MOVIE REVIEW: ARMY OF THE DEAD (2021) builds a cool and unique zombie world; but doesn’t give us characters to really live in it.


Despite solid performances from Dave Bautista and Richard Cetrone, Snyder’s Army of the Dead delivers popcorn thrills but doesn’t rise up to the potential of the unique premise the film presents.

It’s not hyperbole to say that director Zack Snyder has had a pretty banner year in 2021. From seeing his long-awaited vision of the DC Expanded Universe come to fruition in Zack Snyder’s Justice League which premiered this past March on HBO Max, to an ever-growing fan outcry to see his so-called Snyderverse continue at Warner Brothers. But Snyder’s latest big-screen vision is actually unfolding on Netflix, a sprawling new action-horror feature called Army of the Dead in the vein of his big-screen debut Dawn of the Dead. Although Army isn’t a sequel or set in the same universe as Snyder’s 2004 film, it has the DNA of films from that Romero tradition, from Night and Dawn to Romero’s later films, namely Land of the Dead, in terms of story and social commentary. Snyder’s Army of the Dead has some amazing visuals, solid lead performances, and intriguing story concepts, but it has several issues in terms of runtime and story that hold the movie back from its full potential.

Army of the Dead follows Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), a Presidential Medal of Honor winner decorated for saving the Secretary of Defense from a zombie-devastated Las Vegas (which we see go down in a very cool opening sequence set to the lounge rock sounds of Richard Cheese and Allison Crowe’s cover rendition of Viva Las Vegas). Ward lost his wife due to the zombie virus, which was spread by a lost government bioweapon named Zeus (Richard Cetrone), a thinking and evolved Alpha zombie who now rules the remains of Vegas and its population of undead shamblers like his own fiefdom with his Queen (Athena Perample). Ward is down on his luck after his publicized rescue op, spending his days as a short-order cook at a dilapidated burger joint. He is found there by Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada), a casino magnate whose property is part of Zeus’ no man’s land. Tanaka offers Ward a proposition; his losses have already been covered by insurance, but the remains of his casino still host a multi-million dollar payday within the vault. If Ward can recover the money, Tanaka will give him a $50 million stake for his trouble to do with as he wishes. Ward sees it as a way to make up being emotionally distant to his daughter Kate (Ella Purnell), while he builds a crew who each have a need that this mission or that money can fulfill. But it isn’t long before circumstances force changes to their mission, that might jeopardize both the mission and the lives of all those involved.

It’s Dave Bautista’s Ward that is the emotional center of the film. Bautista throws himself fully into the concept and his Ward is a tragic antihero; haunted by the physical loss of his wife, but the emotional gulf that this created between himself and his daughter Kate, who refers to him by Scott, not Dad. The shots of Bautista’s waking up screaming and crying from his PTSD are pretty haunting and its clear he’s come a long way from playing the lumbering oaf Drax from the Marvel Guardians of the Galaxy films. But while Bautista finds pathos and depth in his character, the rest of the cast largely doesn’t rise to his level. Richard Cetrone, a long-time Snyder player and stunt person, commands the screen as the alpha zombie Zeus beneath layers of makeups and a largely silent role. But it’s his body language and expressions that show an emotional core to the zombie; especially as the film progresses and we find there is more than meets the eye to his undead evolution and he’s not just a lumbering undead monster, but a creature that can think and feel. Cetrone impresses much like Karloff beneath the makeup in the classic Universal monther films and hopefully, he can find a similar career path like Bautista to graduate to more dramatic roles. Comedian Tig Notaro, whose presence in the film is a hodgepodge of CGI and clever editing replacing disgraced comic Chris D’Elia, also shines. Her no-nonsense helicopter pilot becomes another anti-hero we can get behind and her straight talk throughout the film makes her another standout in the film that the audience can get behind. The production design of the film is massive and beyond impressive and mucho kudos should be thrown to production designer Julie Berghoff, who had to create a devastated Las Vegas Strip comprising a mishmash of real casino properties with fictionalized stand-ins, including Zeus’ home base, The Olympus, an ersatz stand-in for Caesar’s Palace and The Belaggio that feels completely real in a Strip that utilized Paris, The Luxor, and the MGM Grand amongst other real casinos. The special and practical effects in the film are also really exemplary, with standouts like a completely CGI rendered zombie tiger called Valentine (based on a real big cat from the animal rescue owned by Tiger King’s Carol Baskin), to the practical makeup on Athena Perample’s zombie queen, which blends in seamlessly with animatronic effects and a silicon replica body used later in the film.

That being said, the film does take some missteps which are very problematic. It tries to tackle some themes of displaced minorities and human trafficking by coyotes, which don’t land because they’re surface-level references that don’t acknowledge the nuance of these issues. More problematic that there’s a scene with former Presidential Press Secretary Sean Spicer as a talking head arguing against humane treatment for these fictional displaced families given the controversy of this topic during the Presidential administration under which he served. One of the film’s main characters is Lily, played by Nora Arnezeder, a French/Austrian actress whose function is to serve as a “coyote,” shorthand for a border smuggler who smuggles people into the United States from Mexico. Here, a coyote is reimagined as someone who smuggles people into the zombie lands to take money from dilapidated casinos. The language of using the term coyote is one that is problematic; given that many have ties to human trafficking and economic slavery in the US. The film drops these concepts without really drawing any thought behind them as lip service to social commentary that really doesn’t work on any level given the surface level depth of many of these characters despite the film’s near 3-hour runtime. That makes it hard to really get behind many of the film’s players when they’re dispatched one or two scenes after their introduction. Usually camaraderie is a key element in the heist film genre. But despite its Ocean’s 11 like set-up, the film isn’t really interested in the heist it sets up and veers throughout trying to find the central storyline it wants to focus on, which is a shame given how much Bautista puts himself into it, the film is more interested in a few last-minute twists it throws in that aren’t really set up earlier in the film and seem jarring. While it borrows heavily, especially from Romero’s Land of the Dead and other genre staples, it doesn’t really add much to the overall genre oeuvre which is a largely wasted opportunity. A lot of the film, which was also shot by Snyder; suffers from an overindulgence in depth of field of shots that leave much of the action and background blurry for big portions of the film. While it’s the director’s artistic choice to do so, it comes across as one of the more self-indulgent things I’ve seen in a film since JJ Abrams fell in love with lens flares for most of his Star Trek franchise reboot. It takes the viewer out of the film when they want to be immersed.

Army of the Dead has many fun popcorn elements it shares with his 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake. As a turn your brain off zombie action film, it largely works. The tragedy is it could have been a great zombie film; all the elements and performances are there. But it tries to take on too much, which dilutes what could have been a personal story in this heist film with tragic elements, into one many short-shifted storylines in a bit of an overcooked package. It feels like something like 2016’s Suicide Squad in that regard, a shorter cool, colorful action monster film buried in an overlong runtime with too many storylines that make the whole thing a shambler rather than an alpha.