NOTE: “Army of the Dead” is a Netflix Original Film, though it did offer a theatrical release in some U.S. theatres. While this particular movie is primarily distributed via Netflix in most parts of the world, we nonetheless generally recommend watching movies at home for the duration of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, if you’re not fully vaccinated, for the safety of yourself and others. In the event that you do attend a movie theatre over the course of the ongoing pandemic without a full vaccination however, please consult and follow public health guidelines in your region, and do not attend movie theatres if you feel unwell, or have been potentially exposed to COVID-19 through a known positive case.
A difficult war. A big score. A minor zombie problem. What could possibly go wrong?
Army of the Dead is one of Netflix’s most ambitious plays for the blockbuster movie market to date. The project comes from 300 and Sucker Punch director, and original DC Extended Universe godfather, Zack Snyder, who originally set the project up with Warner Bros. over a decade ago, in 2007, following Snyder’s completion of 2004’s Dawn of the Dead remake for Universal. Despite riding off a ton of goodwill with Warner Bros. after his successful directing work on 300 that same year though, a combination of Snyder being pulled to direct Warner Bros.’ long-in-development Watchmen movie for 2009, the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis, and the movie’s expensive Las Vegas shooting demands giving the studio cold feet, eventually led to Army of the Dead becoming stuck in development hell for years, before Warner Bros. simply cancelled the movie outright in 2012.
That was originally the end of Snyder’s passion project, especially considering his busy, years-long commitment to directing and/or producing Warner Bros.’ early DC Extended Universe movies throughout the bulk of the 2010’s. With Snyder now starting to inch away from the DC Extended Universe in recent years however, culminating in the unfiltered completion of his ensemble movie, Zack Snyder’s Justice League for HBO Max this year, he’s decided to go back to his roots by revisiting the zombie movie that got away. This time, Army of the Dead was sold to Netflix, who successfully produced the movie, and put up a pretty solid budget for it, creating what I imagine is a very cathartic 2021 for Snyder, since he was able to finish and release not one, but two dream movies that previously slipped through his fingers this year!
Considering that Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake is still considered by quite a few movie enthusiasts to be his finest work to date, it is pretty exciting to see Snyder going back to a zombie movie, one that functions as a spiritual successor, albeit not a true sequel, to Dawn of the Dead. Army of the Dead also carries the benefit of being fairly light in tone compared to much of Snyder’s other work, planting its tongue in its cheek, and going all in on a combination heist movie/zombie action-thriller, a concept that really is as cool and ridiculous as it sounds. Snyder even avoids his usual self-indulgent tropes here for the most part. There’s no abundance of slow-motion, no overdone soundtracks, and not much in the way of angst-riddled melodrama.
Army of the Dead is still a beefy watch though. I guess we needed one Snyder trope intact. It spans a frankly excessive 148-minute runtime, and it does run out of steam a bit towards its conclusion, even if it does also set up some solid potential for sequels and prequels, a couple of which Netflix has already green-lit, apparently. This really does feel like one of Netflix’s biggest swings in terms of building a blockbuster movie franchise to call their own, something they’ve accomplished many times with their original TV content, but haven’t quite been able to crack on the movie end yet. Sorry, Bright. In any case, Army of the Dead is, for better or worse, currently the closest that Netflix has come to a legitimately exciting blockbuster movie event, and it’s not a miss either. The movie is fun, exciting, comically violent, and represents a looser, less pretentious Snyder movie, a streaming movie recipe that’s pretty damn tantalizing in 2021 especially!
Army of the Dead is headlined by a superb cast of character actors, all of whom play some mostly ruthless badasses that are given the opportunity of a lifetime. This crew of anti-heroes is led by Dave Bautista’s Scott Ward, a retired former mercenary who’s now living a quiet life flipping burgers at a diner. It’s Ward that’s initially approached by casino owner, Bly Tanaka, played by Hiroyuki Sanada, with the chance to assemble a crew and claim a huge payday, if they can survive the zombie-infested ruins of Las Vegas, that is!
Fortunately, Ward’s crew has plenty of likable, if rather one-note personalities. The big standouts among the cast include Matthias Schweighofer as Ludwig Dieter, a youthful, unrefined safe cracker that’s never actually faced a zombie threat before, Theo Rossi as crooked-as-hell quarantine guard, Burt Cummings, Garrett Dillahunt as Tanaka’s incredibly shady head of security, simply known as ‘Martin’, and Tig Notaro as cynical getaway pilot, Marianne Peters. That’s just a fraction of the movie’s ensemble, but among the many characters that range from comic relief to cannon fodder, it’s these personalities that best reflect Army of the Dead’s clear adoration of silly zombie tropes.
Notaro being one of the best performers in Army of the Dead is especially noteworthy when you consider that she wasn’t originally part of the cast as well. Notaro was brought in as a last-second replacement for Chris D’Elia, who previously played a male version of Notaro’s character. When D’Elia became embroiled in a series of sexual misconduct allegations after filming had already wrapped however, he was fired and cut out of the movie. D’Elia nonetheless played a very significant role though, and because his character couldn’t be erased from the movie without completely ruining the story progression, he was instead CGI’d over with Notaro’s likeness and voiceover. It’s an unusual, but nonetheless very impressive feat for a Netflix movie in particular, though Notaro did also come for some in-person reshoots during 2020, mostly to film some scenes with Ana de la Reguera’s mercenary and mechanic, Maria Cruz.
Ana de la Reguera does pretty well in Army of the Dead too, but she, alongside Ella Purnell as Scott Ward’s estranged daughter, Kate, often suffers from Army of the Dead’s ill-defined character relationships. The movie has plenty of fun banter, sure, but whenever it tries to get serious, it almost always fails. Bautista does what he can alongside Purnell on this note, who both deliver some cliched, but competent father/daughter estrangement scenes every so often. Considering the fact that it doesn’t do well with legitimate emotion however, Army of the Dead was probably best left fully committing to its bonkers B-movie premise, and not sweating the small stuff when it comes to what makes every character tick.
That said however, there aren’t really any characters in Army of the Dead that feel tedious or unlikable, even when some of them are actively trying to be dirt bags. Rossi and Dillahunt in particular portray two of Army of the Dead’s slimiest characters, with Raul Castillo also bordering on comically arrogant as zombie influencer, Mikey Guzman, but even these characters are entertaining and easy to appreciate, if even as slimeballs. Like I said, when Army of the Dead fully commits to being goofy and over-the-top, that’s often when it’s at its best. Its characters may be flat caricatures in many instances, but this helps them shine during the many B-movie-style highlight scenes, ironically leading to any attempt to be something more as feeling like a tiresome waste of time. Bautista’s and Purnell’s family conflict feels especially trite and unnecessary, merely managing to take Army of the Dead’s eyes off its true, incredible prize, namely one of the most lovably absurd, yet amazing heist movie objectives one can imagine!
Army of the Dead’s story concept feels like it could easily fit in an elevator pitch. A mercenary contracts a bunch of people to assist him in a job taking back a huge cache of money from a Las Vegas casino vault, after Las Vegas has become a sealed, abandoned city that’s full of zombies. It’s part heist movie, part horror movie, part action movie, and part silly comedy. Army of the Dead’s ambitious blend of genres makes for a very fun time as well, leading to its otherwise bloated 148-minute runtime flying by faster than you would think. That momentum may eventually run out by the time the characters’ inevitable escape effort rolls around, but the first two thirds of Army of the Dead especially are a huge amount of fun.
Just don’t come in expecting much more than the exciting, tongue-in-cheek hook behind the premise. Army of the Dead doesn’t contain much in the way of deep storytelling, giving the emotion-driven scenes no real weight, and the dialogue moments little more than cheeky banter to sustain themselves. If you were hoping for a zombie movie with substance, more in line with the genre’s roots under famed directors like George A. Romero, then you’ll be disappointed. Army of the Dead is an unapologetically modern zombie movie in that respect, using intentional, dumb cliches to openly acknowledge how tired this subgenre has seemingly become over the past few years. It doesn’t always work, but more often than not, Army of the Dead does have the benefit of being self-aware, and that self-awareness does make it significantly more fun to watch than most Zack Snyder movies.
The fact that Army of the Dead can wear so many hats, and wear them so well, also deserves to be commended. This is a movie that very easily could have become a confused mess, but it somehow manages to wrangle its many tonal shifts together in a mostly cohesive fashion. The story is impressively able to move between action, horror and comedy without skipping a beat, only truly stumbling when it tries to actually flesh out its human element. Three out of four is definitely nothing to sneeze at though, even if Army of the Dead probably also could have done with trimming about 15-20 minutes out of its plot, especially within its overlong ending section.
Zack Snyder hasn’t really tried to hide his very palpable directing tropes, which seemingly kicked into high gear with 300, and haven’t truly let up since. Despite Snyder recycling the same methodical, visual-heavy direction style across 300, Watchmen, Sucker Punch and all of his DC Extended Universe movies however, Army of the Dead finally appears to cut through Snyder’s usual overwrought, semi-pretentious directing style. Finally, Snyder is allowed to let loose and embrace making what he views, rightfully, as a silly B-movie, albeit one that still manages to pack in some deceptive heart at its best.
You might be surprised to hear that Army of the Dead ditches Snyder’s usual slow-mo-heavy, visually operatic directing flourishes almost entirely. At this point, it feels impossible to divorce them from the man. Even so, Army of the Dead provides a welcome opportunity for a more laid-back Snyder directing job, allowing Snyder to focus on just making a movie entertaining, rather than trying to hammer every single story beat to death. Now that Snyder has mercifully gotten out of his own head, he’s able to actually focus on a more grounded sense of atmosphere, though one that still manages to amp up every action scene with a ton of bloody punch. This is a bit ironic when you consider that Snyder has taken an extra job as the cinematographer on Army of the Dead as well, and yet he seems like he’s actually not trying too hard for a change, instead simply helming a fun movie with just the right amount of gritty, distinct style.
That being said, as much as Snyder is finally lightening up a bit and not being so damn poe-faced in his directing style, some of his shortcomings as a director still linger in Army of the Dead. His attempts to develop the characters’ emotions remain very inconsistent, most notably, and he still hasn’t quite mastered a perfect sense of pacing. To its credit, Army of the Dead is much better paced than most of Snyder’s prior directing efforts, but it’s still too long in the end. Once the true over-arching conflict behind the movie is finally laid bare, and all of its metaphorical cards are on the table, that’s when Snyder’s direction tends to really fall apart, with Army of the Dead’s formerly cute zombie movie cliches just devolving into plain old zombie movie cliches.
Snyder still hasn’t completely nailed down how to balance tone, nor how to end a movie in a graceful manner, but Army of the Dead is a cut above his usual gorgeous, but rote direction. It proves that Snyder still has a fun, cheeky side, and doesn’t always need to over-direct scenes to the point where the visuals take you out of the story. Maybe going back to basics is exactly what he needed to improve his directing range all along.
Tom Holkenborg, a frequent Snyder collaborator, returns to compose the score for Army of the Dead, and that’s a perfect fit if I’ve ever heard it. Holkenborg’s often eclectic, bold composing style lends itself perfectly to the sensibilities behind Army of the Dead, which boasts a standout soundtrack throughout. Holkenborg’s edgy, but entertaining compositions perfectly balance a sense of horror-themed atmosphere with a sense of gritty action, almost unfolding like a triple-A video game soundtrack, albeit with a recognizable Hollywood flair. An especially fun touch is Holkenborg mixing in some licensed songs that reflect both Army of the Dead’s zombie theme, and its Las Vegas theme, complete with a great cover of Elvis Presley’s, “Viva Las Vegas” kicking off the movie’s intro. This sets the mood perfectly right out of the gate, and the subsequent music suite keeps engagement high throughout, marking another superb collaboration between Holkenborg’s scoring and Snyder’s direction.
The rest of the sound design throughout Army of the Dead is similarly pronounced and impressive. The violent, gory action scenes are complemented exceptionally by the roars and cries of the surprisingly intelligent zombie horde, something that will perpetually keep viewers on edge, with danger seemingly lurking around every corner. That said, even Army of the Dead’s quiet moments excel, presenting a surprising amount of atmosphere within a movie that’s otherwise got plenty of balls-to-the-wall action scenes. This balance perfectly captures a dead, abandoned city that’s nonetheless crawling with threats. Those threats are paced out and not constantly attacking the leads, but they’re always skulking nearby, and seemingly always watching. This movie’s version of a devastated Las Vegas truly is the kingdom of the undead, an effectively haunting landscape that’s devoid of humanity, but certainly not devoid of activity.
Zack Snyder may have spent most of his usual outstanding visual talents on superhero movies over the past decade, but even without a DC license behind him, his movies remain visual standouts. Army of the Dead commands a decently-sized budget of just under $100 million, making it much more expensive than the majority of Netflix movies (if also considerably cheaper than Snyder’s DC Extended Universe blockbusters), and Snyder, alongside his effects team, make the absolute most of it.
The depiction of Army of the Dead’s abandoned Las Vegas is a character in and of itself. The amount of detail throughout this movie’s environments is sublime, focusing all of its zombie ideas within a sort of self-contained zombie apocalypse, one that only unfolds within a single major city. A mix of darkened hallways and bright, colourful casino environments create a diverse palette of zombie-filled playgrounds for the protagonists to cake in blood and viscera, or just generally blast apart with indiscriminate firepower. Army of the Dead doesn’t pull punches with its extra bloody violence either! Its gloriously over-the-top zombie kills are a remarkable sight, and those coming specifically for the zombie carnage will have their bloodlust quenched in spades!
It also helps that the zombie designs in Army of the Dead are equally impressive. They’re grotesque-looking, but not nearly as decayed and rotten as, say, the walkers of the Walking Dead franchise. The deadliest of Army of the Dead’s zombies instead function more like mute, vicious, deceptively intelligent mutants than truly stereotypical, dumb zombies that are merely motivated by baseless hunger (though these zombies also exist in this universe, as low-level undead called, “Shamblers”), and this in turn allows for an almost animal-like range of deadly motion. Snyder previously pioneered the modern ‘fast zombie’ template in his Dawn of the Dead remake, and he’s taken that idea to some awesome new heights in Army of the Dead, which offers more devious, unpredictable zombies than ever before, all without skimping on their frequently gory destruction!
Netflix may have comfortably earned its stripes as a frequent host of award-winning movies made on a small scale, but Army of the Dead feels like the streamer’s first legitimately successful attempt to touch the blockbuster movie market. It’s an ambitious production made with a wholly original concept, and it manages to throw several fan-favourite genres into a blender without spoiling its recipe, producing an enjoyable B-movie that’s as funny and upbeat as it is intense and gory. Writer-director, Zack Snyder’s usual issue with making his movies too long and drawn-out still nonetheless persists here, eventually leading to Army of the Dead running out of gas before it can cross the finish line, but before its plot starts running on empty, this movie manages to stand as a true delight for genre enthusiasts.
Better still is that Army of the Dead’s concept is so strong that it naturally lends itself to several follow-up efforts, something that Netflix has also recognized, considering that a prequel movie, Army of Thieves is said to be hitting the streamer later in 2021. That’s all the more impressive when you consider how exhausted zombie movies have become in the modern era. Despite that disadvantage however, Army of the Dead manages to legitimately spark some life back into the zombie movie subgenre, with a somewhat superficial, but undeniably polished romp, one that makes zombie movies feel legitimately cool again.
Netflix still hasn’t quite hit the jackpot when it comes to delivering a truly landmark blockbuster, but Army of the Dead definitely feels like at least three cherries. That’s certainly worth another pull of the lever!
- Entertaining ensemble that balances being cool and being silly
- Ambitious mix of genres built around a great premise
- Great visuals and sound design
- Overlong runtime leads to a weaker third act
- Character-driven moments tend to fall flat
- Some of the zombie cliches are more tedious than clever