During the opening credits of Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead, you can nearly feel the director’s giddy smile stretching across the hedonistic melee. In Las Vegas, flesh-eating zombies are beginning to outnumber the casinos. And they’re consuming unsuspecting tourists just as quickly. Cannibalistic showgirls prowl for prey. Slot-machine junkies bundling up their remaining pittance dodge the newly infected. A dimwitted Elvis impersonator, wig askew, looks blankly over the carnage as Richard Cheese’s elegiac cover of “Viva Las Vegas” soundtracks the zany bloodshed. It’s the rare instance where a film’s climax occurs in the first few minutes.
Following the unrestrained freakout, Snyder’s thriller dons the clothes of an epic heist flick: Months after the fall of Vegas, a rich hotel owner with government ties, Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada), enlists a group of mercenaries to infiltrate the overrun sin city. In the basement of his former hotel sits $200 million worth of tax-free money, locked away in a nearly impenetrable safe. Leading the team is the hulking Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), who saved the Secretary of Defense from the Vegas catastrophe and earned a medal, but is now flipping burgers in a low-rent diner. He assembles a rag-tag group of former acquaintances and new faces for the mission, including his estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell), and together, they head out on what seems like a near-suicide mission. They have to secure the money within 48 hours, because the U.S. is about to drop a nuclear warhead on the forsaken city.
Army of the Dead’s whopping 148-minute runtime is tidy compared to the director’s 242-minute Justice League cut. But both films brim with wonderful concepts, captivating setpieces, and obtrusive worldbuilding that shrouds the earnest merits behind their primary narrative: a fraught parent-child relationship. With fast-moving zombies, big guns, and even bigger personalities, Snyder’s Army of the Dead will satiate the hardcore fanbase the director has accrued, even when his oversized ambitions slow it to a crawl.
This film represents Snyder’s second foray with the undead: Dawn of the Dead, his 2004 remake of the George Romero classic, is coincidently prescient about the events of 2020. In his Dawn of the Dead, an unknown virus sweeps across the country, leading a disparate group of people to quarantine in a mall while the plague takes hold. Taking his cue from 28 Days Later, Snyder used fast-moving zombies as the primary fright. For Army of the Dead, he takes the next logical leap by crafting two types of flesh-eaters: shamblers (the mindless kind) and alphas (the highly advanced kind). An early scene shows a muscular, intelligent Patient Zero zombie escaping from an Area 51 transport convoy. Fast-forward to the film’s present day, and Vegas isn’t the leader-zombie’s prison, it’s the kingdom of his alphas. These sophisticated creatures open the door for elaborate action sequences, visceral kills, and robust amounts of gore.
While the flesh-eaters are much improved from Dawn of the Dead, the large cast could use more refinement. To carry out the operation, Ward first enlists his closest friends: the rough-and-tumble mechanic Maria Cruz (Ana de la Reguera); the philosophical, circular-saw-toting Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), and the talkative helicopter pilot Marianne (Tig Notaro, who was green-screened into the completed film to replace Chris D’Elia after allegations of sexual harassment were levied against him). They’re joined by the zombie-hunting YouTube and Reddit sensation Mikey Guzman (Raúl Castillo), his friend Chambers (Samantha Win), and meek German safe-cracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer). To keep tabs on the group, Tanaka adds his slimy head of security Martin (Garret Dillahunt).
That’s already a pretty packed assemblage of contrasting personalities, but more is more for Snyder. He jams in an immigration story: Three refugee women seeking a better life venture into Vegas to crack open a slot machine for funds to bribe the camp guards, but are stranded among the zombies. A sexual predator (Theo Rossi) lords his power over the refugee camp as a security officer. Lily, aka the Coyote (Nora Arnezeder), a guide with a mountain of regrets, takes Ward’s team into the fallen city in hopes of finding redemption. There’s also a zombie tiger, and an undead Alpha king and queen. Most viewers would be hard-pressed to remember all of these players in the story, especially since their character development is at best jagged, and at worst, illogical and overwrought.
But few people come to a Snyder film for logic. They pay for escapist spectacle. And Army of the Dead has plenty of it. Soft lenses capture a tattered Vegas landscape littered with dried corpses and a disintegrating skyline. The setting serves as a large post-capitalist backdrop to a bevy of precise firefights. A gaudy highlight reel of cascading bullets and a spinning baseball bat, for example, sees the team imagining their kick-ass route toward the abandoned hotel. Other skirmishes take place in claustrophobic surroundings: One involves a maze of hibernating flesh-eaters. Another sees Bautista delivering precise headshots while running in slow motion across an island of roulette tables. Others take place in the sky, where a helicopter careens between dilapidated skyscrapers.
Snyder understands the tonality of a modern zombie film. Like Dawn of the Dead, it’s where his trademark snark shines best. One laugh-out-loud moment involves a newscaster quoting the president on his decision to bomb Vegas on the 4th of July: “Really cool, and the ultimate fireworks show. Actually kind of patriotic, if you think about it.” If Army of the Dead were only darkly comedic, however, it’d become tiresome quickly. Since his first film, Snyder has certainly added a heartfelt tenor to his overembellished storytelling: The failed father-daughter relationship between Scott and Kate undergirds all the outsized gun fights, supplying the film with real-world heartache. Snyder also has Bautista, whose advanced sense of physicality is further translated into his quiet forlornness. More than a few scenes here are reminiscent of his stellar work as a soulful replicant in Blade Runner 2049.
Viewers’ mileage with this zombie-heist thriller will vary: There are multiple points where the languid pacing is felt, where we navigate through this bombastic caper with the slow-footedness of a coward in a minefield. It feels like there’s a slick 110-minute movie hiding in here, one that’s more focused on the paternal hurt driving Scott, along with the heist itself. The dreck covers of classics like “The End” and “Viva Las Vegas” also cheapen the rich epic. The too-large-to-count cast further muddles the affair: One narratively integral character literally disappears toward the end. And there are nuggets of intriguing concepts that could be further developed into delicious subplots if they weren’t so overshadowed by the magnitude of this movie.
The parts of Snyder’s Army of the Dead are definitely stronger than the whole. But if you’re looking for a preposterous onslaught of blood and guts melded with sharp-tongued humor, then Army of the Dead is the big swinging zombie film of your fantasies.
Army of the Dead is in theaters and now streaming on Netflix.