Netflix film review: Army of the Dead
Written by Arthur
Twisted franchise starter Zack Snyder’s zombie heist flick is a brazenly entertaining ride.
Director: Zack Snyder Cast: Dave Bautista, Ella Purnell, Nora Arnezeder, Omari Hardwick, Ana de la Reguera, Garret Dillahunt, Tig Notaro Certificate: 18 Where to watch Army of the Dead online in the UK/US/CAN: Netflix UK/US/CAN
Zombie movies have, rather aptly, overrun cinema in the past 20 years, with everything from Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later to Cargo, Train to Busan and The Night Eats the World offering repeated spins on the bodies-come-back-to-life-and-munch-on-the-living scenario. One of the unforgotten starting points for the modern undead epidemic, though, is Dawn of the Dead – not the Romero classic, but Zack Snyder’s fast, thrilling remake from 2004. Now, Snyder’s back in walker territory and, while most zombie flicks lend themselves to low-budget scares, Army of the Dead finds its kicks in sheer blockbusting spectacle, with a budget more than three times that of Dawn.
There are familiar genre staples galore amid the gore, as the film brings together a gaggle of mismatched antiheroes surrounded by a horde of zombies in a closed-off location. This time, it’s Las Vegas, a playground for the undead that tempts our ensemble of underdogs to bet on making it out the other side. The gamble? An uncrackable vault containing billions of dollars that a shady billionaire (Hiroyuki Sanada) is offering to whoever can retrieve it. For former war hero Scott (Dave Bautista), now working in a fast food joint, it’s a much-needed meal ticket – and the fact that his estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) happens to be working in a refugee camp nearby is just enough to tip the odds seemingly in his favour.
His batch of mercenaries include deep-thinker Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), savvy soldier Maria (Ana de la Reguera), the rebellious Lily (Nora Arnezeder), a nervous safe-cracker (Matthias Schweighöfer) and, perhaps the most plausible of all, a YouTuber who’s become famous for dispatching zombies (Raúl Castillo). But the show is stolen by Tig Notaro, who plays a helicopter pilot with a glib gallows mentality and a ruthless survival instinct. She brings a welcome note of humour to the lengthy runtime, having a ball despite the fact that she was parachuted in during post-production to replace the digitally removed Chris D’Elia – a seamless feat of technical trickery.
Snyder puts them all through the ringer with predictable backstabbing and wise-cracking, and there’s something satisfying in the familiar conventions that kick in – there are no points for guessing that Theo Rossi as a loathsome, predatory security guard will get his comeuppance by the time the credits roll.
But Army of the Dead’s winnings come from the moments when it tries to take on the house and break the cliché bank. Yes, there’s familiar violence and a garish lack of subtlety, but there’s also a haunting semblance of society within the zombie civilisation – led by two genuinely creepy alphas (Richard Cetrone and Athena Perample), who move, think and communicate in a way that feels new and deeply unnerving. Holed up in the Hotel Olympus, they open the door to the kind of mythic world-building that inhabits all of Snyder’s work, while still leaving room for a cameo by a much-publicised zombie tiger (formerly of Siegfried and Roy fame, so we’re told).
More than snark, what Snyder’s movies have increasingly possessed is a sense of earnest sincerity, and he does find genuine moments of catharsis between Bautista’s dad and Purnell’s daughter, with one scene that manages to make the words “tofu cheesecake” unexpectedly moving. But make no mistake: this is also Snyder (who serves as his own DoP here) at his most breakneck. That becomes clear immediately from the opening titles, a darkly satirical and in-your-face montage of Sin City collapsing amid a zombie outbreak – a five-minute display of unchecked human indulgence and excess that’s a bravura piece of visual storytelling. If Netflix is banking on that ability to fast-forward through the origin stories that usually populate the genre to surprise audiences with more interesting tales – a prequel and spin-off animated series are already in the works – Army of the Dead may be a franchise that has some real life in it.