Regardless of the reactions Zack Snyder’s past few films have received, like his swarm of bitey bad guys in his latest Netflix gig, the comic book god among men (at least to some) has kept on coming. After already seeing one revived beast of his brought back to life this year with the Justice League, he’s now returning to the genre that started his career 17 years ago, with Army of the Dead. Unlike his directorial debut that was doused in blood, gore, and a great opening act, Army – as the title would suggest – comes with a bit more firepower, and it’s the kind we’ve now come to expect from the highly discussed filmmaker, for better or worse.
Set in a different Snyderverse that is itching to be explored, Army of the Dead follows Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) as the former hero of a world gone mad by a zombie plague. The good news is, the virus and those contaminated by it have been kept within the confines of Las Vegas. The bad news is Ward signs up to return to sin city, bust open a safe storing millions of dollars, and return it to its owner without getting chewed on for his troubles. Also, all of this needs to happen before a nuke headed for the city will rid the world of zombies for good. What could possibly go wrong?
With double agendas and literal last-minute additions to the team before entering the arena, things get very bloated very quickly.
Cue the collection of a ragtag team of soldiers that think they can (but totally can’t) handle a drove of undead that are a tad smarter than your typical moaning, groaning gut-munchers. Bautista is the screen-imposing leader of the group, with talent like Power’s Omari Hardwick on a supposed path of redemption for past deeds and Tig Notaro chiming in as the dry-witted pilot armed with plenty of attempted laughs in between the carnage. As far as zombie movie templates go, Army is going by the book, setting up the obvious backstabbers from the brave martyrs that will be going down in a blaze of bloody glory. The issue is that as great as it is to see Snyder do this and try to reinvent certain elements bound to some of our favourite undead outings, Army of the Dead also suffers from the very traits his latest endeavours have been marked down for.
The most noticeable and frustrating factor for Army is its runtime. Not so much as marching along and more shuffling like the zombies of old, there’s a mere 4 minutes between this and his divisive comic book movie Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and boy, do you feel it at times. After an impressive pre-credit sequence that details the birth of the infection followed by a Zombieland-style montage of the city being overrun, Snyder slows things down to a frustrating pace with a lot of excessive build-up to know Ward and the cadavers-in-waiting joining him. Bautista is taking a chance with this role, handling a more complex character that doesn’t require him being painted green and doing well with it. Scarred by past experiences both on the battlefield and at home, this worn down warrior is just trying to fix things as all good heroes do – but the need to see him fuck shit up is far greater and is nowhere as rewarding as you’d like. Although that’s really what you get when you try to establish a new breed of enemy that comes with their own rules of engagement.
Credit to Snyder for trying to create his own undead breed, but it’s far more complex than it needs to be. These walkers are somewhere between Romero’s iconic iteration, and the light-avoiding adversaries from Will Smith’s I Am Legend. Intelligent organised and with a decaying king at the top, it doesn’t make them scarier; it adds another unnecessary plot thread to a film with enough as it is. With double agendas and literal last-minute additions to the team before entering the arena, things get very bloated very quickly. Perhaps the biggest horror of the piece is Dave’s onscreen daughter, who quickly becomes the films grating issue and an unwanted plot device, progressing the story in a direction you pray it won’t go and does.
With that said, there are glimmers of the Snyder of old when the action and zombie decimation do kick-off. Everyone loves a new way of undead extermination, and there’s a few clever ways here, as well as shocking deaths that may lead to even an expletive or two being yelled during the madness of them all. The problem is that these instances aren’t enough to redeem the lengthy waiting time to get there. The zombie horror is far too low, and the conflict far too lifeless to stay invested for Army of the Dead’s predictable and poor final act. In the end, in the pantheon of zombie films (including Snyder’s first), Army of the Dead isn’t worth the bullets.