While I frequently run hot and cold with the cinematic output of Zachary Edward Snyder, there’s no denying that my favorite movie of his by far is his rollicking remake of George A. Romero’s mall set zombie-thon, Dawn Of The Dead. Fast, exciting and riffing more heavily on high-energy video games rather than the shuffling examples of undead movies past, Snyder proved to be a talent to watch with his distinctive style being as prominent as the controversy he effortlessly left in his wake.
Well now, 17 years later and with all that Snydercut stuff finally in his rear view mirror, the Sultan Of Slo-Mo has finally left his highly divisive world of capes and cowls behind and returned to overseeing a good, old fashioned zombie apocalypse.
But does this comeback to a landscape of rotted flesh and reeking napalm equal a much needed breath of fresh air to an auteur who seems to stir up equal amounts of ire and worship wherever he goes?
After a zombie-like creature gifted with sick abs and impressive cardio escapes from a military convoy heading out from Area 51, the nearby Las Vegas spectacularly falls to a rapidly spreading plague of the undead which is ultimately walled off with shipping containers and left to rot.
A while later, mountainous, yet broken ex-military man Scott Ward is tasked by an eccentric billionaire to amass a team and break into Vegas with the express intention to liberate $200 million from a vault in the basement of a particular casino. However, there’s a catch – I mean, beyond the thousands of cannibalistic zombies – and that’s because in a couple of days the President has given the go ahead to drop a nuke on Sin City to obliterate the undead threat once and for all. Despite the ticking atomic clock and gnashing zombie teeth, Ward immediately agrees and starts tirelessly compiling zombie fodder along with old team-mates Maria Cruz and band-saw wielding hulk, Vanderohe and builds at team that also features a lethally sarcastic helicopter pilot, a socially awkward german safecracker and a thrill-seeking, zombie-killing internet sensation and his entourage.
However, upon being smuggled into Vegas by tormented merc Lilly The Coyote, the group immediately suffers a few setbacks; the first being Scott’s estranged daughter Kate diligently tagging along who works as a volunteer at a horribly corrupt quarantine camp in the area and who is searching for a friend who has snuck in to make some money to buy a way out for her family. The second and way more pressing issue is that there are actually two breeds of zombies stalking the streets, the first being the usual, slow type but the second is a faster, smarter, far more organised strain who are led by “Zeus”, the orginal zombie who’s bite can make others like him. Can the group stay on the right side of this army of the dead while obtaining their goal, or will the shifty secondary objective of one of their number bring a tidal wave of vicious, bitey death down upon them all…?
So before we sink our teeth into the meat of this movie, I’m gonna start off with a few of my usual Zack Snyder criticisms just to get them out of the way because let’s be honest, the man isn’t gonna change his ways any time soon… Yes, Army Of The Dead is way too long for a zombie shoot-em-up and could easily stand to lose half and hour of runtime easy and yes, some of the emotional content often feels slightly disingenuous when we’re here mostly to witness a full scale blowout of spraying brains and torn throats, but despite Snyder opting to make something potentially so simple into something so needlessly complicated, this horror/action epic turns out to be the director’s most enjoyable work in years.
Shorn from all his DC/WB woes Snyder truly flies free for the first time in ages, possibly liberated by the fact that no one’s gonna complain if he fucks around with zombies like he did with Superman and the result is mostly great. The human players are fun to be with and are lead by a soulful turn by the walking, talking, tattooed brick shit house known as Dave Bautista who continues nicely in his quest to being the thoughtful antithesis of Dwayne Johnson’s shouty persona. Everyone else also makes a mark but first place has to go to the jittery, German, Dieter who’s destined to get his own prequel and whose double act with Omari Hardwick’s increasing protective Vanderohe ends up being a far more effective relationship than the one between Scott and his willful daughter.
Character dynamics aside, the real reason we’re all here is to see exactly how much carnage Nexflix has bankrolled Snyder to unleash and after a typically Snyder-esque credits sequence that magnificently details the fall of Vegas while introducing how badass it’s trio of heroic heavies are, we treated to a localized zomb-ageddon that may seen a little over-familiar at times but is still relentlessly cool. This is chiefly because of the legitimately intriguing hierarchy of the super-zombies which takes Romero’s concepts of the evolving undead (Bub and Big Daddy from Day and Land Of The Dead) and gives them a shot of amyl nitrate right in their crusty veins. Plus, they look bloody resplendent and at one point when Zeus trots up on a fucking zombie horse, sporting a bullet proof face mask and spear and being flanked by an honest to god zombie tiger, it looks like a Frank Frazetta painting has literally come to life.
When the carnage kicks off it’s everything you wanted it to be; cranium’s pop like balloons filled with icky grey matter and our heroes start to drop like flies, but a meandering middle section takes some of the oomph out of what could have been a relentlessly paced zombie juggernaught.
Still, this is Snyder having fun and after the events of the last couple of years, he’s blatantly earned it and he’s peppered the film with tons of horror references that alternate between fun homage and unashamed ripoff. Behold countless references to Aliens (one character even dresses like legendary ball breaker Vasquez) and some sweet nods to American Werewolf In London in the pre credits sequence (“You really scared me you shit head!”) and even the red fuel canisters the characters lug around look remarkably like the ones from videogame shoot-em-up Left 4 Dead; but more hardcore horror fans may pick up on the lion’s share of the entire concept seems “borrowed” liberally from John Carpenter’s Ghosts Of Mars which also features machine toting toughies squaring off with a horde of zombie-like barbarians. However, in Snyder’s favour, Army Of The Dead is actually better so I’ll happily give him a pass – in fact I won’t even mention that zombies in Vegas was also the plot of the third Resident Evil movie for the same reason.
Epic and fun but still frustratingly restricted by it’s director having no restrictions (he desperately needs a harsher editor), Army Of The Dead is still bombastic and crazy enough to be a cool night in (did you not read the part where I mentioned a zombie tiger?) and it finally allows Zack Snyder the chance again to be all he can zom-be.