Before 2004, Director Zack Snyder was a bit of an unknown quantity outside the world of music videos. That is, until he was hired to direct a remake of the late George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Snyder’s next movie, an adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300, was a box office blockbuster that shifted Snyder into a new tier as one of the top action filmmakers, one who was unafraid to dive deep into the visual effects pool.
Some might presume Army of the Dead would be a throwback for Snyder, being in a genre he’s previously explored, but it’s such a different film than Dawn of the Dead, showing a filmmaker who has evolved and grown on every level, one who has surrounded himself with creative people who can thoroughly fulfill his large-scale ideas that permeate the screen any time he directs something.
The set-up is fairly simple: A military vehicle holding some sort of carnivorous beast gets into a crash with a honeymooning couple driving from the opposite direction. The beast is released, and it immediately kills its military escort, turning them into similar monsters. This happens right outside of Las Vegas, and we watch the virus quickly get out of hand and spreading through Sin City in a gory title sequence showing the likes of Dave Bautista’s Scott Ward and other mercenaries cutting through the swath of zombies to rescue the uninfected. All to the tune of “Viva Las Vegas,” of course.
Sometime after the incident that left Vegas in quarantine, Ward is approached by the billionaire Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada), who is informed of there being $200 million in cash stored in a vault below the Vegas strip that is about to be destroyed along with the entire city. Ward puts together a team with characters played by Omari Hardwick, Raul Castillo, Theo Rossi, Nora Arnezeder and Ana De La Reguera. Tanaka sends along his own man, Martin (Garrett Dillahunt), and, in probably the most unlikely casting of the century, comedian Tig Notaro plays a helicopter pilot who gets quite an impressive action sequence of her own in the third act. Unfortunately, Scott’s daughter Kate (Ella Parnell) insists on coming with them, so that raises the stakes of Scott having to keep her safe while fighting off hordes of “shamblers” once they get to Vegas.
Where Army of the Dead really stands out as some of Snyder’s better work is the added focus on character, making sure this isn’t just a load of macho guys with guns and other weapons, like something one might find in a video game. Part of this is the inclusion of a couple kick-ass women like the ones played by Arnezeder and De La Reguera, but also including Matthias Schweighofer as Dieter, the comic relief safecracker. In similar fashion, Scott Ward is probably one of Bautista’s better movie characters, because Snyder takes the time to develop a backstory for him rather than just making him the typical he-man mercenary so prevalent in ‘80s and ‘90s action movies.
A big criticism of Snyder’s DC movies was that they tended to be so dark and brooding even his cool visuals couldn’t win over some people while any attempt at gags felt awkward and almost shoehorned in. Tonally, Army of the Dead, while still being primarily about good vs. bad guys, is far more consistent and fluid in the way it integrates humor into the dangers faced by the heroes.
Of course, more people will be watching Army of the Dead for the zombies of the title, separated into the customary “shamblers” and far more intelligent and deadly Alphas, including the king, dubbed “Zeus” (Richard Cetrone) and his Queen (Athena Perample). There’s even an undead tiger that apparently belonged to Sigfried and Roy. The special effects make-up and visual effects teams work together just as seamlessly, although integrating the practical with stuff created in computers has always been Snyder’s forté.
Army is always clearly Snyder’s vision, but he does give quite a bit of room for his creative team to shine. Production Designer Julie Berghoff is put through her paces to create the vast wasteland of Las Vegas and other locations with a combination of practical sets and visual effects. Due to the number of characters, both living and dead, one imagines that a great deal of fun was had by Costume Designer Stephanie Portnoy Porter and the film’s enormous hair styling and make-up team who were able to create such a variety of looks for the characters.
As different as Army of the Dead may be from Day, it still has some of the same DNA, although these zombies are far more brutally violent and even athletic, again something Snyder learned from making movies like 300. The action in Army sets a fairly high benchmark for any Snyder film with the stunt work by his team creating action scenes we haven’t quite seen before. Some of it is obviously embellished by the visual effects and the timing introduced by Editor Dody Dorn, ACE, who Snyder pulled over from Justice League. Snyder’s use of slow-motion is still there but not nearly to the degree as he’s used it in other films, or at least it’s integrated as to not be so obvious.
Tom Holkenborg’s score is equally as effective in driving the action scenes as they were for Justice League, but Snyder still manages to include his requisite needle drops, always well-placed and intriguing, particularly some of the covers. Army of the Dead might be a bit long at over 2 hours and 20 minutes, but it never wastes that time on anything that feels unnecessary or might drag down the film’s brisk pace.
Army of the Dead is a rare case of giving people exactly what is advertised, but one of its clearest takeaways is how much better a filmmaker Snyder is now than when he made Dawn of the Dead.
Army of the Dead will hit roughly 600 theaters nationwide on Friday, May 14, and then will be available to stream on Netflix starting May 21. (Army of the Dead would have absolutely destroyed at the summer box office on the biggest screens possible, so kudos to Netflix for making the effort to give Snyder’s movie the widest release in the studio’s relatively short history.)
All photos courtesy of Netflix.