Army of the Dead is a lumpy combination of three surprising sources: First, we get the high-stakes heist of an Ocean’s film, combined with the cute self-aware horror of Zombieland. For good measure, let’s sprinkle a little douchebag camaraderie from the Fast and Furious suckfests. The result? Brace yourselves for a back-handed compliment, my friends: Zack Snyder’s shambling opus is actually kinda watchable. Yeah, that may not sound like much, but after three DC superhero films that slogged through their own mind-numbing indulgence–including a Justice League remix that made me want to poke out my eyes with a salad fork–this will have to be what passes for progress.
Dead‘s story is achingly simple: Las Vegas, our great national treasure of neon, roulette, and overpriced breakfast buffets, is in the grips of a zombie invasion. This once-proud city is now a rotting, leprous cadaver, cordoned off from the world and ready for the purging nuclear payload that’s on its way. The only problem? That mushroom cloud will incinerate billions of dollars as well.
This sounds like a job for a group of burly, wise-cracking mercenaries! Enter Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada), a billionaire casino owner. He approaches Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), a badass with a dark past, about assembling a Dirty Dozen/Suicide Squad to head into the quarantine zone and retrieve his cash from the bank vaults. In exchange, they get a pretty large chunk of the loot. Scott hems and haws, but ultimately accepts Tanaka’s offer.
If you’re guessing that Scott’s team is a big ol’ batch of clichés, then you are spot-friggin-on: Ludwig (Matthias Schweighöfer), the high-strung safecracker, is the official Comic Relief. Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick) serves as the group’s muscle and requisite Bad Attitude. Kate (Ella Purnell) is Scott’s headstrong daughter, thus making her the Tagalong Who Raises the Stakes. Ana de la Reguera plays the Possible Love Interest, while Garret Dillahunt steps in as the Corporate Shill with a Hidden Agenda. (This last role was pioneered by Paul Reiser’s sniveling weasel in Aliens, another film Dead borrows heavily from.)
What follows is a brain-splattering hootenanny, bedecked with kitschy Vegas humor and an absolute refusal to take itself seriously. The jokes may not pop like Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland, but after the dishwatery drabness of Batman v Superman, I’m grateful they pop at all. For the first time in a long time, Zack Snyder has delivered a medium amount of fun.
Whatever his flaws, Snyder has never hurt for casting choices. Bautista, who inherits the squinty Michelin Man role from Arnie and Sly, makes a perfect headliner. He gives Scott’s hard-ass zombie-killer an unfailing sense of decency. We never doubt his heart of gold. Bautista also has a nice interplay with Purnell, and their dramatic beats do give the film a little more emotional ballast. Also of note: Chris D’Elia originally played the chopper pilot in this movie, but he was fired after allegations of sexual misconduct. As a result, Tig Notaro was CGI’d in post-production, and her character blends remarkably well. Plus, Notaro adds a nice undercurrent of humanity to what could’ve been a fairly glib role. So, that’s a nice bonus.
It’s an easy nit to pick, but I’ll go ahead and say it: At 150 minutes, Army of the Dead is much too long. The midsection of the film bogs, before cranking back up to a respectable final act. As has been his recent trend, Snyder doesn’t know when to quit giving. Some heavy editing could’ve yielded an even better movie.
Still, it bears repeating: After 242 withering minutes of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, this is a vast improvement. The sad thing is that this is the kinda film that would benefit from creatively flying off the rails and into the canyon. A zombie-heist flick set in Vegas begs for big, hedonistic humor that this Dead can’t quite deliver. I mean, the fact that the zombie leader isn’t Wayne Newton is just a missed opportunity. As with everything else about Army of the Dead, I guess we’ll just have to make do.
148 min. R. Netflix.