It’s difficult but also incredibly easy to pinpoint someone like Zack Snyder. Most directors, when they’re at their absolute best, find themselves working from a healthy middle ground: creating heart-racing, intelligent action while balancing it out with some moving, human drama. Then there’s Snyder, making a career on two extremes. His best tendencies make his movies highly entertaining at times, while his worst directorial vices have the power to make them nearly insufferable. And with someone like him trying to conjoin two genres as diametrically opposed as “zombie” and “heist,” one can expect to do nothing more than what is expected of him. Army of the Dead possesses some of the best qualities of the former genre at the expense of the latter, and the result is a film only half as good as it should be.
Set some time after a hoard of zombies infect and kill a large percentage of Las Vegas, causing the city to be quarantined (I tell you, the more movies that include an epidemic of some caliber in this day and age, the less of an impact it seems to have), Army of the Dead is only further proof of Snyder’s ability to make the dead a hell of a lot more interesting than the living. This he does from the get-go, as the film’s commendable prologue and highly entertaining opening credits sequence do their job to set the stage for the complete and utter chaos that is to unfold. Both are engaging in how they so easily transition between bouts of comedy and haywire acts of survival, as the titular group of beasts descend upon the city and a small group of survivors do what they can to get out. In about 15 minutes, Snyder presents some of his best filmmaking in years, finally finding that middle ground he’s been striving for and falsely promoting ever since his debut feature, the remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004). It’s succinct, disturbing, and pretty depressing to watch as those who live have to leave behind those who do not.
The immediate downfall is that there are still well over two hours to go, and once the story picks up in the present, in which former soldier Scott Ward (the always reliable Dave Bautista) is approached by casino magnate Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) with the task of delivering him a substantial amount of money from the vault of one of his zombie-ridden casinos before the government destroys what's left of the city with a nuke, all momentum is nearly lost. What follows includes, but is not limited to, poor pacing, an even poorer amount of character development, a lack of intelligent thought put into the heist element, and an uninspired soundtrack (you don’t have to include “Bad Moon Rising” and “The End” in the same planning montage to let us know that things are about to go down). All of these elements are sacrificed just so that Snyder can introduce a new kind of zombie mythology, which includes alpha zombies that can run and communicate with one another, along with an apparent king and queen who control Vegas like a kingdom rather than wallow in it like a prison. As good as he is at honing in on it, not even this part of the story feels as developed as it should be.
It almost feels as if Snyder and his screenwriters watched Aliens (1986), kept with the basic plot, but suddenly forgot what it was that made Ripley and her extraterrestrial nemeses so captivating. At least that movie, along with the formidable Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), taught James Cameron when to take things seriously and when to get lost in the thrill of it all. Even now, the well-established Snyder has yet to learn this as he continues to allow misguided decisions to convince him that his projects hold the same kind of intelligent and emotional weight. Army of the Dead is a tonal mess, one that never decides what it’s trying to be, and, for all we know, doesn’t want to decide. When it’s not filling the screen with mindless battle sequences that carry on for way too long, the film insists on boring us all with unenthusiastic banter between the team that Scott assembles for the heist, along with a superficial, derivative subplot involving Scott and his long-estranged daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell), who joins him in the heist because, you know, heist and zombie cliches deem it necessary for them to mend fences. All of this would work if the film was trying to subvert tropes, to be a self-referential, laugh-inducing, and concise adventure in the vein of Shaun of the Dead (2004), but not in a 148-minute movie that insists on being as grim as it is.
The sheer lack of quality in the characters’ interactions is only compounded by the groan-worthy representation, or lack thereof, going on in the film. Multiple races, genders, and sexualities are represented in Army of the Dead, each one of them with a very special skill set, but that’s about where their characterizations stop. They serve no real purpose other than allowing the casting director to cover their bases, and they are hollowed out into generic stereotypes. Scott’s right-hand man, Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick) is the only major African American character and only exists to be a killing machine with a chainsaw. Likewise, his other primary accomplice, Maria Cruz (Ana de la Reguera), though a skilled fighter in her own right, is undermined by her added role as a potential romantic interest for the main man. Even characters who seem multi-dimensional on paper, such as safecracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer) and pilot Peters (Tig Notaro), are left out to dry by being forced to provide the comedic relief. Everything amounts to a lack of sincerity in the moments in which the dead have momentarily subsided in order to give the living the spotlight.
Army of the Dead too often lays it on thick in what feels like the first draft of a much better, more refined film with characters worth supporting. I’m sure that movie exists, and some have come close to fulfilling that vision, but something tells me that Zack Snyder isn’t the one directing it.