Army of the Dead, directed by Zack Snyder, starts off like any other Vegas heist film set during a zombie apocalypse should: with a guy getting a blow job while driving his car in the Nevada desert, accidentally ramming into a top-secret military convoy, and unleashing the sinister results of a covert government project. After that, comes the perfect opening-credits sequence: Swarms of zombie showgirls, pageant queens, Elvis impersonators, and hotel maids feast on the residents of Sin City, set to a Richard Cheese and Alison Crowe cover of “Viva Las Vegas.”
The mayhem accelerates and expands (in slow motion, of course, because it’s Zack Snyder) as we see our main characters fleeing the undead, blowing away zombies, and sacrificing loved ones as the music continues. The military attempts but fails to gain over. (My favourite sight is of a paratrooper desperately shooting at the slavering throng of monsters below as his parachute gently lands him in the middle of them, where he is devoured.) The city is then bombed, surrounded by an improvised cordon of giant shipping containers, and given to the undead.
End opening credits. This is the first 15 or so minutes of Army of the Dead, and it is basically perfect.
The next hour or so is also very entertaining. A enigmatic billionaire (Hiroyuki Sanada) enlists Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), a mercenary behemoth now working a grill in a dead-end diner, to return to Zombie Vegas, hack into a vault underneath a casino, and reclaim the fortune stashed there. One additional complication: the United States military has agreed to nuke the city during the Fourth of July holiday, giving Scott and whoever he brings along only one day to complete it. As a result, Scott and his old pal Cruz (Ana de la Reguera) begin assembling a squad in the manner of the Dirty Dozen/Seven Samurai.
A traumatised, buzzsaw-wielding badass (Omari Hardwick); a brilliant but inexperienced German safecracker (Matthias Schweighöfer); a wisecracking helicopter pilot (Tig Notaro); a YouTube star (Ral Castillo) known for his zombie-killing videos; and a stoic French “coyote” (Nora Arnezeder) who has experience leading groups of renega A corporate overseer (Garret Dillahunt) and Kate (Ella Purnell), Scott’s semi-estranged daughter with whom he still has unresolved problems from the time he stabbed her zombie mother in the brain, show up at the last minute.
Snyder concocts fascinating takes on familiar zombie stereotypes in the opening scenes of the gang’s arrival in Las Vegas, as well. A quarantine zone surrounds Vegas, containing refugees living in tents who seem to be trapped in a bureaucratic no-man’s-land, preyed upon by greedy guards. We see an undead version of one of Siegfried and Roy’s tigers wandering the ravaged streets once we’re inside Vegas proper. The area is littered with massive piles of dried-up zombies. They were left in the sun for too long, but we’ve been advised that if it rains, they’ll come back to life.
Vegas, it seems, is controlled by a hierarchy of the undead: The shamblers who make up the mindless cannon-fodder swarms are ruled by a group of alphas who are smarter, faster, and (I can’t believe I am writing this word) hotter than your average brain-eating animated corpse. The alphas can be kept at a distance, somewhat, by making them a human offering. An early scene of the characters gingerly navigating a building filled with hibernating zombies (who sleep standing up) is wonderfully tense. The two towers of the casino they have to rob are called “Sodom” and “Gomorrah.” The impenetrable safe they must crack is called “Götterdämmerung” and was built by a guy named Wagner. Never have the Snyderisms come so relentlessly, and never have they felt more welcome.
And then, it all somehow goes south. Once the zombie killing starts in earnest, Army of the Dead becomes profoundly less interesting and more predictable. It’s a tale of two Zack Snyders: Gone is his flair for the mythic and the perverse, replaced by his baffling fondness for generic action spectacle. It doesn’t help that the script (credited to Snyder, Joby Harold, and Shay Hatten) appears to have borrowed most of its story beats from James Cameron’s Aliens — from the inevitable double cross, to the lost civilian who must be saved, to several other late-movie plot twists that I won’t reveal here. As a result, many of the story developments that should ideally keep us watching instead feel played out before they even occur: We’re constantly one step ahead, easily anticipating each big moment because, frankly, we’ve seen it before, in a better film.
Snyder is the kind of action auteur whose sensibilities can start wars among viewers. And maybe even among studio execs: Is there any other filmmaker out there who is repeatedly given so much power, only to have it pulled back at the last minute? With the March release of the so-called “Snyder Cut” of his Justice League, the director managed to make many of his critics (including yours truly) think twice: His four-hour version of that superhero epic, while certainly overstuffed and indulgent, was far more rewarding and moving than the compromised theatrical version. You took the good with the bad, because the good far outweighed the bad.
While the suits who cut up Justice League have now been semi-canceled and proven wrong, the idea that Zack Snyder movies are sometimes maybe — just maybe — too long and a little too self-important remains a notion worth exploring. Netflix, notorious (and beloved) for giving its A-list auteurs all the freedom in the world, seems in some ways an ideal place for the director to land, far from corporate bean counters and cutting-room busybodies. And at first, the match seems made in heaven: There’s a great movie in here somewhere, and for a while, we’re watching it.
But those opening credits, mixing Vegas kitsch and color with gritty zombie-picture shlock, and those opening scenes, mixing action-movie character development with welcome bits of deadpan humor delivered by a game cast, set up an experience Snyder seems increasingly less interested in delivering over the course of this film. Army of the Dead — which, let me reiterate, is a Vegas heist flick set during a zombie apocalypse — should be a lot more fun than it is. Or maybe more accurately, it should be as fun in the middle and toward the end as it is at the beginning. It starts off great. But then it goes on. And on. And on. And takes itself ever more seriously at each turn. By the end, any buoyancy has disappeared into a familiar wasteland piled high with corpses and exploding heads.