After spending the better part of a decade engrossed in the world of superheroes, directing three DC films during that time, filmmaker Zack Snyder has made his return to the realm of the undead with Netflix's Army of the Dead. This is Snyder's first foray into the zombie genre since his feature debut (and still his best movie), Dawn of the Dead, was released back in 2004, and there was a question of what the director's return to the genre would look like after spending so much time with capes, cowls, and enormous tentpole budgets from Warner Bros.
Army of the Dead feels like a culmination of Snyder's career to this point, much more so than his recently released cut of Justice League. With the creative freedom afforded by Netflix, Snyder returns to the genre that he's clearly best at with an exciting original story, bringing with him all of the lessons and techniques he learned from his stint with DC and a cast that feels down for just about anything. The film is a triumph for a director whose career has been mired by polarizing opinions, and it's easily the most exciting zombie film in years.
In Army of the Dead, a military convoy transporting a top-secret government asset from Area 51 loses control of said asset outside of Las Vegas, Nevada. The asset, as it turns out, is some sort of zombie, though it's faster and stronger than most humans. Sin City quickly becomes overrun with the undead and the entire town is walled off with shipping containers, keeping the outbreak from spreading to the rest of the country. Some years later, a mercenary that fought in Vegas when it first started to fall, Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), is approached with the dangerous mission of breaking into a secure vault beneath the Las Vegas strip where millions upon millions of dollars is sitting, completely untouched. Scott puts together an eccentric and lethal team to retrieve the cash, though they're battling against both the intelligent and organized zombie horde inside, and a ticking clock, as the President of the United States has signed an executive order to drop a nuclear warhead on the city.
In addition to being Snyder's first zombie film since 2004, Army of the Dead is the first of his movies since 2011's Sucker Punch not to be based on a pre-existing work. Most of his projects have been based on comic books, including Man of Steel, Watchmen, and 300. Army of the Dead is an original story from Snyder and a screenplay he co-wrote with Shay Hatten and Joby Harold. It's abundantly clear that Snyder is a filmmaker that works better when he's not trying to fit inside an already established box. Where he struggled at times to deliver on pre-existing characters like Batman, Superman, or Lex Luthor, Snyder thrives in building worlds and narratives for his new creations here. Each character has their own story and gets their own time to shine. We don't have preconceived notions of who they are supposed to be, so Snyder simply gets to have fun telling their stories, and the characters are much better for it.
Snyder is best known for his stunning visuals and his technical mastery is on full display in Army of the Dead. The fact that he shot the film himself in addition to directing is beyond impressive. Yes, he makes full use of his patented slow-motion sequences and focusing shots, but they just fit the style of an over-the-top zombie heist so much more than they do a melodramatic superhero opera. His stylistic choices match the aesthetic of the world he builds, instead of being at odds with it.
There's just something so innately enjoyable about the tone of Army of the Dead. It absolutely takes itself and its hair-brained mythology seriously. There are rules to how the zombies in this film work that haven't really been explored before, with the "Alphas" feeling more like the vampires in I Am Legend than anything from The Walking Dead or World War Z. These things were likely born from some kind of alien life and they roll around with undead animals demanding human sacrifices. It's absolutely bonkers but the sincerity with which it's treated makes it all work.
Snyder is often criticized for the seriousness of his stories, but that's often because the stories he's telling are already serious in their own right. They become bleak without any sense of levity. Army of the Dead needs that sincerity for the absurdity of it all to work, and there is plenty of time for the impressive cast to break through the bleakness for a laugh or two. This film isn't just like Dawn of the Dead in that it's about zombies, it's also a wonderful showcase for Snyder that proves he can walk the line between humor and consequence.
Just about every member of the cast does an excellent job bringing this world to life, with Omari Hardwick and Matthias Schweighöfer becoming the clear-cut standouts. Their chemistry is off the charts and they bring the biggest laughs, as well as the heaviest emotional punches. It's thrilling to see Dave Bautista take on a role like Ward; it's not a groundbreaking character we haven't seen before, but the man continues to evolve on-screen and bring nuance to each of his characters that feels unexpected and new.
Army of the Dead is a Zack Snyder movie through and through, which does mean that you'll have to deal with a lot of slow-motion action shots and a horde of needle drop covers of classic folk songs. It's certainly messy at times and a couple of the subplots don't quite find their footing, but it's an imaginative and absolutely thrilling ride that is hard not to enjoy.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Army of the Dead will be released in select theaters on May 14th, debuting on Netflix around the globe on May 21st.