Army of the Dead is showing now in theaters and available for streaming on Netflix starting Friday, May 21.
Last week, seven days before it was set to premiere on Netflix’s streaming service, the zombie action flick Army of the Dead slipped into theaters. Actual, real, in-person movie theaters. Across the nation, with COVID waning, screens are starting to reopen. Perhaps noticing the major lack of product to fill those screens, Netflix released its film to the non-streaming public a week early.
Sensing a potential sea change, I opted to head out to Century Rio (the only multi-screen open in Albuquerque, currently) and experience an “opening night” screening of the film. It was the first time I’d been in a theater in over a year. Strapping on my mask (despite having received my second dose of Moderna), I braved the theater lobby, flashed the ticket QR code on my phone to the guy behind the plastic barricade, purchased a Slurpee (no cash accepted) and entered the carefully sanitized theater. There were all of six other people inside, all carefully spaced out and wearing masks. Perhaps Army of the Dead was the appropriate film to see, because I may have witnessed the final, twitching signs of movie theaters in America transforming into the living dead. How a nationwide theater chain can move forward as a business selling six tickets on opening night for the biggest film in current release escapes me.
Army of the Dead is something of a palate-cleansing return-to-form for director Zach Snyder (who also co-wrote, co-produced and did all the cinematography). Snyder’s auteur reputation has taken a hit in recent years, having churned out a string of grimdark, concrete-colored and increasingly overwrought comic book movies. The Snyder films (Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Justice League) pretty much established what DC/Warner Bros. thought their superhero brand should be. But fans grew weary and drifted to the far more colorful and diverse Marvel/Disney films. So DC is busy “reevaluating” its cinematic universe, and Snyder is doing a zombie movie for Netflix.
Snyder made his bones with the 2004 remake of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Unexpectedly stylish and amped with youthful energy, the film afforded Snyder his pick of Hollywood assignments. So it’s no surprise to see him reestablishing his rep by returning to the genre. Army of the Dead is an original film, unfettered by any previous cinematic “zombie” universe. That is not to say that it delivers anything particularly unexpected. Rather than breaking from tradition and finding interesting twists on familiar tropes, Army of the Dead leans into them. Hard.
Over some stuffed-to-bursting opening credits (not unlike 2009’s Watchmen), the entire world of Army of the Dead is laid out. Seems some nasty military experiment escaped in the Nevada desert. Over the next few weeks, this hyperactive “alpha” zombie infected all of Las Vegas. (Topless showgirls chowing down on balding gamblers to the tune of “Viva Las Vegas” are among the more memorable images.) The military did what it could to stem the tide. But eventually, with casualties mounting, the government gave up, evacuated the few living citizens and walled off Vegas entirely.
Our main character in this world is Scott Ward (wrestlin’ thespian Dave Bautista), a former mercenary suffering PTSD over what happened to him during the “zombie war.” Anonymously flipping hamburgers at a greasy spoon, Scott is approached by a Japanese billionaire (Hiroyuki Sanada, Scorpion from the recent Mortal Kombat). Seems that the U.S. President has decided to nuke Las Vegas once and for all. The poor Japanese businessman was forced to leave $250 million in the underground vault of his old Vegas casino. Now he’s got just four days to assemble a team to get behind the wall, avoid the zombie hordes, break into the vault, liberate the money and get out before it all blows sky high. Basically, Army of the Dead is a mashup of Day of the Dead and Ocean’s 11. It’s two, two, two cliché-filled genres in one. And it’s got a “ticking clock” to boot!
Naturally, Scott reluctantly agrees to take the assignment, and we get the “assembling the team” segment, a must-have for any heist film. Scott pulls in a philosophical soldier (Omari Hardwicke), a gung-ho YouTuber (Raúl Castillo), a cynical helicopter pilot (Tig Notaro), a former confidant (Ana de la Reguera) and a goofy German safecracker (Matthias Schweighöfer). Also, Scott has an estranged daughter—who just happens to work at at WHO refugee camp in the desert outside Las Vegas. Naturally, for various contrived reasons, she has to come along as well. Plus, the sketchy “security chief” (Garret Dillahunt) of the Japanese businessman. A few of them get humanizing backstories. Some of them get a few good one-liners. Some of them get bupkis.
As with all heist film (and all zombie films), there are plenty of twists, turns and backstabbing before we expend our final bullet/bite. Everybody on the team is there for a different reason. As the film goes on, the various hidden motivations seep to the surface and result in plenty of double-crossing—most of which doesn’t make sense in context, really. It’s all just an excuse for more carnage.
To his credit, though, Snyder knows how to stage a spectacle. Using what is probably a fraction of Justice League‘s bloated budget, Army of the Dead gets good use out of its limited locations and judicious CGI. (The entire thing was shot in New Mexico, amid rubble-strewn streets and computer-generated Vegas skylines.) Even at 148 minutes, the film feels fast and tense, the blood-spattering action rarely letting up. Bautista, who has more gravitas than most action stars, gets to do a bit more than just grimace and shoot. Despite its reliance on the tried-and-true, the film is a fun ride. I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed sitting in a movie theater drinking a Slurpee and watching zombies explode. … But is it enough to lure pandemic weary people back to theaters? No. No, it is not.