Army of the Dead

Army of the Dead ★★★½

Zack Snyder’s “Army of the Dead” is so over-the-top, it features a zombie tiger and a zombie horse. Viewers who enjoy heist pictures and undead flicks are in for a treat; the writer-director knows exactly the kind of movie he wishes to create and he makes zero attempt to disguise it as something else. What results is a fun ride, not always original but is never intended to be, with enough nifty little surprises along the way. There is a sense of freedom here that I wish were more present in the movies: mainstream blockbusters, indie darlings, and everything in between.

One of the surprises is a most informative opening credits. Instead of simply presenting names on a black screen or on random images only minimally related to the plot, it opts to tell a story of how Las Vegas became the epicenter of a zombie outbreak. The editing is sharp, the soundtrack is rockin’, and jokes abound. We are introduced to some characters who will prove to be important, what they went through in order to save remaining survivors, and allies who were badass but failed to make it one way or another.

Its efficiency proves to be useful because once Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), a national hero currently working in a burger joint who later accepts a job to obtain $200 million dollars from a vault underneath a Vegas casino, begins to recruit faces familiar and new, we already have an idea about two things: how well the former teammates work together (a wrinkle: there are new faces) and why they deserve the money. Despite the odds of them making it out alive, we feel confident that the mission will end up as a success.

I enjoyed how the picture takes ample time for the characters to get to the casino of interest. It ensures that there is something memorable—whether it be a face, a personality, a quirk—about each member of the central team composed of seven individuals (Ana de la Reguera, Tig Notaro, Raúl Castillo). Particularly amusing: Dieter the safecracker (Matthias Schweighöfer) who has no idea how to defend himself from zombies but decides to sign up anyway for the challenge that comes with opening a legendary vault and his surprising chemistry with Van (Omari Hardwick) a soldier with a degree in philosophy. Their scenes together, from the moment they meet until the slow-motion montage when chips are down and the pressure is up, are energetic, funny, occasionally bordering on bromance. I wished they had their own movie.

Another standout is Lily (Nora Arnezeder), a Frenchwoman who, for a fee, smuggles refugees, “potentially infected” individuals mostly composed of people of color, into Las Vegas so they can play the slots and pay their way to freedom should they win the jackpot. Lily is no-nonsense, focused, smart, and tough without trying—a survivor. Significantly less interesting, however, is Kate (Ella Purnell), Scott’s daughter who volunteers for the World Health Organization. For a young woman who is supposed to have a heart of gold, I found the character to be a waste of time and space. But I suppose somebody has to make dumb decisions in order to amplify or prolong the drama—a weakness of the film because material like this is better off as a wall-to-wall action-horror. A running time of nearly a hundred fifty minutes is excessive. But excess is the point; the story is set in Las Vegas after all.

Still, I was pleased that Bautista was given the chance to show off his dramatic side. I hope that sooner rather than later, he chooses to appear in smaller projects with real dramatic gravity. I think he would do just fine in a drama without guns, without yelling, without violence. It is because he has the ability to express convincing vulnerability. I wager he possesses qualities that the likes of Dwayne Johnson lacks. That’s marketable. And he’s certainly one to watch.

“Well, what about the zombie action?” It’s terrific. I do not want to reveal or detail the nature of the zombies. Or even what they are capable of. Those are best discovered in the moment. But know that if you expect only the lumbering dead or only adrenaline-fueled, unthinking runners, you are in for a ride. Action sequences are shot and edited in a way that viewers are given a chance to appreciate the various moving parts. It is apparent that Snyder finds great joy in putting at least half a dozen noteworthy details in a shot (especially during slow motion) so that those who watch his work a second or perhaps even a third time can discover something new.

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