Zombie films have a large target for being successful. Hit zombie movies have been made featuring the social commentary of George A. Romero, the wit brought to them by Edgar Wright and Danny Boyle or the slick goofiness of the Resident Evil series. The genre doesn’t necessarily have to be good, per se, as long as it moves along at a fast clip, features tons of inventive gore, and pays homage to the conventions of the genre.
No one should know this more than Zack Snyder. His first feature films was 2004’s Dawn of the Dead, a taut, 101 minute remake of Romero’s 1978 original that, along with Wright’s Shaun of the Dead and Boyle’s 28 Days Later helped revitalize the zombie film for our generation. Unfortunately, since that time, Snyder has gone from a hungry director looking to make himself to an indulgent director who thinks his directorial tics add weight and importance to his films. This results in his return to the zombie genre, Army of the Dead, to become a bloated spectacle that collapses under the weight of its own stupidity.
Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) is a former mercenary who lost his wife when Las Vegas became overrun by a zombie plague. He now works as a short order cook at a burger joint and is visited by Steve Wynn—er—Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) who offers Ward $50 million to extricate $200 million from a vault in a sub-basement of his Las Vegas hotel before the U.S. Government drops a nuke on the city on the Fourth of July. Ward gathers his team, invades the walled off city and makes it to Bly’s hotel. But it turns out that he was never meant to succeed. A betrayal within his ranks causes the mission to go FUBAR and the heist quickly becomes a fight for survival.
The film clicks in at an exorbitant 2 hours and 28 minutes. That wouldn’t be hard to take if a majority of that time was dedicated to developing the characters a little bit more than they usually are in the zombie films. But, no, they still get just enough personality quirks to evoke an emotion from the audience when they meet their final fate. Heck, some of the alpha zombies get more personality than the living.
No, the majority of the padded run time is devoted to numerous, often unnecessary, subplots and the Snyder’s directorial excesses. The subplots include, but are not limited to:
- Ward’s unresolved issues with his daughter Kate (Ella Purnell)
- Ward’s flirtatious relationship with his second in command, Maria (Ana de la Reguera)
- The budding bromance between mercenary Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick) and safe cracker Ludwig (Matthias Schweighöfer)
- A mule who goes by the name “Coyote” (Nora Arnezeder) and the the moral struggles she undergoes with her job of smuggling people behind the wall.
- Single mother Geeta (Huma Qureshi) whom the Coyote sneaks into Vegas and leaves trapped inside.
- The shadowy machinations of Tanaka associate Martin (Garret Dillahunt)
The film would have been much better if some of these subplots were streamlined or eliminated. The Geeta storyline is essentially in the film to provide a needless plot complication.
Then there is Snyder’s directorial style, which it is safe to say I am not a fan of. Once again, Snyder indulges in his tics and tricks he has come to lean on over the years. Does he let scenes that should only last a minute or two drag out to ten minutes? Does he uses slow motion to an absurd degree? Does a bear defecate in the woods?
Snyder’s quirks are normally a detriment to his films, but in this one they are fatal. Because while you are watching a slow motion shot of a piece of plastic sheeting wave in the breeze, you are able to think harder about the plot. And that’s bad because this film has one of the dumbest plots of any zombie film I have ever seen.
Now, there always is a lot of suspension of disbelief that comes into play in zombie films. Army of the Dead abuses that suspension. The film is full of plot points that don’t hold up to the smallest amount of thought.
Let’s start with the whole thing about going in to take out the $200 million. The film shows this as being in huge pallets of $100 dollar bills. A quick internet calculation says that the $200 million would weight over 4,400 pounds, which is more than 2.2 tons. There is no way the team can carry that all out by themselves, even if one of them was Dave Bautista.
Then there’s the whole “nuking the city” thing. They make a point of saying that the Las Vegas heat causes the zombies to hibernate. This means that any caught outside shelter become withered husks only reanimated when it rains. Those inside buildings stand around in a stupor which they stay in until they are disturbed. This makes it seem that a nuking is unnecessary. Some surgical bombing and a judicious use of napalm should rid the city of about 90% of its zombies.
And, of course, there’s the typical annoying plot points. Like, the zombies have explicit rules on how they act and infect people until the plot requires them to act differently. Characters who have never shot a gun before hit everything they aim at but trained mercenaries miss most of their shots. Characters can find each other in 30 story buildings with relative ease and right in the nick of time. There are a lot of these nonsensical plot points you will be annoyed by.
The most fatal flaw of the film is its twist. I don’t want to delve too far into spoilers here, but what Tanaka really wants isn’t his money, but something else. The heist is just a smoke screen for his true goal. However, his true goal could be easily accomplished without the rigmarole of the heist. He didn’t need to involve Ward at all in the plan for it to succeed. So that makes the entire plot of the film completely unnecessary and infuriatingly stupid. You might have trouble tying your own shoes before you watch this movie, but it will make you feel so much smarter than the characters that you’ll want to take a crack at quantum physics afterward.
There is some good in the morass of stupidity. Bautista’s charisma helps elevate the film. Dillahunt and Theo Rossi are wonderfully oily as the cartoonish villains of the film. And special notice must be given to Tig Notaro. The majority of her character’s characterization comes from her performance, which is an accomplishment even if she wasn’t hired after shooting to replace Chris D’Elia due to his sexual misconduct allegation and with her role filmed almost entirely in front of a green screen without any other cast members present.
This film should have been a fun twist on the zombie genre. Maybe there will someday be a zombie heist film that is better written and better directed. Because Army of the Dead certainly isn’t it.