Army Of The Dead (2021)

Rating: **
Review Date: 5/31/21
Director: Zack Snyder
Cast: Dave Bautista, Ella Purnell, Ana de la Reguera, Omari Hardwick, Matthias Schweighöfer, Nora Arnezeder, Hiroyuki Sanada, Garret Dillahunt, Tig Notaro, Raúl Castillo, Samantha Win

"Listen, I hate my life so deeply, if I had two million dollars, my life would change drastically."

My first time back in a theater since the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020. Unfortunately, I could have picked a better film to celebrate, but since I don't have Netflix, I wasn't sure when I'd get another chance to see this. A military convoy is transporting a new breed of zombie from Area 51 when a car accident lets it loose on the outskirts of Las Vegas. Within days, the entire Las Vegas Strip is overrun with zombies and walled-in by the military. Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) is a mercenary soldier who is approached by a Japanese businessman (Hiroyuki Sanada) to recover $250 million from a casino in the quarantine zone before the government nukes the site. He assembles a mismatched team of experts for the job, which includes his headstrong estranged daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell), who has an agenda of her own. Sanada also sends his own man in with them (Garret Dillahunt), which is an immediate red flag and seals the team's fate. Once inside the zombie zone, it's a by-the-numbers action film as the team gets picked apart by an army of zombies led by an alpha zombie known as Zeus. In this world, zombies have evolved to have emotions, rational thought, and their own form of crude communication. The new breed is strong, fast, and agile - they're basically parkour zombies. However, their physiology is a mystery as they don't appear to crave brains or any other sustenance. Their only goal seems to be to pass on the infection. The film also features the traditional "shamblers" as well as some undead animals, which is a nice touch. And reportedly, according to director Zack Snyder, there are even robot zombies in the film, which makes as much sense as anything else.

I was really hoping for this film to be a return to form for Snyder after his questionable handling of the DC Universe, but it's a bit of a misfire. While it definitely exhibits a gleefully adolescent exuberance, the clichés are tedious, the characterizations are weak, the logic is inconsistent, and the film fails to generate any real excitement. There's no doubt that Snyder can craft amazing set pieces, but as a coherent storyteller he's still lacking. The film is totally bonkers and complete nonsense, and in many ways reminds me of Japan's outrageous zombie films. However, the disparate elements never quite gel, and the film can't decide if it wants to be serious or campy, which makes it a very confusing and schizophrenic viewing experience. More than anything, the film feels like "Aliens" (1986) in terms of themes, structure, characters, and narrative arc, but it fails to resonate and engage. Maybe I'm just old and don't fall into the target demographic anymore.

The acting is serviceable for the most part, and most of the characters are likable - or at least not completely annoying. The effeminate and aggressively PC safe cracker (Matthias Schweighöfer) is played mostly for laughs and should have been toned down a bit, and while Kate is a strong character, her actions lead to most of the film's "what the fuck are you doing?!?" moments. Dave Bautista, Ana de la Reguera, and Omari Hardwick are delightful and make up the backbone of the team, while Nora Arnezeder and Samantha Win steal the show with their relentless ferocity. Samantha Win arguably has the best action sequence in the film, so it's sad to see her go so quickly. Tig Notaro also does a fantastic job as a cynical and smart-mouthed helicopter pilot. In an interesting and somewhat controversial move by Snyder, she replaced the original actor (Chris D'Elia) after the film was completed due to allegations about his inappropriate behavior. In most cases, the replacement is seamless, but there are a handful of composite group shots where she looks out of place. Despite that, she does such a great job with the role that I can't imagine anyone else doing it.

Love him or hate him, Snyder is definitely a tech geek and a film nerd. If you can get past the superficial shell of the film and start to really pick it apart, that's where you'll see his brilliance and obsessive attention to detail. I invite you to look into all of the film references, in-jokes, and easter eggs on your own if you're interested. Unfortunately, these will be lost on most viewers and nearly all of them went over my head. The film was shot digitally (a first for Snyder), and reportedly with Canon dream lenses (50mm f0.98), which creates an odd aesthetic with super-soft focus and painfully glaring lens flares. The shaky handheld camera work is also infuriating and unnecessary. Overall, the visual effects are excellent, although a handful of CGI shots towards the end look surprisingly awful. The zombie effects are a mixed bag, made worse by the film's attempts to develop them as rational and sympathetic characters. The action scenes are tense and visually entertaining, but emotionally empty. The pacing also stumbles due to unnecessary drama and character development. Apart from the superb female characters, the real star of the film is seeing the Las Vegas Strip in ruins, which is consistently eye-catching throughout. I keep feeling like I should have enjoyed the film more than I did, but I can't exactly put my finger on why it didn't work for me. It also raises a lot of nagging questions that are never addressed. Like protective clothing, for instance. If you were going to infiltrate an area full of zombies, having a lot of exposed skin seems like a really bad idea. And again, zombie robots? What the hell?