The zombie movie has occupied almost every genre the industry has to offer. It all started with horror, of course, but over their long history, zombies have been used in dramas, comedies, war movies, romances, and more. So why not add heist movie to the list, as writer/director Zack Snyder has done with Army of the Dead.
In an alternate reality, the city of Las Vegas has become ground zero for the zombie apocalypse. The government managed to seal it off from the rest of the world, but the zombies trapped inside the city remain a threat, which is why there are plans to drop a nuclear bomb on it and destroy the zombies once and for all.
Trying to beat the deadline before the bomb drops, Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada), a former casino owner, recruits Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) to find a way into one of the casino vaults, where $250 million is just there for the taking. Scott, in turn, gathers a team of specialists that include fellow soldiers, a safe cracker, a helicopter pilot, and more. Now all they have to do is survive the hordes of zombies that are in their way.
The opening sequence of the film is arguably the most successful one, as it gives much of the exposition for what initially transpired in Vegas with visuals of mass chaos and gory bloodshed with no dialogue whatsoever. Set to a slowed-down version of “Viva Las Vegas,” we meet almost every significant character in the film, learning important things about each of them. The sequence is a nice reminder that, when done right, storytelling in action movies doesn’t require cheesy lines or overly complex ideas.
But then the real movie begins, and it descends into mediocrity. Snyder, who’s directed or produced every DC Comics movie since 2013’s Man of Steel, and his co-writers, Shay Hatten and Joby Harold, offer up plenty of zombies and graphic violence, but the one thing they forget is developing any kind of sense of suspense. With the group wading right into the middle of the zombie mob, it’s reasonable to assume that any of them could die or be turned into a zombie at any moment, but the threat that poses is never palpable.
Early on, it seems like the filmmakers are going to lean into the campiness of setting a zombie movie in Las Vegas, showing off topless zombie strippers and a zombie white tiger left over from Siegfried & Roy. But other than the wisecracking of Tig Notaro – more on her later – they make few attempts at humor, unless you count a scene with Sean Spicer and Donna Brazile that parodies the current divided political landscape. They prefer instead to try establish emotion through Scott’s daughter and possible girlfriend, neither of which works very well.
When Bautista is paired with the right role – Drax in the Guardians of the Galaxy series, the surprisingly funny Stuber – he can pass as a good actor. But a part like this makes it clear that he lacks the charisma necessary to carry a movie, much less one filled with few other recognizable actors. A couple of others – Omari Hardwick, Matthias Schweighofer – make a small impact, but the film could have used a punch from some brighter stars. Notaro, who digitally-replaced the now-canceled Chris D’Elia, looks and feels like she’s in a completely different movie, which is maybe why she’s having so much fun.
Snyder is banking hard on the Army of the Dead concept, as he has both a prequel anime TV series and prequel film at various points in development. It might have been better to come out with those first, as this stand-alone film fails to deliver necessary goods, aiming straight for the middle at all times.
Army of the Dead is now playing in select theaters. It will debut on Netflix on May 21.