Army of the Dead - Reviewed By Dj Mack

Zack Snyder is having quite the year. Warner Bros. released Zack Snyder's Justice League, aka the Snyder Cut, a phenomenon that has besieged the Internet for the past three or four years. Now, Netflix in a deal with Cinemark theaters is giving Snyder's return to the zombie genre one of the widest releases of any Netflix film. There's an interesting parallel that for both these projects this year, Snyder is in a sense looking backwards. For his super-hero tome, it was only him looking back three years. For this, it's him looking back seventeen years to his feature debut, Dawn of the Dead (2004).
It should be noted that the reason Snyder looked back in the case of Justice League is because he left the project without completing it due to his daughter's suicide. As a result, people commented that the so-called Snyder Cut did feature at its heart a story about a father and child, which results in the parent sacrificing himself for his offspring, a sentiment that Snyder could have wanted in his real-life. Snyder conceived that sequence before his daughter died, but that sequence wasn't realized or shown to a general audience until after she passed, which still gives it more significance. That same dynamic though is echoed or perhaps refracted here in this film where the heart of the story is between a father and his child, specifically a daughter. Again, this story was conceived prior to Snyder's daughter losing her life but it wasn't produced until after, which gives it a bit more significance.

Dave Bautista (Stuber and Guardians of the Galaxy) stars as Scott Ward, a guy who looks like he could be a soldier of some type. It comes to be that he's a soldier of fortune because a wealthy casino owner hires him to lead a military-like operation. However, when he's hired for the operation, he's working as a fry cook in some crummy diner in the southwest somewhere, possibly Nevada or maybe California. The reason he's hired is because he has experience in fighting zombies, having been one of the few survivors who made it past a zombie attack or apocalypse that occurred in Las Vegas.
As the opening 10 minutes of this film reveals, a zombie outbreak took place in Las Vegas. That opening is a montage set to Elvis Presley's "Viva Las Vegas," which is probably the funnest thing of this entire film. The origin of that zombie outbreak though isn't exactly explained, which is fine, but it implies a man made disaster. All we know is that the outbreak started when one guy, possibly a military soldier, known as the Alpha, became infected and started infecting others just outside Las Vegas before eventually spreading it to that city. The military is able to build a wall around Las Vegas and contain the zombies to that one place, so they don't get out to anywhere else.

Hiroyuki Sanada (Mortal Kombat and The Twilight Samurai) plays Mr. Tanaka, the wealthy casino owner who hires Scott. Unfortunately, Snyder doesn't give Tanaka more to do. While it might seem like an unlikely comparison, I thought of Jurassic Park (1993) while watching this film. As such, Tanaka would be the equivalent to John Hammond, as played by Richard Attenborough. However, Steven Spielberg gave Attenborough more to do and made him more of a presence in that 1993 classic than Snyder does or made of Sanada.
Continuing the Jurassic Park comparisons, anyone who knows that Spielberg flick will recall the character of Nedry, played by Wayne Knight. There is a character here that is similar to that character. He's Martin, played by Garret Dillahunt (Fear the Walking Dead and Raising Hope). Unlike Nedry, Martin isn't a fat, little weasel. Martin is tall and in good shape. He could be a soldier himself but he's initially presented as a business executive working for Tanaka. Yet, he knows how to wield a gun and he's not that afraid to face down a hoard of zombies. As the film progresses, his actions and motivations parallel if not directly mimic Nedry. Even Martin's fate mimics Nedry's fate in Jurassic Park.

If one has seen Snyder's Dawn of the Dead, then one won't be surprised and might find that there are a lot of things that are mimicked from that film. It's not uncommon for entries in the zombie genre. Snyder is hitting all those similar beats without doing much more to elevate or distinguish it. In his films, George A. Romero who could be considered the father of the zombie genre was trying to make not necessarily a political statement but some commentary on sociopolitical issues, whether it be racism or consumerism. That's not really the case here.
Raúl Castillo (Seven Seconds and Looking) co-stars as Mikey Guzman, a Latino who also lived in Las Vegas. He became famous on the Internet because he recorded videos of himself killing zombies, videos that then went viral. The only time I felt Snyder making any kind of statement, political or otherwise, is through this character. Castillo is possibly playing younger but he's possibly supposed to represent Millennials who are all about their phones and their social media presence, but Snyder doesn't make that as much of a thing as it perhaps needed.

The film wants to be a Ocean's Eleven (2001) heist but one set within a zombie apocalypse. As a thrill ride, that's a good enough premise, even though Snyder's film isn't as clever as Ocean's Eleven. In terms of heists films, it would probably rank just above the recent Wrath of Man (2021). One can take pleasure in watching the action of people fighting off the zombies the best they can until eventually they become overrun. Yet, if one was waiting for some smart heist plans, that's not really the case here.
Snyder throws in a wrinkle, which isn't new, but he throws in the idea that the zombies aren't just rabid, feral monsters with zero intelligence. He throws in the idea that a couple of them actually do have intelligence. To what end is unclear. Another wrinkle is having some of the zombies have emotions other than hunger and rage. Here, we see that the Alpha is a zombie who can love or has fallen in love. Again, Snyder doesn't explore what that means. A better exploration of that idea is in Warm Bodies (2013). I guess Snyder wanted to give his zombie a motivation for wanting to kill, beyond the typical zombie, which is commendable but unnecessary.

Going back to the idea of the father-daughter dynamic to which Snyder seems particularly attuned. I feel like Snyder had better actors to pull off the catharsis or even the sympathy of where the characters have to go in Justice League with Joe Morton and Ray Fisher. Bautista and Ella Purnell who plays his daughter aren't bad but I was never invested in them the way I was the father-daughter duo in Train to Busan (2016) to which Snyder's film mimics the ending to that South Korean hit zombie flick.
Spoiler alert! Spoiler alert! Spoiler alert!

It's revealed that Martin is sent into Las Vegas to get a blood sample or more biological samples from the zombies. He says or implies that it would then be used as a weapon for future military attacks. If that's the case, then I don't understand why Tanaka wouldn't provide the team with more resources. Part of their plan was to repair a broken helicopter atop one of the abandoned casinos. Why wouldn't they simply use a brand new helicopter to fly into Las Vegas? Yes, there is some bull about restricted airspace, but again their plan was to repair a broken helicopter and fly it out. If they could fly a chopper out of Las Vegas with no problem, why not fly one into it?