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Say what you like about Zack Snyder, say he knows what his job is. Under European law the director is considered the author, that is the guiding force, of a film. Just as a literature author will be in charge of both the technical and creative aspects that create a story, so too will a director be in charge of the aspects that turn a film from a script into a series of moving images that tell a story. Snyder, a man almost as muscular as the films he directs, knows and follows in the traditions, if not the vision of his European counterparts. After a personal tragedy in 2017 and his (as well as legions of devoted fans) efforts to realise his definitive cut of Justice League, Snyder is back in his preferred wheelhouse of effects-heavy genre films with Army of the Dead.
After a military convoy overturns just outside Las Vegas and its cargo of an advanced alpha zombie escapes, the government quarantines the city behind a high wall of shipping containers. The men and women that fought to save the city and its inhabitants are left in the lurch. The leader of the disbanded mercenary group Las Vengeance Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) is approached by Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada), the owner of Bly Casino. He offers Ward a quarter of the $200 million stashed in a vault below the casino if he and his team can get the cash out of the city before the US Government nukes Las Vegas.
Snyder’s films have always been full of colourful characters in look if not always in personality. Say what you like about Sucker Punch, no one’s forgetting Baby Doll (Emily Browning) slicing her way through droids while dressed as an anime schoolgirl. The same goes for Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) in Watchmen, King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) in 300 and Kludd (Ryan Kwanten) in Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole. OK maybe not that last one but Army of the Dead has characters to burn (and sometimes it quite literally does) in its two-and-a-half-hour runtime.
There’s Tanaka’s head goon and professional slimeball Martin (Garrett Dillahunt). The Wagner-loving German safecracker Ludwig Dieter (Mathias Schweighofer). Tig Notaro plays wisecracking helicopter pilot Peters, replacing Chris D’Elia who was cut from the film following sexual misconduct allegations. The film, in fact, features a large number of women in its supporting cast that, thankfully, feel just as strong-willed as the likes of Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) in Watchmen and Baby Doll in Sucker Punch with none of the weird sexualisation Snyder was prone to in his earlier work. That said there are topless zombie showgirls in the opening credits of Army of the Dead so I’ll trust viewers to make their own informed judgement.
Much like the now decade-old Zombieland, Snyder’s Army of the Dead also has an opening credits sequence shot in slow motion. If there’s one thing you can rely on Zack Snyder for it’s a thrilling credits sequence. It feels much like the rest of the film: slightly too long but never poorly paced and chock full of as much action and pathos as Snyder can cram in there. It’s Army of the Dead in a microcosm I suppose and maybe more films should aim for turning an opening credits sequence into something that so clearly distills the proceeding film’s themes, like an overture in a musical. With that said, some moments in Synder’s latest are as melodramatic as any musical.
A major plot point of the film is Ward’s relationship with his adult daughter Kate (Ella Purnell). Considering the loss of his own daughter in 2017, it’s hard to begrudge the director the amount of time and effort he puts into these scenes even if the relationship between Scott and Kate never seems to reach beyond any of the cliches and archetypes you can find in most other zombie films. But these cliches and archetypes exist for a reason, just look at Train to Busan – few other zombie films have used these tropes so well. Army of the Dead may certainly be overstuffed with characters but they’re the right kind of characters at least.
It’s not often that the zombies themselves get to be characters in a zombie movie. Land of the Dead, Dead Snow and The Return of the Living Dead are examples to the contrary but all-in-all few zombie films let their zombie characters breathe, so to speak. Army of the Dead is different. It has the regular “shamblers” as the film calls them in spades but it also has what it refers to as “Alpha Zombies”. These are zombies that can wield weapons, ride horses and, most important of all, wear helmets. They’re the biggest threat to Las Vengeance’s heist operation.
For as much as it pumps in the melodrama, Army of the Dead doesn’t skimp out on the action either. Although it takes almost an hour for the crew to get into Las Vegas once they’re there the film doesn’t really let up. A quiet attempt at sneaking turns into a raging firefight. The corridor leading to the safe is booby-trapped, leaving circular saw-wielder Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick) and safecracker Dieter to creatively troubleshoot using zombies. Eventually, a much-vaunted zombie tiger gets to go for the jugular, making borscht soup out of one poor bastard’s face. Much like his debut, Dawn of the Dead, Snyder doesn’t skimp on gore, making his long-awaited follow up worth it just to see ravening hordes rip people limb from limb.
Ultimately, it’s to Zack Snyder’s credit that Army of the Dead, being a Netflix release, doesn’t have that made-by-committee feel. All of the decisions, for good or for ill, feel like they were made by humans rather than an algorithm. There are very few perfect zombie movies but it’s to his credit that Snyder made Army of the Dead into something that feels like a point in the genre’s favour rather than another desiccated corpse.