What happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas.
Army of the Dead knew exactly how to get my attention. I haven't been excited for a zombie movie in a long time, but the vibrancy, lightheartedness, and abundance of bullets on display in its many trailers had me dying to see Zack Snyder's latest zombie flick. Something about the promise of a zombie heist movie set in Las Vegas screamed excitement and fun, and in many respects, it delivers on both these fronts; feeling like Suicide Squad meets Oceans 11, but, you know, with zombies. Yet when it comes to nearly everything else, it bites off a little more than it can chew.
Snyder’s return to the zombie genre starts out great, with a killer opening so strong that it might just be the best part of the entire film. We first get to witness how the outbreak starts, with a military convoy transporting a mysterious container, and a newly-wed couple having so much fun that they forget to keep their eyes on the road. The two inevitably meet in a head-on collision, which sends the container flying and sets its contents loose. The contents in question is the zombie equivalent of Captain America, which proceeds to massacre the entire convoy before making his way to nearby Las Vegas. These opening minutes do a great job of setting the tone for the rest of the film, with a darkly-comical start to the apocalypse, followed by a terrifying sequence that throws in a whole lot of gore. The unique blend of satirical humour and classic horror sets up the rest of the film to be something truly special, and the following intro credits do not disappoint.
Our super-zombie makes his way to Las Vegas, and so begins the introductory credits, which depict the start and end of the Vegas outbreak. What starts as a chaotic hell-let-loose scenario with ordinary folks scrambling to escape the zombie hordes, soon transitions into full-scale warfare, with some badass individuals tearing through zombies trying to find survivors. Despite how little time this portion of the film takes up, it brilliantly establishes enough backstory to the events prior to the film, while also providing important context to the world that gets you that much more invested early on.
This sequence doesn’t lose the satirical touch of the film’s opening however, as we see a speedo wearing gentlemen get eaten alive by zombified burlesque dancers, and someone else winning big in a casino right before getting gored by a group of undead. However, it's the scene where an undead Elvis impersonator gets carpet-bombed by fighter jets on the Las Vegas strip, that perfectly sums up how extraordinarily absurd the whole thing is. All the while, these various scenes of guts and gore are juxtaposed by a wonderfully charming rendition of Viva Las Vegas, kickstarted by an oddly cheery Liberace impersonator. It's completely over-the-top in the best of ways and is easily one of the most captivating and well-made movie intros you'll see this year. Sadly, this is as good as the movie gets, as the rest of it fails to live up to the high standard set by its phenomenal opening minutes.
Despite how much the movie's promotional material featured epic action shots and neon lights, the general setting of the movie is the bleak remains of Vegas, which looks more like a warzone than the vibrant city it once was. This leaves it looking more in line with more contemporary zombie settings seen in the likes of The Walking Dead, which hinders its attempts at originality rather than helping it.
The first hour introduces us to Dave Bautista’s character, Scott Ward, as he goes around assembling his crew of zombie-slayers, each with their own skills required for the heist. This results in much of the first hour feeling like the typical heist movie trope of "getting the band back together” which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Each character gets to show off a bit of their personality, and we, the audience, are given enough time with each to really know who's who.
However, because of the lack of impactful character development, I never found myself caring for much of the cast, no matter how hard the movie tried. Bautista’s Scott Ward and his daughter (Ella Purnell) are constantly at odds throughout the story in an overly cliché father/daughter reconciliation arc that never feels important. Parts in the film even try a little too hard to make you feel for some characters because of how much it consistently fails to do so throughout. One moment, in particular, sees someone give an out of the blue confession, followed by a rather gruesome death. The fact the revelation came out of nowhere felt incredibly forced and was clearly inserted to heighten the emotional weight of the following scene. While the array of talent on display makes up for the absence of meaningful character arcs, the movie struggles to derive any emotional investment from its audience in its genuinely interesting cast of characters, most of whom aren't given enough attention and are ultimately forgettable because of it.
Yet, for what it’s worth, almost every character on the roster feels likeable, though some more than others. Characters like the cynical pilot, Peters (Tig Notaro), and the innocently charming Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer) stand out as likeable personalities who bring tremendous value to the movie by giving the audience characters that they can actually root for. But it's the budding bromance between the playful Dieter and macho Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick) that steals the show, as their polar opposite personalities result in some of the films most entertaining and hilarious moments. It's in the interactions between characters that Army of the Dead tries to get you invested in its diverse roster, and while it succeeds for some, it fails for others.
Ironically, the movie's undead hordes actually feel more developed and relatable than some of the living protagonists. While there still exists the classic 'shambler' zombies we're all familiar with, the biggest threat to the crew is the hyper-intelligent alpha-zombies that run the ruins of Las Vegas. That's right, they run the joint. Unlike their brain dead counterparts, these zombies are stronger, smarter, and faster, and even appear to have their own social hierarchy. Because of this, Army of the Dead features a genuinely compelling narrative around the two leading zombies that had me enthralled from start to finish. Without saying a single word, those playing the zombies give remarkably emotional performances that made the movie's monsters feel more living than dead, in a tale told through heartbreak and vengeance. The myriad of easter eggs and subtle hints toward the zombies origins will make the film a blast for eagle-eyed viewers looking for something new in a worn-out genre, but while it makes you want to know more about the lore of the film, it leaves it behind in a shroud of ambiguity in favour of its lacklustre main plot. I never thought that I would sympathise more with the zombies in a zombie movie than the humans, but Army of the Dead expertly creates an engrossing narrative outside of its main plot that quickly becomes a crucial part of the film's success, and it's not something I'll soon forget. Plus, the zombie tiger was pretty cool.
Finally, you can't talk about Army of the Dead without mentioning its exhilarating action sequences. The movie excels at bringing fans some bloody good action, with plenty of snaps, crackles, and pops orchestrated through the guise of gruesome guts and gore. There's not only the stereotypical blows to the head and numerous blood spurts, but there's a healthy balance between the undead getting gunned down by a barrage of bullets, and mowed down by a massive chainsaw. Viewers out for zombie blood will not be disappointed, and the closer you get to the finish, the more the violence escalates.
The stakes get even higher when the crew must contend with the alpha zombies, who are out to make sure the crew never leave Vegas living. There's a casino shootout, a hallway ambush, and even a one-on-one fistfight with a zombie. One character even goes full John Wick and takes on an entire room of undead by themselves in what is probably the best action sequence in the entire film. I'm also pretty sure Bautista kills a zombie with a wrestling move at one point. While these scenes are more than enough, I do wish the film included at least one big eccentric action sequence or stunt that would have easily put it in the same league as the newer Fast and Furious movies. You'll also find that its best scenes show up fairly inconsistently, but when they do it's well worth the wait. The combination of familiar zombie genre tropes and totally ridiculous high-octane action ensure Army of the Dead doesn't disappoint in the action department, with scenes guaranteed to have you on the edge of your seat.
In the end, I don't really know what to make of Army of the Dead. On one hand, it is founded on a wide set of strong foundations that have me eager to see more. On the other, it tries to do a lot of different things which results in certain areas falling by the wayside. All that being said, I would highly recommend you give it a watch. Its characters and main plot might not be as interesting as they should be, but Army of the Dead's unique take and clever additions to the zombie genre, as well as its thrilling action sequences, are enough to keep it afloat as an entertaining shoot-em-up that proves to be fun and thought-provoking in equal measure; even if it's opening sequence was still far better.
Army of the Dead is streaming now only on Netflix.