Is there currently a more divisive director than Zack Snyder? On one side there are the legions of fans and hashtag warriors for who he is a messianic figure of unsurpassed vision. Facing them, the hordes who find his overwrought, bombastic fantasies puerile and utterly vacuous, slowed down to interminable lengths by almost constant slow-motion.
Snyder’s new Netflix film Army of the Dead, a good-humoured zombie romp, has buckets of what his champions love and yet also shows some surprising restraint, which might even win him a few converts. A military convoy travels through the desert twilight carrying an undefined cargo which leaves the army drivers speculating on its contents: “The head of the staff of Ra,” being one suggestion. An accident occurs, the cargo is unleashed, and a zombie wreaks havoc, before he and his newly infected pals turn their attention to the garish lights of nearby Las Vegas. We then get one of those wonderful Snyder opening sequences, which so frequently have surpassed the actual movie that follows (looking at you, Watchmen). The fall of Las Vegas under a plague of the undead is lavishly played out, accompanied by ruby red arterial spray and the sounds of the inevitable Viva Las Vegas.
Sometime later, and mercenary turned short-order chef Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) is approached by casino boss Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) to steal 500 million dollars from the now-sealed off city before the President drops a nuclear bomb on the place. Before you can say Ocean’s 11, Scott gets his team together, including old pal Maria (Nacho Libre’s Ana de la Reguera), a philosophical soldier Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick) as well as wisecracking helicopter pilot, (last minute replacement Tig Notaro) and German safecracker Matthias Schweighöfer. An already dangerous mission is made even trickier when Ward’s estranged aid worker daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) decides to come along to look for a refugee who has gone missing.
As with many zombie movies, this isn’t really a horror film but an action movie with a horror backdrop. As such it paints its characters in the broadest high-viz strokes possible and then sneaks them into the city with the aid of French ‘coyote’ Lily (Nora Arnezeder) where the kick-ass violence can begin. Here we learn some new things about zombies. There are the lurchers and the alphas (it wants to have its Walking Dead cake and eat it 28 Days Later); they sometimes hibernate, have minds and can get pregnant. “So not zombies then?” you might be tempted to wonder, but who cares? Once the roaring gunfire and head taps start, it’s worth taking the ride.
A lot of fun is had with the setting, the zombified Elvis impersonator, and showgirls. For in contrast to the dourness of his comic book adaptations – see most recently his HBO Max-funded goth-fest Justice League – Army of the Dead is here for the splatter and laughter. The tone from the outset is a knowing but cheerful irony. The company man (Garret Dillahunt) who is sent with them is so obviously in the Carter Burke role from Aliens that almost every character says they don’t trust him before – sure enough – he fulfils their worst expectations. In fact, Bautista is the furrow-browed straight man to a team made up entirely of comic relief.
The gore is pleasantly gloopy, the action well-handled, and the slow motion kept to a minimum and is more effective as a result. At two hours and change, it is still too long and some of the comedy lands flat, partly because there’s just so much of it and it rarely goes above comic relief levels. Despite the gore, there’s not much pain or sense of jeopardy and zero fear – again not really a horror movie. Few of the deaths have any impact deeper than a death in a video game. But this is a good solid three star movie. Which is perhaps where Snyder should be anyway, away from the extremes of deification and vilification. When he’s not trying to be great, he can actually be quite good.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty