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Army of the Dead review: Even zombies deserve better

Every time it starts to feel like the zombie genre has shambled off into the past tense, a movie comes along to breathe new life into the living dead. From the claustrophobic tension of Train to Busan to the quirky humor of The Dead Don’t Die, zombie films have cast a wide net in recent years, with even family-friendly studio Disney delivering its own, musical Zombies franchise.

Justice League filmmaker Zack Snyder put his spin on the genre with a 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead that helped transform zombies from slow, deliberate threats to twitchy, sprinting predators. He returns to that undead well with Army of the Dead, a mash-up of apocalyptic zombie horror and ensemble-driven heist tale, painted with his signature, stylized action and visual aesthetic.

In theory, Army of the Dead should be a gloriously gory good time. After an entertaining first act, however, the film quickly devolves into a mess of predictable moments, forgettable characters, and wasted potential.

Horror meets heist

Directed by Snyder from a script co-written with Shay Hatten, Army of the Dead imagines a scenario in which the city of Las Vegas has become a desolate wasteland populated by flesh-hungry monsters. Guardians of the Galaxy actor Dave Bautista plays Scott Ward, a former mercenary who agrees to venture into the deadly interior of Las Vegas in order to recover millions of dollars from a vault deep beneath a casino.

The colorful team he assembles for the mission is joined by the casino owner’s security officer (Garret Dillahunt), a corrupt border agent (Theo Rossi), and Ward’s own daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell), who forces him to take her along. As one might expect, things don’t go as planned with the mission, and a cornucopia of sinister deceptions, familial drama, unexpected threats, and inexplicably dumb decisions soon transform an otherwise smooth operation into total chaos.

A good start

In keeping with heist-film tradition, Army of the Dead doesn’t waste any time introducing its Ocean’s 11-esque ensemble.

A colorful montage of zombie-battling flashbacks early in the film not only reveal some of the team members’ specialized roles (i.e., mechanic, heavy weapons specialist, etc.), but also offer some backstory for several characters and the predicament they — and Las Vegas — find themselves in. This introductory sequence is the sort of glossy, stylized work Snyder excels at, full of gorgeous, slow-motion action and clever camera work set against a moody cover of Elvis Presley’s Viva Las Vegas.

The rest of the film’s first act continues to offer a similar showcase of Snyder’s knack for making every moment look like it belongs in a music video. Scott’s recruiting trips — another hallmark of traditional heist stories — are filtered through Snyder’s singular lens, continuing to suggest that Army of the Dead will indeed be a very different sort of zombie story.

And for about a third of the film, that’s exactly what it is.

Character issues

Although Snyder puts plenty of effort into introducing each of the characters that make up Scott’s heist squad, much of what differentiates them from each other is forgotten once the story gets rolling.

We’re led to believe that many of the characters possess particular skills that make them necessary, if somewhat unconventional, teammates on such a high-stakes mission, but with the exception of eccentric safecracker Ludwig Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer) and snarky pilot Marianne Peters (Tig Notaro), the film offers little evidence of their aptitude at being anything more than zombie fodder.

We’re led to believe actress Ana de la Reguera’s character is a gifted mechanic, for example, but we never see her engineer anything. The same goes for Omari Hardwick’s character, who’s suggested to be some sort of saw-wielding, heavy-weapons juggernaut with the mind of a philosopher, but he shows little indication of either proficiency — in body or mind — over the course of the film.

And it’s not just the hero characters that feel hollow. From the supporting players everyone recognizes as villains from the start, to the film’s monstrous alpha zombie whose superhuman attributes annoyingly change from one scene to the next, Army of the Dead is largely populated by one-dimensional clusters of character notes that read well, but are never realized on the screen.

Depth perception

In the lead role, Bautista is one of the few standouts in the film’s cast. The former professional wrestler turned tough-guy actor has quickly become one of Hollywood’s most entertaining action heroes, and with Army of the Dead, we get even more evidence of his ability to handle lighter moments as capably as he does more intense, physical scenes.

Whether he’s battling zombies, engaging in (ill-timed) heart-to-hearts, or playing the straight man to the comedic moments Schweighöfer and Notaro inject into the film, Bautista manages to always be fun to watch in Army of the Dead.

Still, the majority of the film’s characters become interchangeable as the story progresses.

Schweighöfer’s safecracker, Dieter, is one of the few exceptions. The German actor’s performance provides one of the most memorable characters in Army of the Dead, and he sells Dieter’s balance of obsession and blissful unawareness of the danger he’s facing with an entertaining ease.

Much of the same can be said of Notaro’s pilot character, who’s at her best when engaging in a sort of metacommentary on the mission and her role in it.

Early on, Notaro’s character states that she’s the second-most important member of the team after Dieter (since the team only has one safecracker and one pilot, and everyone else is just really good at shooting things), and it’s the sort of self-aware moment that makes her one of the best parts of the film, while simultaneously (and perhaps, unintentionally) poking at one of the areas where it ultimately falls short.

Where’s the momentum?

At times, it feels like vampires might have been a more apt monster to showcase in Army of the Dead, as much of the energy seems to get sucked out of the film right when it should be ramping up.

It’s a horror movie tradition to have characters make poor decisions, but Army of the Dead takes that trope a bit too far, and engages in it a bit too often, making it difficult to connect — or even sympathize — with many of the story’s protagonists.

Snyder fills the first act of the film with emotionally resonant moments, only to spend the next two-thirds of the movie disconnecting those same characters from any rational, logical actions or decisions. The audience is asked to believe that Scott’s team is a highly trained, highly efficient squad of mercenaries early on, not a bunch of naive teenagers, only to watch them make one inexplicably idiotic decision after another as the film progresses.

The film’s affinity for bait-and-switch elements carries over to the rules it establishes early on for its own, fictional world. What zombies are capable of and the guidelines for how they operate, multiply, and endure in Las Vegas is in constant flux, and seems to change depending on the needs of a particular scene instead of any foundational rules in the story.

The characters’ annoying habit of making the worst decisions at every opportunity, combined with the constantly shifting rules governing the world they’re operating in, makes it tough to get invested in the story at best, and at worst, makes it feel like the film’s creative team was making it up as they went along.

A missed opportunity

From its stellar cast to its creative premise, Army of the Dead had all the makings of a fresh, fun spin on a genre that feels like its in the twilight of its Hollywood prominence. With Dawn of the Dead, Snyder proved more than capable of striking a balance between good scares and a good-looking film, and the first act of Army of the Dead channels that same energy and vision.

Unfortunately, that precarious balance doesn’t last very long, and a movie that initially seemed like a fantastic, genre-blending thrill ride quickly devolves into a project so nonsensical and messy that how good it looks no longer outweighs the problems plaguing every other facet of it.

Army of the Dead is a movie that’s easy to get excited about, but in the end, it tosses all of that potential aside to become the most disappointing thing of all: Just another forgettable zombie movie.

Available now in select theaters, Army of the Dead will premiere May 21 on Netflix.

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