Director: Zack Snyder
Writers: Zack Snyder, Shay Hatten, Joby Harold
Cast: Dave Bautista, Ella Purnell, Omari Hardwick, Matthias Schweighofer, Tig Notara, Raul Castillo, Huma Qureshi
Cinematographer: Zack Snyder
Editor: Dody Dorn
Streaming on: Netflix
The apocalypse begins with a blowjob. A man getting one from his new wife is too distracted to keep his eyes on the road and crashes his car into a military convoy carrying a zombie. Cue the end of the world.
A riff on the 'death by sex' slasher movie trope, Zack Snyder's cheekiest opening sequence yet is also his most inventive. The director films the resulting destruction with a bemused detachment that's far from his intimate understanding of the weight of world-ending stakes in Justice League (2021). Vegas, the city of excesses, is the perfect setting for his brand of over-the-top filmmaking. Dead-eyed gamblers, rooted in place by the lure of slot machines, soon become easy targets for the undead. Topless showgirls maneuver a hotel guest into a bathtub, a scenario he probably envisioned going differently had they not been zombies. There's enough blood flow to rival The Shining elevator scene. Set to Richard Cheese and Allison Crowe's slow cover of Elvis's 'Viva Las Vegas', another cheeky touch, the montage plays out like a slick, stylized short film. It's peak Snyder, the kind that makes you grin indulgently at his indulgence.
The infectious energy dissipates too quickly after the opening credits end. Once the bright lights of the casino give way to the desaturated dust of the Vegas wasteland outside, the rest of the film feels just as dull. The film adopts a more staid tone as it introduces Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), a former soldier who now flips burgers for a living. When casino owner Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) offers him a massive payday in exchange for assembling a
Justice League Suicide Squad, breaking into a vault beneath the Vegas strip and stealing $200 million days before the government drops a nuclear bomb on Nevada, it doesn't take him long to say yes. Standout recruits include skittish safecracker Ludwig Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer) and nihilistic helicopter pilot Marianne Peters (Tig Notaro).
While Ward is the film's emotional core, there are too many team members to give each more than the barest hint of a backstory. What they do get are personalities that are distinctive enough to endear them to the audience and contrasting enough to spark conflict among themselves. The lack of character depth is purposeful — it becomes an easy, if frustrating, way to keep character motivations opaque and imbue the proceedings with an element of suspense. The flipside is that their eventual deaths (not a spoiler for anyone familiar with zombie movies) don't carry any emotional weight. The zombies, on the other hand, are more fleshed (heh) out. They're formidable opponents, there's a palpable tenderness between them and their elaborate rituals point to an organized society at work. Also, they have sex, a plot point that's as startling as it is unnecessary.
The heist movie and the zombie thriller, the two genres that Army Of The Dead fuses, necessitate a snappy pacing and an element of urgency. The film's two-and-a-half-hour-long runtime is an obvious sign that this isn't the case. The middle stretch plods along as the group shoots, stabs and garrotes zombies in a series of action sequences that are initially badass and eventually repetitive. While there's plenty of gore, there's little that feels inventive. The threat of impending nuclear implosion should make the mission feel like a ticking time bomb, yet the film lacks tension because the characters have three whole days to finish the job. When one of the teammates teases the possibility that the movie might switch genres completely midway through, it's an exciting proposition given how bland proceedings have been thus far. Sadly, this doesn't happen.
Of course there are on-the-nose Snyderisms. The nuclear bomb is to be dropped on Vegas on the 4th of July at sunset because the President thinks that would be "cool" and "patriotic". The north and south towers of the casino are called Sodom and Gomorrah. When the zombies assemble at an abandoned swimming pool, the image is like an undead version of The Last Supper. There's an incredibly touching father-daughter reconciliation subplot that feels like a meditation on Snyder's own relationship with fatherhood. These flashes of his personality lend the movie a personality of its own but are too few and far between to enliven the material.
Towards the end, Snyder raises the stakes by throwing everything he's got at the group trying to exit the casino — an improperly locked hatch, a deadline that's been moved up, a missing daughter, a murderous teammate, a vengeful horde. It's a go-for-broke gamble, but one that doesn't quite hit the jackpot. Army Of The Dead confirms what Snyder fans have known since Watchmen (2009) and Man Of Steel (2013) — the director can stage one hell of an opening sequence. His middles and ends though? Those need work.