Quality carnage and character work abound in Army of the Dead. And it’s brainy too!
In the not too distant future, Las Vegas has become even more of its own world. A wall of armored shipping containers has sealed off the Entertainment Capital of the World. Sneering armed guards patrol a vicious hybrid of quarantine and refugee camp at the wall’s edge. And on July 4th, on the orders of a dopey, malignant, unnamed president, Sin City will burn in nuclear fire. Why? The zombie apocalypse.
Fortunately for the world, the plague of undeath was stopped in the sleepless city. With the zombies contained, Vegas was left to rot. But while the city crumbled, its infamous fortunes were preserved – sealed away in counting rooms, slot machines, and vaults. Why risk going in to retrieve it when insurance covers disaster (brain-eating or otherwise)? Because it’s money. And that is the pitch Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) gives to haunted, lonely, zombie war hero Scott Ward (Dave Bautista).
When Tanaka abandoned the Bly Casino, he left $200 million untaxable, untraceable dollars in its vault. If Ward assembles a team to go into Vegas, crack the vault, and retrieve the money, $50 million of the haul is his to do with as he will. Ward, a lost man searching for some sort of purpose and looking for a way to make things right with his estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell), agrees.
Ward gathers his crew – his war buddies Maria Cruz (Ana de La Reguera) and Vanderhoe (Omari Hardwick), bitterly caustic helicopter pilot Peters (Tig Notaro), zombie-killing influencer Mikey Guzman (Raùl Castillo), Guzman’s warrior pal Chambers (Samantha Win), oddball safecracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer) and, at Tanaka’s insistence, oily security man Martin (Garret Dillahunt). Kate, the mercenary coyote Lilly (Nora Arnezeder), and a loathsome guard called Burt (Theo Rossi) join them at the city proper.
Great movie heists rarely go totally according to plan, for reasons both external and internal. In the case of Ward’s crew, they’re racing a nuclear bomb, dealing with assorted personal tensions and unexpected security measures and, oh yeah, the titular Army of the Dead. While the Army has its share of shambling ghouls, it is no mere roving mass of talons and teeth.
Certain zombies – Alpha zombies – are fast, strong, and smart. Smart enough to build themselves a kingdom in the ruins. And Zeus (Richard Cetrone), their leader, does not take kindly to those who do not heed his power or respect his reign.
Army of the Dead is a ton of fun and an excellent piece of filmcraft on just about every level. The ensemble is strong, with a compelling lead in Bautista, standout work from Purnell, Hardwick, Arnezeder, and Dillahunt, and a magnificent nemesis in Cetrone. The cinematography – by director Zack Snyder – is gorgeous, and in places downright stunning. The early days of the Vegas apocalypse are macro-scale doom. The revival of the Bly is ominously gaudy. And Zeus’ court possesses both grotesquery and beauty.
The makeup (headed by Victoria Down, Ozzy Alvarez, and Kevin Kirkpatrick) and special effects (supervised by Michael Gaspar, Godzilla vs. Kong) are grungy and grody and when the time comes, deliciously gory. The stunts (coordinated by Damon Caro and Wayne Dalglish) and action (choreographed by Dalglish, Spenser Confidential) are creative without fail, whether comedic (zombies prove remarkably handy for bypassing boobie traps), thrilling (an early sequence that tracks the crew as they silently weave through a room filled with hibernating zombies) or horrific (like, Paul Thomas Anderson said, “there will be blood”).
The script, written by Snyder, Shay Hatten (John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum) and Joby Harold (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword) is effective. It gives Bautista the opportunity to both barrel through crowds of zombies as an action star and delve into the introspective mood he performs so well as an actor.
Bautista brings a consistent melancholy to Ward that underlines his warm and sorrowful moments and blends with Army of the Dead‘s action and horror in fascinating ways.
Scott Ward, for all his physical derring-do, holds himself back. He assumes that he has failed in his life and relationships, and so lets them drift away. Facing that fact is not easy for him. While he isn’t as cold as Michael B. Jordan’s John Kelly is in Without Remorse, he is similarly a soldier living a ghost-life. Bautista brings a consistent melancholy to Ward that underlines his warm and sorrowful moments and blends with Army of the Dead‘s action and horror in fascinating ways.
In Zeus, Cetrone crafts a memorable arch-zombie. While he does vocalize, it is first and foremost a physical performance. Where the ghouls shamble and the alphas sprint, Zeus is uniquely deliberate. He listens and watches. When he acts, he is as precise as he is relentless.
When Zeus is not leading his army to war, he is, while vicious, curious. And like his forbearers in the later Romero cycle, there’s more to him than insatiable hunger. Zeus has layers, and in concert with Cetrone’s fine performance and the makeup team’s eerie work, he stands a worthy foe for Ward and company.
Army of the Dead is more than worthy. It’s a lengthy film at almost two and half hours, but it uses the time well – whether for a weighted conversation between Bautista and Purnell or for a gunslinging flight atop row after row of slot machines. It’s often quite funny (between Notaro’s dry cynicism, Schweighöfer’s occasional shrieking, and Dillahunt’s smarm), it’s got terrific action (in addition to Bautista, Win has a stupendous solo sequence) and (sorry) some very welcome brains. It’s a blast.
Army of the Dead opens in theaters for a special engagement starting May 14th, and arrives on Netflix on May 21st.