By: Kayla Caldwell
First and foremost, I just want to give a shoutout to Zack and Deborah Snyder, and everyone else involved in casting Tig Notaro following a host of unsavory accusations against comedian Chris D’Elia, who had already filmed the role. THAT is how Hollywood needs to handle these cases of sexual misconduct and abuse.
This movie was one million times more entertaining for me than it would have been, had they left the original cut as is. And the thing is, while it may have been difficult, it totally works. It’s edited brilliantly, and Notaro looks like she was a part of the cast from the beginning. Elephant in the room aside, let’s get down to the fun stuff.
ARMY OF THE DEAD is an action movie for everyone. It’s The Italian Job meets Jurassic Park meets The Walking Dead (the early seasons, when it was still good). Admittedly, zombies are not my favorite creatures from the horror realm, but with ARMY OF THE DEAD, I was all in.
The movie starts with the most Zack Snyder intro perhaps ever, as we see a happy Vegas couple (who maybe tied the knot under the influence?) driving on a desolate road with abandon. Meanwhile, soldiers are also on the road, transporting some big, heavily-guarded container. The camera keeps jumping from covering the couple, who have now become very distracted thanks to PG-13 activities I will not mention since this is a family site.
However, it becomes abundantly clear that with their distraction, there’s probably going to be a big crash coming up. Of course, knowing it’s coming doesn’t take away from the tension of the scene. The couple doesn’t last long, but at least we can say they died doing what they loved, probably? Anyway, once the transpo box is destroyed, the soldiers are told to evacuate immediately, so you KNOW whatever is in that box is dangerous as hell.
And here’s where we meet the zombies, who were being transported from Area 51. They’re not like the zombies you imagine from Dawn of the Dead or The Walking Dead. The first zombie we see is fierce, like, rip a guy’s jaw right off of his head, fierce. He kind of looks like if they made a cross between The Hulk and Frankenstein’s monster, but without CGI.
After the zombies take down their carriers, it’s over for Vegas. Now, I realize that using slowed-down versions of classic songs is commonplace for horror at this point, but I’m not sure if it has ever been utilized quite as well as Zack’s use of “Viva Las Vegas” for this opening sequence. “All those hopes down the train” hits a bit harder when you’re watching Vegas fall to zombies.
Years later, we find out there’s a camp just outside of Vegas where soldiers are holding anyone who “might” have the virus, or just can’t afford to buy their way out. As is often the case, this camp quickly becomes corrupt, with guards locking up anyone who speaks out in support of abortion, gay rights, etc., or even just pisses them off. It’s uncomfortably resonant today.
Also not hard to believe? The fact that the government tried and failed to curb the zombie outbreak, so they just decided to wall up Las Vegas and let it die, with later plans to bomb the zombies away. It’s difficult not to make a parallel between this and how the US handled the COVID-19 outbreak, but I digress.
We find our hero, Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) working in a diner, and clearly hating his job. It’s there he is approached by the mysterious Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada), who has an offer Scott just can’t refuse. See, he has $200 million in a safe under one of the Vegas casinos that has become a wasteland thanks to the apocalypse. His insurance has already covered the losses for him, but greed is king, so Tanaka still wants that bloody, bloody money.
He offers Scott $50 million dollars if he can bring it home for him, and he gets to pick whoever he wants for his rescue team. Enter helicopter tech Marianne Peters (a delightful Tig Notaro), expert safe cracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer), Maria Cruz (Ana de la Reguera), Chambers (Samantha Win), and Vanderohe (a god-like Omari Hardwick). Lilly, or The Coyote (Nora Arnezeder), joins the crew because she knows the terrain from sneaking desperate refugees into Vegas to try to steal money from the casinos to buy their freedom. Social media star Mikey Guzman is brought into the fold because the former Vegas resident is known for his YouTube videos where he sneaks into Vegas to kill zombies like an IRL video game. Martin (Garret Dillahunt) is an unwanted edition to the team, courtesy of Tanaka himself, and last but not least, to Scott’s chagrin, Kate (Ella Purnell) joins the squad to find her friend Geeta (Huma Qureshi), who is lost in Las Vegas.
Each character has their own skillset, inspiration, and style (both of clothing and how they kill - looking at your Chainsaw, Vanderohe!), to the point where I feel like ARMY OF THE DEAD would be a really, really fun video game, if I were any good at video games.
The visuals of zombie-run Vegas are nothing short of impressive. You’re hit almost immediately with the infamous zombie white tiger, which is deliciously gruesome and ominous. In the press conference, the crew all joked about the tiger being one of the biggest surprises to come out of the movie, since when they filmed they were just reacting to a tiger backpack on a stick. What’s even more amazing is that the tiger guards the zombie’s territory, working as their fellow undead ally.
Before our brave crew can go any further, however, The Coyote shows everyone how to make a trade to pacify the zombies. What was the trade? Well, I’ll keep that spoiler to myself, but I will say, you can kind of see it coming. Nonetheless, it’s still pretty enjoyable — and the zombies are FABULOUS. Why, in this crazy made-up world full of zombies and undead tigers am I focusing on clothes? That’s a credit to Zack and his team, I guess, but I predict people will be dressing as head zombie Zeus (Richard Cetrone) and his surprisingly stylish and, dare I say, sexy(?) zombie queen.
A lot was made of this disturbingly sultry zombie pair when the trailer dropped, and no, there is no zombie sex scene. However, there is a scene that suggests they might have had sex, and I have to admit that I got lost for a few minutes trying to work out the logistics of that in my head. The amazing thing about this movie, however, is the way Zack manages to focus on emotion in a film so full of action. Even the zombies clearly share a sense of community, hierarchy, and perhaps even love for each other.
It could come across as goofy and out of place, but ARMY OF THE DEAD manages to make it feel natural and authentic, seeing as every character has their own emotional battles to fight, in addition to the physical ones. Kate and Scott are at odds because of the tragic death of her mother, which happened to be perpetrated by her father. (Don’t be too mad at him, she had turned into a zombie!) And Vanderohe is not just your average meathead assassin. Hardwick imbued him with so much depth that you can see his inner struggle with each kill. (Read more about his character work here.)
Just a note here that as enjoyable as this movie is, it is quite long, which is not unheard of for Zack Snyder films. But my roommate did walk in at around this time of the film when I was watching (51 minutes had already passed), but I was able to summarize it for her and there were still about an hour and 14 minutes left. That’s not to say it isn’t entertaining. Read through the credits and you’ll find roles like “Zombie showgirl,” “Zombie swinger,” and “Zombie male stripper,” so it certainly isn’t boring.
At this point, everything is going smoothly, almost too smoothly for a film with the word “army” in the title. And that’s all about to change, thanks to Martin (who you may remember from The Mindy Project), who’s about as likable onscreen as Nedry from Jurassic Park. His best scene is a jaw-dropping battle with the undead tiger that is not entirely unlike Nedry’s final bow in the beloved 1993 film.
Trying my best not to spoil, Martin breaks the zombie agreement, which in turn unleashes the, well, army of the dead, on his unsuspecting comrades. In my notes, I just wrote, “Never trust a white man.” I guess, unless that man is Zack Snyder. What follows next is absolute insanity, presented in a way no other director can. There are some deaths for the poc in this film that are a bit difficult to watch, but in all fairness to Zack, he certainly doesn’t discriminate when it comes to a gruesome end.
ARMY OF THE DEAD is predictable at times, but not where it counts. It’s quite a feat to make a full-throttle action movie that also has big heart, and Zack managed to accomplish that here, in no small part, I’m sure, to a great cast including stars like Bautista and Hardwick. I’ve long been charmed by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, so this rise of beefy action stars that are just big teddy bears is truly a delight.
There’s also plenty of humor in ARMY OF THE DEAD. One highlight for me was the relationship between Vanderohe and Dieter as the latter works to crack the intimidating Vegas safe. In the junket, Hardwick joked, “Matthias became my righthand man, my Mel Gibson to my Danny Glover, of sorts,” and let me just say, I would be so down for that buddy comedy. It also makes me really excited for the upcoming prequel Army of Thieves.
Peters, of course, is another burst of comic relief. ARMY OF THE DEAD made me realize I’m a Tig Notaro stan, because I wanted even more footage of Peters. At one point she jokes, “I developed a conscience. It’s exhausting.” Isn’t it, though?
Bottom line, ARMY OF THE DEAD is a fun zombie romp that you won’t regret seeing, even though its run time is a full 28 minutes over two hours. Zack Snyder fans will be absolutely delighted, because he delivered a truly thrilling action comedy, imbued with the style he’s become so known and loved for.
I honestly can’t say enough good things about this movie, and I’m not even a big action flick girl. So, if you’re like me, and are debating seeing this… trust me, it’s worth it. I’d watch subsequent movies based on literally any of these characters - including the zombie king and queen!
ARMY OF THE DEAD is in select theaters and will drop on Netflix on May 21.