




Ward and Cruz fill out the rest of the team with a variety of characters equipped with an assortment of capabilities. The two recruit the philosophizing Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), a soldier they used to run who was peacefully assisting a seniors swim class. There’s the viral sensation sharp-shooting pair of Mikey Guzman (Raul Castillo) and Chambers (Samantha Jo), an enthusiastic German safecracker Ludwig Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer), and sardonic and self-loathing chopper pilot, Marianne Peters (a welcome Tig Notaro), along with a few unexpected additions forced upon Ward and his crew. Once they meet up with Tanaka and convene around a full-scale model of the Olympus, Ward is told that Tanaka’s security officer, Martin (Garret Dillahunt) is coming along to “offer protection” (leaving this character to be the most suspicious of the bunch), but that’s not the real snag in the plan. Ward’s daughter forces her way onto the team, determined to rescue a single mother trapped inside the hot zone, much to her father’s disdain.

One last-minute addition to the team is Lilly (Nora Arnezeder), a survivor playing the role of coyote in this world, getting people in-and-out of the hot zone for a price. The French actress plays her with a no-nonsense intensity with an underlying fear that keeps her alert, as she serves as something of a gateway guide for both the team and us viewers. She definitely becomes one of those supporting characters that stands out among everyone else, someone you want to know more about.



Much of what Snyder shows us up to this point is familiar, yet somehow quite engaging. He, along with co-writers Shay Hatten and Joby Harold, are introducing these characters by way of classic heist recruitment – think “Ocean’s 11” by way of “Delta Force”. These are characters on the fringe in an environment when the fringe is the norm. While the benefactor funding it all is stereotypically withholds his true plans which will be implemented by his “security officer”, there’s a certain anticipation brewing in the story that had me investing. Something is bound to go wrong and I found myself there for it, while enjoying the uncertainties developing among the team and about their situation. All of this even before entering a city overrun by zombies, with a ticking clock window of 96 hours before the bomb is dropped added even more pressure.

Once inside, the visual expectation would be a horde of flesh-eaters roaming the streets, clamoring to feast. Instead, there is silence amid a devastated terrain filled with piles of bodies, overturned vehicles and dilapidated buildings. This is the beginning of Snyder doing something a little different with the genre. There’s the introduction of the roaming zombie tiger, something that I was immediately on board with and knew full well the creature would be put to greater use later on. Nevertheless, it became one of my favorite characters. The first zombies they encounter are a pair of acrobatic howlers, one looks like a svelte pole dancer who we’ll come to learn is The Bride (Athena Perample) of the alpha leader (Richard Cetrone) of this kingdom. A certain order and zombie hierarchy is being established here that starts out oddly fascinating and winds up outrageously bizarre. It’s not unheard of for the undead to be somewhat sentient in the genre, but what’s being done here is amping all that up to a level that may find certain viewers checking out.



As expected, not everyone on the team will make it out alive, which is something we’re used to in these high-stakes missions. The fun is in who will die, who will double-cross, who will make idiot moves, and who will make a sacrifice that will allow others to move forward. Yes, these are all characterizations seen in movies of the past over and over again, but that’s because some things work well and fit just right. It’s up to the actors to inject something new or different, and for the most part, that can be found in “Army of the Dead”.

The movie has its share of expected super-charged action moments (more slo-mo) and zombie gross-out moments, but it the setting is what differentiates itself from other action horror flicks. Seeing the team navigate through wasted Vegas corridors and unplugged casino floors has a certain haunted house feel to it and the production design by Julie Berghoff really accentuates the atmosphere, offering a different zombie apocalypse to gaze at. “Army of the Dead” features an impressive display of makeup work, combined with an expected amount of CGI is mostly seamless – some exterior shots of the city, especially at the end when the helicopter is flying around, feel like a video game sequence – but the lengthy runtime is felt at times. This is the guy who recently released a 4-hour “Justice League” movie, after all.

While I came here to see what else Snyder can do with zombies, it was mostly for Bautista, an actor of grown increasingly interested in. Yes, his hulking physicality is the first thing you see and we’ve definitely seen his subtle comedy chops on display, but there’s a certain emotional intelligence surfacing like in the great smaller role he had in “Blade Runner 2049”. The curiosity would be seeing him in a lead role in a big-budget movie like this and he conveys frustration, torment, regret, and fear in an exemplary fashion here.

The finale is all-things Snyder, an epic and messy energetic bonanza of nonstop action and violent gore, laced with subjective humor. Despite some clumsy characterization and flat dialogue, it’s easy to root for Ward and his crew…and surprisingly, Snyder even found me interested in the development of this alpha zombie king dude, which is not something I would’ve expected. Overall, there are enough odd differences poured into an assortment of genre familiarities that make “Army of the Dead” quite a wild thrill ride worth checking out.







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