Review: 'Army Of The Dead' (2021) Dir. Zack Snyder
In development hell since 2007, Netflix came to the rescue in 2019 and Zack Snyder took the helm of this zombie-action-heist film, set in Las Vegas, that gives more bang for your buck...
After a US Army convoy transporting a superhuman zombie is involved in a car accident, the zombie is released upon Las Vegas and quickly turns the once glittering city into the most dangerous place on Earth.
As the city is quarantined and targeted for destruction by a nuclear strike on July 4th, billionaire Bly Tanaka (Sanada) recruits mercenary Scott Ward (Bautista) to pull $200m from his vaults within the city.
Recruiting a top team to help him get inside the city and lift the loot is easy enough, but taking on an unwavering army of the dead and protecting the ones closest to you before time runs out proves to be something far more complicated than anyone expected...
From a by-the-books opening sequence that sets up our MacGuffin of a top-secret zombie payload mistakenly released by the US Army (who decide to try and run away from it rather than use the Hummer just sat waiting there), we quickly cut to a quirky opening titles that establish the result of said escaped payload. So much so, a zombie horde eradicating Las Vegas and reducing it to a quarantined hell-hole and a shell of its former self, with millions of zombies now stalking the streets ripping people to bits, all to the surreal toe-tapping jazz cover of 'Viva Las Vegas' by Richard Cheese & Allison Crowe.
Zack Snyder takes up the directors helm and really immerses himself in his calling card of stylistic, brutal popcorn entertainment that he started with in 2004s Dawn of the Dead. However from the opening act fronted by Dave Bautista's family man-turned-mercenary Scott Ward, it seems there is an attempt by Synder and his co-writers Shay Hatten and Joby Harold to lace this horror with humanity, grief and dealing with loss; a subject Snyder knows all too well sadly. This is partly down to Bautista, given some meaty scenes with Ella Purnell as his daughter, both haunted by what the zombie plague has done to them as a family and trying to build a bridge on their fragile relationship.
These moments are few and far between, but offer some nice distraction from the action however much it's overshadowed.
With a host of engaging characters, effective practical locations and action sequences, peppered with Zack Snyder's creative direction, this is one of his most atmospheric works in years.
Fresh from his turn as Scorpion in Mortal Kombat, Hiroyuki Sanada is clean cut and smooth talking as a Las Vegas billionaire who recruits Bautista to lift $200m dollars from his casino vault inside the zombie infested city walls. Cue a recruitment drive across the state that fuses the best of what we expect from all good heist films - Schweighöfer the safecracker, de la Reguera the tech guru, Hardwick the gunman, Notaro the pilot and so on, all with their apparently simple jobs to do for an apparently simply heist. In and out, and fly into the sunset. Done? No. It's not going to be that simple. This is 'Ocean's Eleven' meets 'Day Of The Dead'.
It's Bautista who runs the show as the big name amongst these smaller stars, but they all gel just fine to be a likeable group of wise-cracking, desperate survivors out for a cut in a world that has pretty much turned on it's head. Our mercs are more humane than expected due to little moments they shine their individual characterisations, but are nothing we've not seen before. Some work, some don't, but together they all seem to fit as a dysfunctional family with the right energy, and you know not everyone will make it to the end credits.
When the mercs step inside the nightmare, Snyder gives us everything including a Siegfried & Roy zombie tiger that encapsulates Las Vegas in a heartbeat. And it's not just mindless zombies who make up our nightmarish horde, but we are treated to Alpha-zombies who think differently, rule over their servants and present more of a threat. These make for some creepy moments and gruesome scenes led by Richard Cetrone and Athena Perample as our Zombie Leader and Zombie Queen respectively.
The zombies do what you expect, but their hierarchy lends itself to some grander threat and not just cannon fodder for Bautista and the team to slay. We come across hibernating zombies, slave zombies, guard zombies - the whole list of zombies who add various levels of nail-biting tension and threat. Make-up, costume and sound effects create some real gruesome creatures that have come straight out of classic horror for a modern day story. The blood flows, bullets fly, limbs are lost and the grizzle and gore is right up there as you demand from a zombie shoot 'em up.
Snyder presents a story grand in scale, but quite minimal in execution set across a mix of practical and CGI sun-baked Las Vegas wasteland. Ruins of popular landmarks, casinos and buildings are a playground for some 'Call Of Duty' / 'Resident Evil'-esque stalking and shooting across the landscapes whilst hunting for their million dollar goal and fighting to survive.
The film also looks good when we have some beautiful establishing shots of Nevada and Las Vegas post-zombie invasion. The colours are all nice and muted, washed out and earthy to fit in with the apocalyptic theme. Snyder collaborator Tom Holkenborg (Junkie XL) brings another chilling score to proceedings with plenty of dark themes and synth riffs to create plenty of atmosphere and a sense of dread alongside some original songs by Elvis Presley who you just need to have in a film set in Vegas baby.
Kudos to Snyder and actress Tig Notaro who plays pilot Peters. Notaro was a last-minute addition to replace Chris D'Elia who was fired from production after sexual harassment claims. All of her scenes were shot alone, after the film had wrapped, on green-screen to put her in with the established cast or on sets talking to prompts off camera. It's hardly noticeable, and really well done.
It's rather long at just under 140mins, and often it drags a little when the novelty of the core story gives way to character exposition and standard gun-play. The final act is a dazzling array of resolutions and carnage, but it still proves Snyder and his team know what they want to deliver and how to deliver it for nothing but entertainment.
'Army Of The Dead' does nothing different for the genre, but it's crafted well to look authentic and atmospheric with great attention to detail in offering what you expect from a Snyder zombie horror.
'Army Of The Dead' is a The Stone Quarry production