[Review] Army of the Dead (2021) by Marcus Wilturner

Despite the controversies and fandom insanity, this seems to be turning into the year of Zack Snyder. With his original near-masterful vision of “Justice League” finally coming into fruition not too long ago, the world as well as social media has been ablaze and aghast with his name popping up in every context, from criticisms about the film to his own antics becoming somewhat gospel as he keeps taking a colossal chomp out of the movie business. And of course, Snyder-holics continue to feverishly campaign for the restoral of the Snyderverse.

Love him or despise him, Zack’s name is all over the place. So, it seems as good a time as any for a rousing return to the zombie niche of horror that assisted in making him a household name before comic adaptations became such a staple in the industry.

In cinema, the zombie sub-genre has seen a cornucopia of rejuvenations over the decades. The undead have morphed from slow shuffling corpses to the fast, snarling infected, which opened a newfound crop of ideas to conceptualize.  And with that, Snyder takes that ball and runs it into end zone with another exhilarating entry that adds another jolt to the game for casual moviegoers and bluffs alike with Army Of The Dead (2021).

With a story that has a bit of everything, a ragtag group of soldiers and mercenaries make their way into a closed off, quarantined Las Vegas to obtain tons of cash from the safe of a casino. Only issue is the city is completely overrun by the undead. Even more terrifying, the dead are distinct and diverse, inhabiting different sections of the city. From the lowliest of shamblers to enforcers who are stronger, faster, and more vicious, to an actual king and queen who rules over all of them. There is even an undead tiger named Valentine, who roams and guards the outskirts of the city, or in this case, the kingdom of the dead. Needless to say, this will not be a simple in-n-out, smash and grab heist. And we as an audience would not have it any other way.

You can tell Snyder was in his element and had a ball bringing another dead tale to life, because it translated exceptionally well onscreen. From the decimated ruins of Vegas which bring the spectacle (loved the cinematography), to the various kinds of undead which bring the terror and mystique. Zack’s ideas are fresh and furious yet brings the depth and gravitas to the story. There is even a fantastic opening credits sequence that showcases the insane outbreak in the city, and in a roundabout way, acts as a sort of prequel to the very film you’re about to witness, setting the tone splendidly

Normally in sequences such as this, there isn’t much production value or even coherency, but the level of action and carnage on display is fantastic. No doubt this will spark another campaign for a longer extended cut, but I doubt there is one as this time around. Netflix did not disturb the process or greedily dice up any of Zack’s work, and what a difference it makes.

Next up, in any “of the Dead” film, there has to be a bit of societal commentary for good measure, and there’s sprinkles here and there to keep things echoing our times. We get a glimpse of how the government and the populace respond to this crisis, and in a smidge of retrospect, it’s exactly what you would expect. Not on the genius level of nuance the legendary George A. Romero has displayed in his undead classics, but nevertheless just as relevant all the same.

But of course, no trip of the dead can work without a slew of characters, and we get a great cast to incorporate these players with gusto. Everyone gets a chance to shine, simmer, or build upon the foundation established in the opening credits, which for the most part, makes us give a damn about them, especially when the bodies start to sadistically drop.

For myself, the highlights were easily Matthias Schweighöfer’s optimistic and inquisitive safe cracker Dieter, Omari Hardwick’s philosophical hard-ass Vanderohe, Nora Arnezeder’s tough and knowledgeable (or expositional) Lily, and Tig Notaro’s quirkily sardonic Peters. Peters was originally cast as Chris D’Elia, but after he was scrapped, Tig was cast, her scenes added and edited into the film using CGI and body doubles, which worked decently due to her performance.

But the glue that holds it together is Dave Bautista, who unsurprisingly knocks it out of the park as the group’s formidable leader, Scott Ward. Though in a twist, “the animal” surprisingly delivers on the emotional parts of the character, proving there is more to him than an intimidating badass. Hopefully moving forward, we get opportunities to see Dave’s range as an actor, because he’s more than capable given the chance.

On the negative side of the dead escape, the film is a tad overstuffed and long, but the time is used to build the characters and setting so it’s a small grievance. Plus, I dare say I didn’t particularly care for the father-daughter dynamic between Ward and his annoying daughter Kate (played by Ella Purnell). It wasn’t bad per se, just too much time focused on it when Bautista already solidified the tortured aspect of his character. Just seemed like Kate’s character was included to add unnecessary nonsense to a situation already overflowing with death and uncertainty. And lastly, the special effects were iffy in some spots but another mild inconvenience that didn’t lessen the overall experience.

Overall, this was a treat and a half – Bombastic, vicious, thrilling, and oodles of fun. Snyder and company have crafted a fantastic time that’s sure to sit next to the greats of the sub-genre and horror at large. While not a perfect film or even on par with his last venture into the dead, it certainly isn’t a dud, and exudes some fresh takes and an abundance of personality. For this humble schmoe and many others, it’s an emphatic reminder why Zack Snyder is still a director worth gambling on, whether the jackpot is assured or not. Either way, you’re going to get a helluva show.

Rating

Review written by Marcus Wilturner

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