‘ARMY OF THE DEAD’ Review: Bautista, Blood And A Bonkers Amount of Bombast

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

ARMY OF THE DEAD

Rated R, 2 hours 26 minutes

Directed by: Zack Snyder

Starring: Dave Bautista, Ella Purnell, Omari Hardwick, Matthias Schweighöfer, Ana de la Reguera, Nora Arnezeder, Tig Notaro, Garret Dillahunt, Theo Rossi, Raul Castilo, Samantha Win, Huma S. Qureshi, Hiroyuki Sanada and Richard Cetrone 

In Zack Snyder’s ARMY OF THE DEAD, the auteur’s now-second vision of the fall of humankind due to a zombie outbreak, the apocalypse begins because a bride just had to give her new husband a blow job while he was driving along a desolate desert road on the outskirts of Las Vegas. The newlyweds’ vehicle collides with a military convoy, transporting top secret cargo in the form of patient zero zombie. And as a new dawn rises, the restless City of Sin will be transformed into the half-dead’s utopia.

Before we’re even out of the opening credits, we get a Liberace impersonator hunted by topless zombie showgirls, a khaki-clad suburban mom mowing down a horde of zombies with a machine gun to save her young daughter, and a zombie Elvis impersonator clobbered by the Paris Casino’s fake Eiffel Tower. Poetic! The gushing fountains of blood that squirt from the human victims rival the fountains outside of the Bellagio. Snyder has fashioned for us delicious, pure camp. While the rest of the feature doesn’t sustain that tone, and frequently meanders from a few of the fun ideas it proposes, there are many wild, deftly-executed sequences centered on the heist. Even more audacious is the unexpected infusion of heart.

Military hero Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) is working as short order cook right outside the recently walled off perimeter of Vegas. Even though his beard doesn’t exactly read as a “sadness beard,” his scruff shows he’s haunted by the loss of his zombiefied wife, and estranged from his headstrong daughter Kate (Ella Purnell). Scott’s world shifts when wealthy tycoon Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) comes a-calling, proposing a deal: If Scott and his team can get the businessman’s $200 million in cash out of a locked safe in his casino located in the dead zone before the government can nuke it, they’ll be paid $50 million.

Scott slaps together a cunning, cutting crew. They include former military mates mechanic Maria Cruz (Ana de la Reguera) and chainsaw-wielding Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), local YouTube influencer Mikey Guzman (Raúl Castillo), tough-talking sharp-shooter Chambers (Samantha Win), acerbic chopper pilot Marianne Peters (Tig Notaro) and safe-cracker Ludwig Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer). Since this is a riff on OCEAN’S 11, there are more team members overloading the scheme. Kate intercepts the mission as she’s looking for missing friend Geeta (Huma S. Qureshi), a mother who willingly wandered into the danger zone (for flimsy reasons). Instead of letting his daughter go it alone, Scott convinces the team to have her and coyote/ zombie whisperer Lily (Nora Arnezeder) guide them. Bly forces his head of security Martin (Garret Dillahunt), who clearly has slippery ulterior motives, to tag along. Rounding out the squad is the intimidating quarantine camp guard Burt Cummings (Theo Rossi), whose purpose is evident to everyone in the audience, but none of the characters on-screen.

ARMY OF THE DEAD (Pictured) ELLA PURNELL as KATE WARD in ARMY OF THE DEAD. Cr. CLAY ENOS/NETFLIX © 2021

Snyder and co-screenwriters Shay Hatten and Joby Harold pepper the picture with many cool concepts, especially dealing with the zombie hierarchy and the rules of their world. Once the crew penetrate the walls of Vegas, there are faint homages to PLANET OF THE APES, specifically in a few referential shots with zombie king Zeus (Richard Cetrone). The scene where the squad have to blaze a trail through a dark restaurant packed with hibernating “shamblers” is genuinely intense and feels like a video game level. The interpersonal relationships, both healthy and toxic, are engrossing and get us to care about these characters when they’re inevitably picked off. Distrust and deception between the mercenaries, while predictable, feel palpable.

Sequences that aim for broader comedy – or at least levity – make the film fun, from the scene where Vanderohe and Dieter figure out the booby traps, to the hugely satisfying scene involving the zombie tiger and one of the characters getting tossed around like a rag doll. Despite some on-the-nose needle drops on the soundtrack, like the cover of CCR’s “Bad Moon Rising” and The Cranberries’ “Zombie,” they get playful with other selections like Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me” and Richard Cheese’s cover of “Viva Las Vegas.”

For all the cleverness, bombast and heartrending character dynamics explored, there are a deflating number of half-baked ideas that are abandoned – and not for the sake of sequel-baiting, which this also does. There’s some cringe-worthy dialogue and one scene debating the PC nature of a cliché phrase. Snyder, whose visual panache and highly-stylized imagery are typically a strength, clouds his frames here. Images experience drop-off in focus. Backgrounds and occasionally foregrounds are blurry, unwittingly mimicking cataract vision.

The overly-convoluted plot tends to be its own worst enemy at times, leading to a perceptible imbalance. Any time spent away from the human invaders avoiding zombies, or other unforeseen logistical nightmares, drags – and that eats up a large chunk of time. The filmmakers would’ve been better off condensing the zombie lair antics, making the point of those scenes more potent and powerful. Same goes for the multiple scenes emphasizing the father-daughter relationship. Though it’s absolutely wonderful we can spend more time with Bautista flexing his dramatic muscles after exercising his actual ones in the action scenes, the picture experiences a lull in these belabored and repetitious moments. Brevity can be far more poignant than excess.

Snyder and company may not have delivered a perfect film, or even one on par with his unassailable, killer remake DAWN OF THE DEAD, but it’s entertaining enough, featuring great kills and a solid, vulnerable performance from a talented leading man deserving of a longer time basking in the spotlight.

ARMY OF THE DEAD opens in select theaters on May 14. It begins streaming on May 21.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.