(WXYZ) — Tom Santilli is a respected journalist and member of the Critics Choice Association, Detroit Film Critics Society and Online Film Critics Society since 2010. Tom is the Executive Producer and co-host of the syndicated TV show, "Movie Show Plus," which has been on the air for 20+ years in the Metro-Detroit market and Mid-West. He is also the film critic for WXYZ-TV. Twitter: @tomsantilli, Facebook & Instagram: @filmsurvivor.
Zack Snyder has worked his way into the hearts of millions and is one of the most talked-about directors of the past year. The "Zack Snyder Cut" of "Justice League" that was recently released was well-received and dreamed into fruition by his fervent fan-base. But long before he ever took on The Caped Crusader and his Super-Friends, Snyder cut his teeth on a zombie movie...a George Romero zombie movie no less...the 2004 remake of "Dawn of the Dead." It was Snyder's first feature-film and he returns to world of the undead with his own original zombie tale, "Army of the Dead."
Yes, it's way too long (it is a Zack Snyder film after all), and it never quite lives up to its outstanding opening sequence. But sometimes it's nice to just rest one's brain, and that particular muscle is not at all needed to enjoy this one. "Army of the Dead" definitely pays tribute to the zombie genre, in that mindlessness is not only welcome, it's the main dish.
If only it didn't take itself so seriously.
There's an equal amount to love and to hate about "Army of the Dead," but those who feel inclined to buy a ticket (or watch it at home) will likely be entertained.
Strangely, "Army of the Dead" is actually a closer relative to "Ocean's 11" than it is any George Romero zombie film, but it's original premise is loads of fun. After a military transport accident, an actual zombie escapes and makes its way into the heart of Las Vegas, Nevada. Over the opening credits, a sea of zombies battle a group of survivors, and the camp is palpable. We learn that the US Government is able to quickly build a wall around the entire city, effectively quarantining the millions of zombies that now call Vegas their home. The President plans to drop a nuke on the whole of it, but before he does, an opportune businessman Bly Tanaka (the great Hiroyuki Sanada) plans a daring heist, to recover a massive payload of money that exists in a vault deep underneath the city that never sleeps.
That's when "Army of the Dead" becomes a typical heist film. Tanaka recruits the bad-ass Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), who is grieving the recent loss of his family, but who became a hero after he saved a top government official from the zombie horde. The first portion of the film goes through the usual steps where we see Ward recruit his team members (including Tig Notaro, Raul Castillo, Ella Purnell and Matthias Schweighofer), and we see the team members begrudgingly accept working with one another. Then the mission is laid out clearly, so the audience can understand and know what to expect, and then the team sets out on the mission. Per norm, things don't necessarily go according to plan along the way.
One major shift that Snyder makes with his zombies are that some of them are intelligent beings. By definition, zombies are typically soulless, hungry, nameless and faceless, who just exist to feed, feed, feed. But in this universe, the Alpha zombie is intelligent, and there is a primitive zombie hierarchy that develops. It's a weird shift and one that doesn't quite work. But in some ways, it does make the threat of the zombie army that much more intimidating (as does the zombie white tiger that the Alpha keeps as his pet).
Frankly, what Greg Nicotero does with zombies weekly on "The Walking Dead" is far more impressive than anything Snyder does with them, perhaps aside from that thrilling opening sequence. Aside from the zombies still being susceptible to brain injuries, they sort of don't have many rules in this film, which is annoying. And even the action sequences become less and less impressive...less and less Snyder-like, which is a massive disappointment.
Mashing up the heist film with a zombie apocalypse doesn't quite work, and the attempt at characterization that takes up the first half of the film could have been shortened...had it found a way to keep its initial tone, this could have been a real winning effort. Instead, we go from seeing a zombie Elvis shuffle his way down the Vegas strip all the way to seeing a zombie tiger tear a man apart after a disgustingly gory fight. There's room for both in the genre, but perhaps not in the same film.
There may have been life somewhere deep down inside "Army of the Dead," but it's mostly cold, with the life slowly seeping out of it more and more the longer it goes on. At least this was one zombie film that didn't just follow the herd, but it's clashing of genres is enough to make one go brain-dead.
Genre: Action, Crime, Horror.
Run Time: 2 hours 28 minutes.
Starring: Dave Bautista, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ella Purnell, Garret Dillahunt, Ana de la Reguera, Tig Notaro, Omari Hardwick, Matthias Schweighofer
Story by Zack Snyder.
Co-Written and Directed by Zack Snyder ("Zack Snyder's Justice League," "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice," "Man of Steel," "Watchmen," "300," "Dawn of the Dead").
"Army of the Dead" is in theaters this Friday, May 14th, 2021 and then on Netflix on Friday, May 21st, 2021.