A team of mercenaries ventures into zombie-infested Las Vegas in hopes of recovering millions in cash from a casino vault in Zack Snyder’s zombie heist horror thriller, Army of the Dead. It’s a stylish mix of Zombieland (especially the opening montage) and Ocean’s Eleven, with a smattering of The Dirty Dozen. While Snyder’s distinctive directorial style is plainly evident, he’s reined in his worst impulses to give us a clever, entertaining twist on the zombie apocalypse, featuring all the flesh-eating carnage one expects from the genre.
(Some spoilers below but no major reveals.)
As I wrote previously, in a sense, Snyder has come full circle. His directorial debut was 2008’s Dawn of the Dead, an entertaining reboot of the original George Romero classic from 1978. Army of the Dead started out as a joint project between Universal Studios and Warner Bros. back in 2007. But like so many films, it got stuck in development hell until Snyder signed on as director in 2019. Netflix picked up the distribution rights from Warner Bros. soon after.
Per the official premise:
Army of the Dead takes place following a zombie outbreak that has left Las Vegas in ruins and walled off from the rest of the world. When Scott Ward (Dave Bautista, Guardians of the Galaxy), a displaced Vegas local, former zombie war hero who’s now flipping burgers on the outskirts of the town he now calls home, is approached by casino boss Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada, Mortal Kombat), it’s with the ultimate proposition: Break into the zombie-infested quarantine zone to retrieve $200 million sitting in a vault beneath the strip before the city is nuked by the government in 32 hours. Driven by the hope that the payoff could help pave the way to a reconciliation with his estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children), Ward takes on the challenge, assembling a ragtag team of experts for the heist.
They include Maria Cruz (Ana de la Reguera, Narcos), an ace mechanic and Ward’s old friend; Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick, Kick-Ass, The A Team), a zombie killing machine; Marianne Peters (Tig Notaro, Star Trek: Discovery), a cynical helicopter pilot; Mikey Guzman (Raúl Castillo, Looking), a go-for-broke influencer and Chambers (Samantha Win, Zack Snyder’s Justice League), his ride-or-die; Martin (Garret Dillahunt, Fear the Walking Dead), the casino’s head of security; a badass warrior known as the Coyote (Nora Arnezeder, Mozart in the Jungle) who recruits Burt Cummings (Theo Rossi, Luke Cage, Sons of Anarchy), a slimy security guard; and a brilliant German safe cracker named Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer, Valkyrie). Scott finds an unexpected emotional hurdle when Kate joins the expedition to search for Geeta (Huma S. Qureshi), a mother who’s gone missing inside the city. With a ticking clock, a notoriously impenetrable vault, and a smarter, faster horde of Alpha zombies closing in, only one thing’s for certain in the greatest heist ever attempted: survivors take all.
This is pretty much a suicide mission, and it’s really not giving much away to say that there’s a very high body count, and the team suffers its share of the casualties—some predictable, others less so. I mean, you just know Rossi’s swaggering, creepy security guard is going to get his comeuppance the moment Lily recruits him for the mission. There are rules, and Cummings has “cannon fodder” written all over him.
The ensemble cast all turn in solid performances, including Purnell, despite Kate being one of the least interesting characters. Those familiar with Samantha Win’s stunt work and martial arts skills will enjoy watching her fearlessly take on a horde of zombies single-handed. And Hardwick and Schweighöfer forge a believable reluctant bond between the zombie killing machine Vanderohe, and the nerdy, nervous Dieter, despite their very different personalities. Also a standout, despite having no lines: Valentine the zombie tiger.
Notaro replaced comedian/actor Chris D’Elia late in the project, on the heels of a number of sexual misconduct allegations against the comedian. This required Notaro to reshoot some scenes with an acting partner last September, which were then inserted into the film. Snyder told Vanity Fair that the decision cost Netflix “millions,” since it also required the digital erasure of D’Elia from footage, and visual effects work to integrate Notaro into scenes, opposite her co-stars. I have no idea what D’Elia’s original performance was like, but even though it’s not an entirely seamless integration, Notaro is terrific in the role, even going viral as an unexpected sex symbol when the official trailer was released.
There have some criticisms regarding the sheer length of Army of the Dead. I admit, when I saw the two-and-a-half hour run time, my first reaction was, “Do we really need that much time to tell a zombie heist story?” Answer: yes, we did. There are lots of characters and moving pieces to track, and for the most part, things move along briskly, with only occasional forays into those super slo-mo shots Snyder loves so much. They work well in this context, and don’t add too much to the running time.
The more introspective scenes flesh out the characters and give viewers a bit of a breather from the otherwise nonstop action—and the running gags and wisecracks add a welcome touch of levity (like Dieter’s high-pitched screams whenever a zombie charges). Plus you just can’t rush the suspenseful buildup as the team maneuvers their way through a mine field of temporarily dormant zombies, for instance.
There is already a prequel film, Army of Thieves, in post-production, focusing on the character Ludwig Dieter, with Schweighöfer both starring and directing. It’s set in the early stages of the zombie outbreak that makes up the opening backstory montage of Army of the Dead. Filming wrapped last December, and Netflix plans to release it later this year.
Also in development is an anime-inspired prequel TV series, Army of the Dead: Lost Vegas, in which we will learn more about Scott’s origin story. Bautista, Purnell, de la Reguera, Notaro, and Hardwick are all returning to voice their respective characters for the six-episode series. Netflix and Snyder are clearly hoping to launch a successful franchise with Army of the Dead, and if the director brings the same deft touch to those projects, I think they’ll succeed.
Army of the Dead is now streaming on Netflix, following a limited theatrical release.
Listing image by YouTube/Netflix