By: John M Jerva
THE REVIEW: With the hoopla of Justice League firmly behind him, genre filmmaker Zack Snyder has ceremoniously turned the page of his career and has essentially come home to the sub genre that put him on the map to begin with. Everyone knows that Snyder’s first directorial effort was the well received remake of the classic zombie flick Dawn of the Dead and while that movie earned him accolades, the movies that followed have been hit or miss with critics and audiences alike.
Say what you will about the man but he sure as hell does know how to make a visually striking movie and his flair for theatrics is unrivaled. I have been one to champion Snyder and I’ve enjoyed most of his offerings sans Sucker Punch. That one was a train wreck in my eyes but that’s a story for another time. With all that said, we now have the long awaited debut of Army of the Dead which is Snyder’s big Nerflix debut. The zombie subgenre has been done to death in blockbusters, TV fair and DTV offerings that are easily forgettable for the most part. With this entry, Snyder’s fingerprints are all over it from directing duties to writing and even serving as the film’s director of photography. This is a Snyder joint in all its glory and one that rejuvenates said tired subgenre. The story doesn’t really reinvent the wheel but it definitely gets the tires spinning to the max. How do you do something different with this? Well, you turn it into a heist movie and instead of our anti-heroes going up against the mob or an army of cops, this time it’s the undead that stands in their way from stealing millions upon millions in cash that has been left behind when the shit hit the collective fan.
Army of the Dead opens up with a secret military convoy transporting something very, very bad. How bad is it? Well, it’s bad enough for the crew to chat up what they could be hauling. Could it be aliens? The Holy Grail? Amelia Earhart? Well, any of those would have been a lot better than what they are really transporting. It’s bad, just plain bad, pure and simple. Unfortunately, the military convoy gets into one massive accident caused by a couple of newlyweds who just got hitched and all I’ll say is that at least the groom died happy and it is one of the many dark humor aspects of the movie. It made me laugh but hopefully you don’t think less of me.
When the container housing the very bad thing gets cracked open, all hell breaks loose in a matter of seconds when one severly dangerous speciman escapes turning the soldiers into cattle for the slaughter. They should have listened to the lady on the walkie when she literally told them to drop everything and get the f@ck out of there. They don’t move fast enough of course and now Las Vegas becomes ground zero for a massive onslaught of zombie death and destruction as the speciman virtually turns the city that never sleeps into a bloodbath. During the opening credits we see the carnage and the soldiers enlisted to stop it. With a cover of the good ol Vegas tune “Viva Las Vegas” playing in the background, we are introduced to Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) who is a bad ass hombre who saves the Secretary of Defense during the breakout. His disciples consist of Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick) and Cruz (Ana de la Reguera) who will do anything for him. Not all the men and women fighting the surge make it out and as the military closes off Vegas with a wall of storage containers, we are treated to some harsh realities amidst the mayhem. One such tragedy befalls Ward who has to do something unspeakable and because of it, he vanishes from existence and leaves his daughter to hide out flipping burgers in a rundown diner sometime after the death and dismemberment.
Enter billionaire Tanaka played by Hiroyuki Sanada who was fantastic in Mortal Kombat as Scorpion in a cameo role who has the offer of a lifetime for Ward. Simply assemble a crack squad of shit kickers and in true do or die fashion break into the quarantine zone to retireve $200 million dollars located in an impenetrable safe underneath a casino. Time is running out because the government has approved a surgical nuclear strike on Vegas to quall the threat once and for all. Ward immediately hires Vanderohe and Cruz to help him but he also recruits Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer, who serves as the majority of comic relief) who is an expert safecracker as well as Marianne played Tig Notaro, a fly by her seat helicopter pilot. There’s also Guzman (Raúl Castillo) who is a social media star and Nora Arnezeder who is an expert “coyote” or someone that gets people into the quarantine zone if they dare choose. We also have Martin played by Garret Dillahunt who is Tanaka’s head of security but we know that he’s up to something from the get go. It’s a basic trust him as far as you can throw him scenario.
Ward also reluctantly brings his estranged daughter Kate (Elle Purnell) with him as she is looking for a friend who has disappeared after going into the hot zone. Once there, Ward and his crew of merry mercs discover that these are more than just your everyday garden variety shamblers. There’s a group of zombies kinown simply as Alphas. One’s that have been bit by the head Alpha named Zeus himself. These zombies are the worse of the worse. They can think, move and are exremely combat effective. They reek of bad news, pure and simple.
Now Ward and the gang must take on more than they bargained for as the Alpha male and his disciples surround the band of heavily armed theives with only one thing on their dead minds, kill every last one of them.
First off, let me just say that I’ve never been a superfan of zombie films and I guess my favorite ones were the action oriented kind with military types blowing heads off left and right. After a while, it seemed like the market was saturated with countless low budget flicks that all were dying to get noticed. Here, Zack Snyder has essentially injected new life into the tired stream of films and what you see isn’t necassarily what you get. The trailer is a little misleading as it makes the film look like it’s a non-stop crazy kill fest but there’s a lot more to it than that. The running time is an unusual two hours and thirty minutes and while that may seem long, I feel that it serves the film best by allowing the viewers to get to know the cast a lot better so when the time comes for someone to bite it (pardon the pun) it makes you feel something.
Snyder slows things down after the initial, insane opening sequence and this allows us to ride along with Bautista and company so when the inevitable shit does hit the fan, the stakes are much higher than if this was just a 90 minute free for all. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a free for all before the credits role but there’s more meat on this stick than your usual assembly line zombie features.
This could be considered an ensemble piece with cast members each getting alloted screen time but this is really Bautista’s show as he is involved in most of the proceedings and he gets the coolest action moments. Bautista gives us a hero that isn’t indestructable and that makes him more appealing and he has a vulnerability to him that makes you care more for his character. When the time comes though, Bautista turns on “The Animal” and shows us that he is a definitive action actor who can beat em up and shoot em up with the best of them. Ever since leaving wrestling, Bautista hasn’t pigeonholed himself into any type of genre role and has essentially done it all and here he gets the opportunity to flow through comedy, drama and slam bang action heroics all in one movie. Dwayne Johnson might technically be the bigger star on paper but I feel Bautista has him beat when it comes time for the finished product to entertaine. He is also a part of some father/daughter angst with co-star Ella Purnell who plays his daughter Kate. The two share some truly great moments of the film and it gives Ward even more depth to go along with the bloodletting.
The rest of the cast all have their collective moments with Hardwick, de la Reguera, and Schweighöfer getting the best of what’s left. Hardwick and Schweighöfer really have some choice moments together and serve up what is probably the most dramatic scene of the film. Ana de la Reguera also has some nice, quiet moments with Bautista and one such sequence shocked me when it happened as I was clearly not expecting it. Notaro, who doesn’t even share any legit screen time with the cast turns in one of the best performances as she was added well after the movie was shot. Notaro stepped in when Snyder decided to remove actor Chris D’Elia from the entire finished product when allegations of sexual misconduct came out and inserted Notaro seemlesly into the film with green screen and state of the art CGI technology. If you didn’t know any better, you’d swear that she was there from the get go and just like Schweighöfer, she delivers some great comedic moments for the film.
Snyder as always, pays homage to other great films that have come before and here one can see shades of Escape From New York, An American Werewolf in London and most of all Aliens present in the movie. The latter gets the biggest nod in my eyes as many moments reverted back to that classic 1986 James Cameron sequel and there’s even a line in the film when someone says, “you don’t see them f@cking each other over.” Just add the last part of the original text and there you have it. I will have to say that my favorite part was when Snyder uses the instrumental music from John Boorman’s classic Excalibur during the scene when they are at the vault. It fit the mood of the sequence perfectly.
Snyder injects the usual social commentary of the times and if one looks hard enough, you will see many scenes and situations that cry out real life issues. From putting up a wall to quarantining, Snyder has never been one to shy away from making a statement amidst all the chaos and mayhem on stage. He never overwhelms you with it which is good but he does wink at the audience and plays lets find the current event of the day game more than once.
This is the part of the review where I talk about the zombie tiger. It’s just friggin’ cool and it gets the best kill of the entire film. That’s all that needs to be said about that topic.
I won’t even get into the zombie robots and theories of a constant time loop where Ward and his crew are doomed to repeat fail. It just goes to show you that Snyder is somewhat of a genius when it comes to genre filmmaking and you never know what to expect or think. This isn’t your patents’ zombie flick and that’s for damn sure.
Like I said before, Army of the Dead isn’t wall to wall action but when it does hit, it hits you over the head with a shovel as the hair trigger moments are served with intensity and bad assery to the highest level. The highlights being one tense scene where Bautista and crew navigate a mindfield of hibernating zombies. Yep, you head me right, hibernating zombies. This sequence is the most nail biting besides the finale and it is punctuated with some serious firepower when things don’t go as planned. The last 40 minutes is where Snyder takes the chains off and it’s every man and woman for themselves.
One character’s dumb move is what really sets things in motion and it culminates in one extreme firefight inside the casino where Bautista’s Ward and some of his remaining team members must literally run and gun through a horde of Alpha zombies who are really good at dodging bullets. It is here where Snyder’s patented slo-mo is used to full effect and it is here where Bautista is at his bad ass best. The camera sweeps across as Bautista runs atop of tables firing away at the same time and it’s a grand site indeed. There’s also another nice little number earlier in the film where Bautista takes on one of the lethal zombies with a blade and the choreography is top notch and while it’s a fast sequence, it still gets the blood pumping.
The main antagonist is the head Alpha himself named Zeus and his character is certainly one of the best enemy combatents to ever grace an action flick. You never really find out if he was an experiment gone wrong or something else but you do know from the beginning that he is a force to be reckoned with. He wears a cape and a metal mask so when our anti-heroes fire at his head, he’s protected. He also shows a wide range of emotions which tells you that he’s not your ordinary walker. This character kind of reminded me of the big baddie in Daylight’s End as he might be infected but he still is smart as hell and exremely combat effective.
Overall, Army of the Dead might just be the most unique entry in this subgenre and Snyder, hate him or love him, certainly does things differently than in other movies. Who else would have thought of a zombie infested heist movie and I think the filmmaker will change some people’s perception of him. I have always been a fan and I’m glad to see him shining in the spotlight again. Bautista is perfect in the leading man role and his character of Ward has many layers to go along with the action hero vibe. The cast are all having fun with it and the audience should to because this is a film that doesn’t take itself seriously and from beginning to end, it reinvents the zombie thriller. The ending is cryptic unfortunately but I for one hope to see where it will go in the future. Army of the Dead is an ass kicking good time but it still serves up some social commentary, emotion and humor to go along with the bullets and gore and at the end of the day, it entertains on a whole new level. There’s plenty, and I do mean plenty, of zombie killing action set pieces and the gore and special effects are first rate as well they should be for the price tag it took to make the film. Snyder is basically saying turn your brain off and have fun with it because with movies, we just want to escape and forget and Army of the Dead is definitively the type of picture to do just that. It’s blood, bullets, Bautista and Snyder. Enough said…