Film Review: Army of the Dead

Thank god Netflix started streaming Army of the Dead a week after its theatrical release, saving a multitude of viewers the buyer’s regret that would have resulted from paying for ticket. The film has a killer premise (It’s a zombie movie! It’s a heist movie! It’s two films in one!), and the trailer is a blast, but the film itself is one long hard slog in which boredom and stupidity vie for supremacy – which could have been fun if the film had embraced its status as a dumb exploitation flick. Unfortunately, director and cowriter Zack Snyder stages the proceedings as if he is making a profoundly moving, deeply consequential artistic statement on the human condition. Enhanced with zombie carnage, of course.

Your best bet is watch it at home, fast-forwarding through the “dramatic” scenes to the action stuff. Even better, just watch the trailer again, which does a great job creating the illusion that the film’s intrepid band of misfit heroes engage in an all-out zombie war on their way to crashing the vault of a Vegas casino loaded with millions of dollars. In fact, the majority of the battle action takes place during the opening credits before the main action even starts. False advertising is false.

So what is actually wrong with Army of the Dead? More like, what’s long about Army of the Dead. The answer to that question is: just about everything. The two-and-a-half hour runtime is loaded with unnecessary back story and protracted scenes that add little to the narrative. Seriously, you just know that the first at of a film like this must include a series of scenes in which the team leader (in this case Scott Ward, played by Dave Bautista) assembles his team. Well, that goes on just about forever, each scene introducing a character with some history that is supposed to matter but doesn’t. Really, everybody in this movie is just zombie chow waiting to get chomped, which does eventually happen, but the film sporadically pauses while pretending to care. If you’re really gullible, you might fall for it. More likely, you will just sigh and wait in anticipation of the next zombie attack.

So much for the boredom part, what about the stupidity? Screenwriting 101 demands that untrustworthy banker (Bly Tanaka played by Hiroyuki Sanada) who hires Ward must have a hidden agenda, which is why he insists on one of his men being part of the team. Members of ward’s team are smart enough to be suspicious about this but not smart enough to do anything useful about it. When we finally learn what he’s really after (hint: it’s not the money in the vault), you realize that the entire ruse was unnecessary, and the mission could have been completed in about five minutes with a much better chance of success.

There is some mildly amusing banter between two team members, Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick) and Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer), who trade pretentious classical references about the nature of their mission, referencing Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (excerpted on the soundtrack, of course) and multiple, recurring timelines. The latter is inspired by finding some bodies in the casino vault, suggesting a failed previous mission – or is is the dead bodies of Scott’s team? (The latter has sparked an online discussion about Army of the Dead‘s “hidden” meaning, though it’s hardly hidden when one character literally says it OUT LOUD IN THE MOVIE!!!)

Anyway, you should probably know that Scott is doing the job because he wants to give his cut of the payoff to his daughter, who hates him because he killer her mother who had turned into a zombie – or maybe just because he didn’t say he was sorry afterward. Whatever. Also, his daughter comes along on the mission even though that’s a guaranteed good way of getting her killed, and the motivation for her wanting to come is just something the script makes up to force Scott to reluctantly agree, and it all adds up to more screen time that goes nowhere. (Checks watch: yes, the film does seem to be going on forever.)

Army of the Dead review
SPOILER: The film’s expectant mother

You may also want to know that the zombies in Army of the Dead are alien zombies; at least we assume so, based on some veiled references from the soldiers in the caravan that crashes in the desert outside Las Vegas, releasing the alpha zombie. Strangely, he looks pretty much like a human zombie (maybe it’s just an alien virus in a human body? who knows?), but this provides an excuse for creating a different breed of zombie – faster, stronger, with a tribal hierarchy. Apparently there are also ordinary zombies (here called “shamblers”) who result from the bite of non-alpha zombies, but you don’t see many of those in action. We do see that the Alpha Zombie has a queen, who turns out to have been pregnant with a zombie baby, but this, like so much in the film, leads to nothing. (Well, maybe it explains why Mr. Alpha Zombie is keeping live human women around – for breeding purposes perhaps? – but why it would be necessary is questionable, since since his mate’s pregnancy shows he doesn’t need live women for that purpose.)

I could go on, but you get the idea. To be fair – as fair as possible, anyway – Army of the Dead is just slow, stupid, and pretentious; it’s not egregiously awful in the “I don’t want this in my brain” kind of way, and if you sample it in discrete pieces, your brain cells will probably not suffer much harm. You might even find a few bits of entertainment here and there. For us, the one thing that played out perfectly was the zombie tiger – a rather bad-ass and regal visual presence, whose mere existence freaks out the story’s obvious villain. You probably don’t need me to tell you how said villain gets his comeuppance at the end, but as predictable as it was, the scene offers the sort of dumb but satisfying entertainment that Army of the Dead promises, so I can’t say our time watching the film was completely wasted.

Army of the Dead Rating
2

Bottom Line

Army of the Dead is not a complete waste of time, but it does waste a great premise: the hybrid of zombie movie and heist movie should have yielded high-energy entertainment; unfortunately, the result is bogged down with useless subplots, pretentious allegories, and failed attempts at character building. But the zombie tiger is great!

Directed by Zack Snyder from a screenplay by Snyder & Shay Hatten and Joby Harold. Cast: Dave Bautista, Ella Purnell, Omari Hardwick, Ana de la Reguera, Theo Rossi, Matthias Schweighofer, Nora Arnezeder, Hiroyuki Sanada. Rated R. 2h 28min. Theatrical Release Date: May 13, 20201. Netflix Debut: May 21, 2021.

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.

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