Army of the Dead winds up being a delightful surprise for those weary of either zombie movies or Zack Snyder.
Attention Zack Snyder: stop making superhero movies and make more heist movies. It is apparently what you were born to do. Army of the Dead winds up being a love letter to George Romero and Steven Soderbergh, ably twisting the conventions of the zombie apocalypse genre to fit a slick, Vegas-themed heist flick. Along the way it shows off a ton of clever storytelling, well written characters, and solid performances that I was not expecting to find in a zombie movie.
Army of the Dead (2021)
After a zombie outbreak in Las Vegas, a group of mercenaries takes the ultimate gamble by venturing into the quarantine zone for the greatest heist ever.
Army of the Dead impressed me right off the bat. Snyder gets his zombie apocalypse started at a breathless pace, and then quickly builds up both his world and his characters. By the time the credit theme song is over (the first of many perfectly selected renditions of famous Las Vegas songs) you know what the situation is in Vegas, the wider world, and with our main protagonists. Snyder follows this with a deft recruitment segment where Dave Bautista hand picks his team, and is in turn saddled with some unwanted company from the businessman paying the tab.
Not only is the world built out with tight economy, the film communicates so much supporting detail in clever ways that it sprung out as innovative. Snyder’s visual techniques avoid feeding you an exposition sandwich, and do it so adroitly that the next time you see a zombie or heist flick that DOESN’T do something similar, it will feel downright glacial.
The A Team.
Besides the mechanics of the heist, any really good caper relies on a rock solid team. Snyder has fun with the conventions by creating characters who fill the expected roles in unexpected ways. Our team leader isn’t the expected charmer, but he’s calm, competent, and always thinking ahead. His right hand lady also sports a cool head and keeps everyone’s eyes on the prize, rather than being the cliched femme fatale. The safecracker is suitably quirky, providing comic relief and, oddly enough, emotional beats as the group’s weapons expert goes from wanting to chuck him out a window to looking out for him like a father. And on and on, each team member is just bit outside of what you’d expect in a conventional heist film.
To pull off these characters, we get a great cast. Bautista turns in another fantastic performance, showing a ton of range. Ella Purnell plays his daughter with just enough “there’s a reason these two don’t talk to each other” attitude to be a great foil without being bratty. Tig Notaro plays the cynical pilot with aplomb, dropping snarky and cutting remarks with perfect timing, no mean feat as she was added last minute and had to green screen her scenes. From top to bottom, the characters were all interesting (even the ones you’re supposed to hate) and well acted.
Leaving Las Vegas.
Army of the Dead was a breath of fresh air on so many levels. Sure, it’s not perfect – a few characters wind up with unsatisfying conclusions, and some typical “make boneheaded decisions in the midst of a zombie outbreak” events occur, but they’re the exception not the rule. It gives both of its genres new wrinkles and shouldn’t disappoint fans of either.
The film also really rehabilitates Zack Snyder’s reputation in my eyes. It’s adult and edgy without being joyless or brooding like his Superman flicks. The action is thrilling, and tightly choreographed without feeling scripted and hollow, unlike a lot of his other action flicks. Snyder makes a fun and exciting product with lots of directorial flourishes that I really loved. Overall, a fantastic and unexpected offering.