Like it or not, Zack Snyder is having a very prolific year. Barely two months since the release of his long awaited cut of Justice League, which I very much enjoyed, his first non-franchise film in a decade has just hit Netflix’s library. Army of the Dead is somewhat a return to form for the blockbuster auteur, given that his directorial debut was a remake of Dawn of the Dead. That choice of title and a return to the zombie genre promises a film from a more seasoned Snyder, now director of photography as well as director and co-writer, for a film that is uniquely his in a way we haven’t seen in a long time.
The stellar first trailer had me a bit confused as to the timeline of events, so just in case you need a mission briefing: some time after a zombie outbreak turns Las Vegas into an undead-riddled wasteland, the American government has taken control of the situation. Vegas has been quarantined with heavy barriers, preventing the outbreak from spreading, and a tactical nuke is set to drop on the city as the sun sets on the Fourth of July. Mercenary Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) is recruited by eccentric casino owner Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) with the task of putting together a team to infiltrate the city and recover the contents of his vault before the fireworks start.
The Escape From New York style setup allows for the movie to flirt with genre quite a bit. These include an opening straight out of a slasher movie, a slow motion credit sequence that’s an updated and improved version of Snyder’s Watchmen introduction, and a “best case scenario” montage similar to Ocean’s Eleven. Also like Ocean’s is the first act that’s spent putting together a team of eccentric characters to enter the fray. Once the team (also of precisely eleven) is put together and the characters enter the city, the audience is allowed to fully explore the zombie colony whilst following the team on their mission. This is where the worldbuilding of Army of the Dead gets fleshed out. These zombies are not just your classic Romero shamblers. There are a few highly intelligent zombies known as Alphas that command droves of the undead, but are also able to be reasoned with to certain extents. The second act lets the tension build as the team struggles to evade the footsoldiers, infiltrate the casino, and reason with the Alphas simultaneously.
Snyder’s vision is, as always, fully realized here. The Nevada desert is never too colorful but never too bland, just the right amount of blood-soaked sand and dusty interiors that become lit up like Christmas trees once the power in the casino is switched back on. Sequences also vary in visual flair, from the stealthy infiltration to the industrial lighting in the deeper layers of the vault. Contrast this with the sun beaming down on the impeccably designed zombies and seamlessly integrated zombie animals. Put all this through Snyder’s very narrowly focused lens and you have a unique feast for the eyes. While the shallow focus may turn some off, the cinematography gives the movie its signature flavor, and Snyder usually knows when to pull the camera back in favor of showing the action on screen plainly. But when the characters are feeling out of their depth, such as in their first meeting with the intimidating Bride, the quick close-ups and blurry backgrounds create a heightened sense of claustrophobia even in the wide open. While the camerawork may not always know when to show some restraint, it serves the movie well. The same can be said of the film’s runtime. Two and a half hours is light compared to Justice League, sure, but there’s just a bit too much fat here.
Most of that fat is made up of the bevy of characters with personalities that manage to outsize their weaponry. From Scott’s estranged daughter looking for a refugee she suspects is still in the city, to a skittish German safecracker that is the team’s most important—and most vulnerable—asset. Even more of that fat is in Snyder’s attempts at Romero-esque commentary, from a quarantine camp filled with refugees looked over by abusive guards to the government itself making a spectacle out of eradicating a problem that they caused. The film offers a bit of postmodern zombie portrayal similar to that of The Girl With All the Gifts. Las Vegas is not just a wasteland, it is the new kingdom of the Alphas and patient zero Zeus. The occasional moments where the audience is allowed to see things through Zeus’s point of view make an interesting case for the undead’s right to be, their home invaded by mercenaries who are, as they see it, massacring their population.
When it comes down to it, the film knows that it’s all about spectacle. By now, Snyder is an expert at that. Heavily choreographed and visually splendorous sequences of zombie carnage give the audience plenty to remember, its video game like structure moving from encounter to encounter with melodramatic conversations in between that can feel a bit jarring, but are true to the spirit of the movie and everything it loves, from classic Carpenter to late career Romero.
Army of the Dead feels like being three hours and three cans of soda deep into a Call of Duty binge with your friends as the night rolls on. It’s a movie filled with memorable characters, sequences and moments, but the runtime might make the film—much like Call of Duty—more fun to think about than to sit down and watch again afterwards. I’m all for Snyder embracing his hedonistic and indulgent side with this action extravaganza, though I’m not exactly clamoring for the expanded material supposedly in development. No matter your thoughts on the film, you can bet on remembering it for a while.