By Alex McPherson
Zack Snyder’s “Army of the Dead” is a hugely enjoyable jaunt into undead splatterville.
After a military convoy transporting cargo from Area 51 collides with a distracted driver, a bloodthirsty brain-muncher is unleashed upon the population of Las Vegas. All hell breaks loose — visualized in an over-the-top montage involving strippers, Elvis impersonators and others being overpowered in slow motion while “Viva Las Vegas” plays on the soundtrack. Oh, there’s also a zombie tiger and two smarter “alpha” zombies leading a, well, army of the dead.
The U.S. military tries to rescue as many survivors as possible, assisted by mercenaries Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), Maria Cruz (Ana de la Reguera), and Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), a lover of buzzsaws and existential ponderings. They eventually contain the zombies within the city’s borders. The government establishes a ramshackle refugee camp immediately outside, and the President announces a plan to deploy a tactical nuke to eliminate the infected once and for all.
Scott, reeling from a decision that fractured his relationship with his daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell), is relegated to flipping burgers at a bar outside Vegas, despite having received the Medal of Freedom for saving the Secretary of Defense. Soon enough, a sketchy businessman named Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) offers Scott an assignment to venture back inside Vegas to retrieve the contents of his casino’s safe, with the potential to get rich. Scott then recruits Maria, Vanderohe, a socially awkward safecracker named Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer), a viral zombie-killing sensation named Mikey Guzman (Raúl Castillo), and a sardonic helicopter pilot named Marianne Peters (Tig Notaro, digitally replacing Chris D’Elia).
They are joined by Guzman’s pal, Chambers (Samantha Win), Bly’s crony, Martin (Garret Dillahunt), and “The Coyote,” (Nora Arnezeder), a badass individual who knows how to navigate the zombified horde. To complicate matters, Kate insists on rescuing her friend Geeta (Huma Qureshi), who entered Vegas to find funds to buy her escape from the refugee camp. Last and certainly least, an abusive security guard named Burt Cummings (Theo Rossi) tags along. Over-the-top fun ensues as the group attempts to grab the cash before they’re disemboweled or blown to smithereens.
Loud, unrestrained, and packed with cliches, “Army of the Dead” is perfectly satisfying as a summer action film, albeit one that shouldn’t be analyzed too closely. Indeed, for the most part, Snyder’s film embraces its goofiness — going all in on the gore and bombastic set pieces that any reasonable viewer should expect, while delivering the occasionally effective character moment and feeling about an hour too long.
Sure, “Army of the Dead” might not be doing anything particularly “new” for the genre, but the few additions Snyder adds are welcome, especially the aforementioned zombie hierarchy and intimidating feline. There’s little to criticize in the outrageously gory action sequences with on-the-nose musical accompaniments. During these moments, Snyder’s indulgent style absolutely shines, creating a symphony of carnage that’s glorious to behold.
The quieter scenes are less successful, but there’s still a few surprises to be found. “Army of the Dead” takes a while to get going, mostly due to the excess of characters of varying quality. Besides Scott, they’re each given barebones backstories that render them more as cartoonish caricatures than real people, and maybe that’s acceptable in this instance. I certainly wouldn’t want the film to be any longer — it’s two-and-a-half hours, for god’s sake — but having fewer characters could have strengthened the film’s pacing and given us more time to grow attached before they’re fighting for their lives.
The film’s screenplay does elevate their charm, though, especially regarding the unlikely bond between Vanderohe and Dieter. Hardwick and Schweighöfer have excellent comedic chemistry, creating several amusing moments. There’s plenty of cringeworthy lines scattered throughout, but the script has enough personality for me to care about (most) of the characters by the intense finale, overlooking some abrupt tonal shifts.
Only Scott is given much depth, but Bautista’s performance carries the film’s heart, lending the proceedings a human edge amid the bloodshed. Although I wish he was given more screen time and his storyline took more risks, there’s enough thematic meat to chew on. Bautista proves that he can deliver emotional lines with skill, as well as demolish ghoulish baddies with gusto.
All things considered, “Army of the Dead” is a messy, but nevertheless thrilling blockbuster. My criticisms don’t detract much from how entertained I was, and as a balm for our depressing times, it’s a meal worth feasting on.
“Army of the Dead” is a 2021 horror-action movie directed by Zack Snyder and starring Dave Bautista, Ella Purnell, . Rated R for strong bloody violence, gore and language throughout, some sexual content and brief nudity/graphic nudity, the film’s run time is 2 hours and 28 minutes. The movie is currently available in theaters and streaming on Netflix. Alex’s Rating: B
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.