“I always used the zombie as a character for satire or a political criticism,” said zombie maestro George Romero — a man asked to opine on zombie franchises more times than should have been legally allowable — in 2013. “And I find that missing in what’s happening now.” Now being the immediate moment of AMC’s The Walking Dead (“a soap opera with a zombie occasionally”) but, really, the zombie moment broadly speaking. We can run through the litany of examples, including those Romero liked (Shaun of the Dead) and those he didn’t (World War Z); those I wish he liked a little more (the Resident Evil movies — or a couple of them, anyway); and those I wish he’d gotten to make (again: Resident Evil, for which Romero once wrote a script).
Romero doesn’t own the genre, of course — not even if his own contributors stretch further into the present than many people know. He kept holding court on the subject in his own work long after his own Night of the Living Dead swept the Sixties off its feet. His last film, Survival of the Dead, came out in 2009; it was preceded by Diary of the Dead in 2007, and Land of the Dead landed in 2005 — auspicious timing. The previous year, in 2004, an excitable young squirt named Zack Snyder, a first-time feature director, made a Romero remake that nowadays feels as much of its own time as Romero’s earlier film, which was pointedly set in a style of shopping mall that was new to the era. Dawn of the Dead: with Mekhi Phifer as a co-lead, and Sarah Polley with a gun. What an era.
Snyder had already been beaten to the punch, genre wise, by 28 Days Later (2002). But never mind — his Dawn made bank without breaking the studio bank and kick-started a blockbuster career. And here we all are. Still. We’re currently at what feels like the nadir of zombiepocalypse fare, quality-wise, but we now find ourselves squarely at the dawn of a new Dead franchise, headlined by the one and only.
Army of the Dead, Snyder’s new zombie-heist movie (released in select theaters and on Netflix on March 21st), already has both a sequel (directed by one of the new movie’s stars, Matthias Schweighöfer) and an anime spin-off in the works (both to be released by Netflix). So it’s a whole world we’re in for, and if Army, the starter course, is any indication, it’ll all be — perfectly fine. Army of the Dead is neither the best of Snyder nor the worst. In whipping a bit of both extremes into a dependably watchable piece of pop froth that hits the appropriate marks, the movie strives for the expected relevance, offers the right amount of non-surprise surprises, and distinguishes itself from the given rules of the genre just so that it, more or less, breaks even.
The zombies have warned that spoilers are verboten, so, quickly: Las Vegas, that city full of ersatz monuments of the world and totems to the get-rich fantasies that gambling enables, has become a zombie city. It’s a contained problem, for the time being, but in the interest of taking care of the problem in one fell swoop, the government has decided to drop a nuclear bomb on the joint. Which is bad news for anyone who’s still got at stake in that city, beneath all those transmogrified shamblers.
So, there’s your heist movie, and there’s your zombie movie. Army of the Dead tracks the efforts of a ragtag group of people, some of whom proved themselves heroes in those last hours before the city fell into zombie rule but then went on to work menial, working-class jobs. Meaning: People who could use a buck or two, and are maybe trigger happy and desperate enough to think such a scheme as this is worth that effort — to recover millions from the vault of the casino guru, a man rich enough to make the payout worth the mortal risk.
And there — with the bells and whistles of the usual routine, the getting-the-gang-together stretch, the overloaded backstories, and hidden motives, with suspenseful zombie encounters adding rhythm to what is ultimately a character-driven story — is your movie.
It’s a good enough formula, with the makings of a solid piece of pop confection — and that’s basically what Snyder delivers. Per usual with this filmmaker, there are a few threads you may wish had been tugged at a little more, stretches just curious or unexpected or batshit enough to wish the movie were more willing to break form a little, ignore it’s straightforward intentions, and lead us down the rabbit hole toward who-knows-what. Because the movie doesn’t — not even when going so far as to, say, give us a taste, a literal taste, of zombie-on-zombie, rotten flesh on rotten flesh romance — what winds up standing out isn’t the movie itself, so much, but the cast carrying it.
Particularly Dave Bautista, Omari Hardwick, Ana de la Reguera, Nora Arnezeder, Raúl Castillo, a reliably dickish Garret Dillahunt, Hiroyuki Sanada as a rich guy up to rich guy things — and, best of all, Tig Notaro (replacing Chris D’Elia) as a wise-ass helicopter pilot and Theo Rossi as a feckless piece of shit. These are not, top to bottom, actors everyone has heard of. But they are, in a few standout cases, good for taking stock character archetypes — which are in abundance, this being a mashup of zombies, heists, and the threat of nuclear extermination — and finding a way to add a little juice, sprinkle in a little life amid so much lifelessness. The zombies, I mean.
Snyder, credited as co-writer, producer, and cinematographer, seems to be having fun, too. Who’s to say whether he’s up to speed on Romero’s take on recent trends in the genre, some of which applied to 2004’s Dawn of the Dead as much as anything else. But the late elder statesman’s thoughts came instantly to mind watching the opening scenes of Army, with its military mishaps, its news-casted nods to “protests on Capitol Hill,” its eerily overt references to detained protestors, temperature checks, a “coyote” offering trespass across dangerous borders… The movie started production in 2019 (after many years languishing in development hell), with Notaro’s fill-in scenes shot in 2020. But to call it a pandemic movie — even more than zombie movies already are, I mean — doesn’t feel quite right, if we’re going to be sticklers about it.
That’s the cathartic win of the movie, however, to the extent that anyone wins. The film has been structured to offer only so much satisfaction in terms of a zombie apocalypse or even a successful heist, in part because the casualty rate of zombie movies is so high that Danny Ocean’s crew would be reduced to an Oceans 2. But seeing people fight a plague has its obvious satisfactions, at the moment. And because Army of the Dead verges on demure, by Snyder standards, even the heroism seems tamped down. It’s a far more casual affair than the godly mythologizing of a film like Man of Steel, and wiser for it.
The movie’s inescapably corny — an asset for great genre directors, but something of a compromising fact of much of Snyder’s work, in which cavalier attempts at emotion bog everything down in an overly-engineered slog of feelings, the kind of weepy character ties and death-by-sad-one-liner sentimentality that seems to attract this filmmaker despite it not really being a strong suit. Here as elsewhere, Snyder takes what’s often good about his movies — seeing charismatic actors chew their way through vapid material together with a knowingness that, at its best, makes it all a little more light on its feet, ironic and airy in spite of Snyder’s insistent gloom — and sells it more than a little short. The movie would be better, sharper, even a little more human, for letting mercenaries be mercenaries, reduced to the demands of the job and more particular as people for it, with no last-minute I-love-yous, no pleas for forgiveness, or tying up of loose emotional ends that precede anything we really care about.
The alternative wouldn’t be a Snyder movie, however. His characters haven’t seen Heat; they don’t know that lives like these are better off lived with minimized ties, that they need to be ready to leave it all behind in an instant — even though his movies, so insistent on afflicting characters with oft-needless loss, go out of their way to make the case for learning the difference between work colleagues and friends. The single best moment in the movie, for my money, is an utter fantasy: one character’s video game-frenzied projection of what life beyond the wall, in the pit of Lost Vegas, is going to be like. It’s a circular thrill, all of our heroes with big guns, circled up like wagons, shooting outward into a throng of formerly-somebodies. Sadder than any character death, for me, was the realization that this was just a fantasy; it proved much more lively than the remaining two hours of the movie.
Whether or not Army of the Dead spawns an actual sequel — and I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t — it obviously tees the franchise up for one. Somehow it’s just not that exciting of a prospect. You kind of already know where it’s going to go, what notes it’s going to hit, because Snyder, for his merits, has a familiar playbook. Sometimes it goes completely awry… Other times it satisfies despite itself. Army of the Dead is, altogether, an example of the latter. But not a strong one.