How things change in Hollywood. Much like the zombies in Army of the Dead, Zac Snyder’s career seems to have taken on something of a resurrection. A director whose filmography is loved and loathed in equal measure, (Dawn of the Dead, Watchmen on the plus side, Sucker Punch, Batman vs Superman on the other, 300, well…), the fan demands for his version of Justice League to see the light of day heralded his return to favour as much as it signposted Joss Whedon’s demise.
So which side does his new take on the zombie genre fall on?
The plot combines elements of zombie films that we’ve seen before with an Ocean’s 11 riff, as a walled-in Las Vegas has become a containment area for a zombie outbreak, and a group of heisters is hired to get in, steal money from a casino’s vault and get out before the place is nuked. Of course, it goes horribly wrong.
So, on one hand, Army of the Dead is terrific, exhausting fun. Despite its two and a half hour runtime, it whips along at a cracking pace which, following the initial setup, rarely lets up. The combination of heist and zombies is a good one, adding an extra layer of thrills to the proceedings. Snyder does a fine job at setting up and delivering on the action, for this is an action thriller rather than a genuine horror, with only one scene that’s actually scary. As you’d expect, it looks great too - Snyder really knows how to make something look good.
There are some terrific moments amongst the set pieces, the zombie tiger being a particular delight, and the film is packed with homages to other films, Aliens being the most obvious, given that entire lines and one scene are lifted straight out of it.
The cast too are compelling, only a few suffering from the ‘Star Trek extra’ fate of being the obvious ones to get killed off early. Dave Bautista is always worth watching, his physicality never gets in the way of his vulnerability - he’s as at home in Blade Runner 2049 or Dune as he is chasing zombies and dollars in this. And, in a sentence nobody ever expected to write, Tig Notaro's performance as a Tom Cruise type helicopter pilot all but steals the show.
And yet, on the other hand…
Snyder sets up the film to be about more. We know he’s a director keen to work with myth, religion, society, and it’s all here, to a point. There’s commentary about immigration, about Trump (providing the film’s funniest line), and about humanity. The idea that the zombies have evolved and have a society and rules is not new, borrowing from the novel I Am Legend, and all of this is set up neatly in the first hour. But it all seems to get abandoned for the sake of some shoot-em-ups and cheap emotional exchanges designed to make you care.
Something really interesting could have been made out of the relationship between the humans and the evolved zombies but, in the end, there’s nothing that those zombie’s heightened awareness brings to the film. They may be organised but if they’re still just used as bullet fodder, what's the point?
As with many of Snyder’s films, there’s nihilism at work too, the last scenes stealing us of hope much as the end credits of his Dawn of the Dead did.
In the end, the film, much like the evolved zombies, allows its hinted at smarts to lead nowhere and that’s a shame because, whilst it’s a fun ride, it could have been a more substantial one.
Release date: May 21st on Netflix