Dead Men Walking
With so many zombies films released all the time, how do you make something original that can stand the test of time? 28 Days Later managed to achieve it with fast-moving zombies. Train To Busan did the same with its sense of dread and claustrophobic setting. Shaun of the Dead satirized the genre beautifully while George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead remains a cultural icon.
Fast forward to 2021 and Zack Snyder is back. Fresh off the success of Justice League and returning to the horror roots that made his Evil Dead remake so enthralling. Army of the Dead then is a strange medley of ideas. When the film works, it fires on all cylinders, bringing a fresh and exciting lick of paint to an aging genre.
At the same time, Army of the Dead suffers from some formulaic and bland characters along with a second half that devolves into a generic action flick. It’s such a shame too because the movie begins with an excellent title credit sequence, shot to perfection against the backdrop of ‘Viva Las Vegas’. But let’s backtrack a little to see what we’re dealing with here.
In this alt-future world, Army of the Dead sees a zombie outbreak begin in Las Vegas. Instead of spreading across the globe however, the infected are contained within the wrecked, post-apocalyptic city of Las Vegas. Walled in and with nowhere to go, humanity braces itself as American politicians debate over whether to nuke the city and rid the undead once and for all.
This poses a particular problem for shadowy hotel owner, Bly Tanaka. You see, tucked under his hotel is a vault housing billions of dollars just waiting to be exploited.
Realizing there’s an opportunity in the madness, Tanaka recruits zombie-slaying, patty-frying Scott to this cause. The film wastes absolutely no time assembling our vault-dwellers for this mission, with Scott calling on the help of Van, Cruz, Lily, Dieter and Scott’s daughter Kate (to name a few). The latter however, has some serious Daddy issues after Scott was forced to kill Kate’s Mum.
With the threat of a nuke being dropped and the only way out resting on the hopes of a functional helicopter on the roof of the hotel, this high-stakes plan looks very much like Mission Impossible. And it doesn’t take long before things go from bad to worse.
These ideas basically form the crux of the movie, with the one-liners and banter between characters actually quite endearing during the first hour. “Easy, peasy, Japanesy,” Tanaka retorts with the group assembled. Dieter’s hand tentatively raises, “Um, that’s offensive. We prefer Easy, peasy, lemon squeezy?” It’s a laugh out loud moment, one that sees the group argue amongst themselves over the correct terms but also leaning into a more easy-going and colourful feel.
These moments are unfortunately reserved exclusively for the first half of the movie. Sure, there’s a couple of gags late on but with a run-time of 2 and a half hours, the movie loses its initial wit and colourful ensemble for a more run-of-the-mill zombie flick.
There’s nothing wrong with that of course, but it does feel like a missed opportunity to lean into something closer to Shaun of the Dead rather than Resident Evil.
The world-building however, is actually quite good. This movie essentially explores the idea of hierarchical zombies in a nod to Z-Nation but not quite to the same degree. Instead, Army of the Dead includes one very cool-looking zombie tiger. There are also echoes of cyborg zombies but they’re never really addressed.
In fact, a lot of the exposition in this movie is reserved almost exclusively for the mission at hand and our characters’ feelings. In true Snyder fashion there’s some pretty heavy-handed emotional moments here but they all feel cheap and well-rehearsed rather than genuinely adding to the story.
That is ultimately the biggest problem with Army of the Dead. When the dust settles and the movie draws to an end, the conclusion essentially feels hollow and meaningless in the grand scheme of things.
Characters are the bread and butter of movies like this and the fact that not a single player is actually memorable is a bit of a problem. The arcs for each of these men and women are painfully orchestrated too, with most following the same usual pattern of a heroic sacrifice when their time on screen comes to an end.
Having said all that, Army of the Dead is still a zombie flick. It’s a movie about a group of survivors trying to outrun the relentless undead horde. No matter how you dress the film up, the adrenaline-soaked segments are still enthralling and very watchable. There’s an element of guilty pleasure here and the movie is definitely fun to watch.
Despite the long run-time there’s never a moment where you feel bored and Army of the Dead zips along at a surprisingly quick pace. After a strong first half, the second devolves into a simple and formulaic thriller that never quite lives up to the originality it starts with. Still, if you’re in the mood for a zombie flick, Army of the Dead definitely takes a good bite at the genre’s best.
Army of the Dead releases on Netflix worldwide on Friday 21st May 2021!