Netflix's Zombie Heist Movie 'Army of the Dead' May Not Be Weird Enough to Be Worth It
If you like half-baked character dynamics and subplots that go nowhere, we have good news for you.
There is no working director as determined as Zack Snyder to find an equal balance between humor and self-seriousness, and despite that determination has absolutely no clue how to go about doing it. His recent films have often gotten the label "grimdark," and while the doom and gloom is often leavened by unexpected bursts of humor, the jokes rarely actually land. Army of the Dead, his newest film about a casino heist in the middle of Las Vegas overrun by zombies, certainly has its moments of genuine inspiration, but they're bogged down by weird character dynamics, forced banter, and a sluggish pacing that makes you wish these guys would just get zombified already.
Army of the Dead begins with a military convoy transporting unknown cargo (from, presumably, Area 51???) through the Nevada desert. Everything's going great until, of course, the convoy crashes, the cargo escapes, and everyone gets bitten. They move into Las Vegas, undeading everyone in their path in one of Snyder's greatest slow-motion montages, and months later the entire city is barricaded off as a restricted zone. By and by, a casino owner named Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) appears on the doorstep of burger flipper and erstwhile zombie slayer Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), telling him to gather a team together for a secret mission and a whole lot of money. Ward summons a bunch of friends, including zombie hunter buddies Maria Cruz (Ana de la Reguera) and Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), zombie killing viral sensation Mikey Guzman (Raúl Castillo), German safe-cracker Ludwig Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer), and helicopter pilot Marianne Peters (Tig Notaro, digitally replacing disgraced comedian Chris D'Elia). Their mission: Break into Tanaka's casino vault and liberate the bajillion dollars of cash still stored inside, making sure to get in and out without anyone getting eaten and before the US government launches tactical nuclear bombs to obliterate Vegas and its corpse inhabitants from the map.
While they're making their way through the quarantine camp on the outskirts of the city (a surrogate for America's internment camps along the Mexico border, maybe, although this movie's politics are so muddled it's difficult to tell when it's actually saying anything), they meet up with Ward's estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell), a humanitarian volunteer determined to save her friend who ventured through the barricade the day prior, desperate to find money to buy her way out of the camp. Turns out Ward and Ella are estranged because he had to kill her mother after she was bitten by a zombie. Yikes! They find a coyote, Lilly (Nora Arnezeder), who leads them through a secret pathway past the barricade and into Vegas, and the party gets started.
When Army of the Dead is fun, it's very fun, mixing up zombie mythology (there are two different types of zombies in this, mindless "shamblers" and intelligent "Alphas" controlled by a zombie king and queen) and never shying away from the requisite gory blood-spattered headshots. There are plenty of Vegas- and zombie-appropriate needle drops, one character spends half the movie planning what he'll sell in his food truck, and Tanaka's casino hotel towers are christened Sodom and Gomorrah (with the safe underneath bearing the name Der Gotterdämmerung). It's clearly most comfortable with its various action sequences, and less so with building a narrative that toes the line between compelling and stupid, as the best zombie movies tend to do. There are a couple of unexpected twists that up the ante—the enforcer Tanaka sends with the group is looking for something a lot more valuable than money, and the unnamed president decided to move up the date of the missile strike, despite the fact that it would be "patriotic" to do it on the 4th of July. (This movie definitely thought Donald Trump would be reelected. Or, at least, it imagines the chaos realm the world would have turned into if Trump had been reelected.)
But the fun is undercut again and again by a distinct lack of humor and a drive towards building some sort of interpersonal relatability that results in a downer ending more frustrating than it is emotionally affecting. Every character is given "a thing," and then barely gets to do that thing at all—though the movie has plenty of German jokes at the expense of Dieter, because when a person is German, that's hilarious. The zombie tiger, a remnant of Siegfried and Roy's pride, is pretty sick, but it's just another way Army of the Dead is more interested in playing with fun concepts than in actually being a fun movie.