*****VAULT OF SPOILERS AHEAD!!*****
Las Vegas and zombies. Sounds like a comedy-horror marriage made in an all-night chapel with an Elvis impersonator doing the ceremony. What could’ve been a witty zom-com like “Shaun of the Dead” or “Zombieland” goes for lower hanging action-movie fruit. The result feels more like a grounded “Con Air,” but with ‘incredibly strange creatures who stopped living and became mixed-up zombies’ instead…
“Army of the Dead” (2021).
The movie begins (pre-apocalypse) with that old chestnut of the unwitting army grunts driving hauling a ‘top secret’ payload across the Nevadan desert in an army convoy (see: “Return of the Living Dead II,” “The Stand”). As the two soldiers in the front seat speculate on their cargo, a young honeymooning couple careens into their path when the newlywed driver is distracted by his bride’s performance of interstate oral pleasure. The result, just a few minutes into the movie, is a Michael Bay-style explosion and vehicular pile-up that sets the “payload” free. The payload, of course, is a shirtless, cage-fighter “zombie” with superhuman strength who seeks to make immediate family by biting as many convoy survivors as possible. The fledgling undead ‘family’ of infecteds then heads off across the nocturnal Nevada landscape towards the bright lights of Las Vegas…
Taking a cue from 2009’s “Zombieland,” the backstory is mostly told in the credits, as we see the usual cliches of Elvis impersonators and tacky wedding parties all biting at each other, thus creating more and more zombies. As with most modern zombie apocalypse scenarios, it’s established early on that gun shots to the brain are the most surefire way to kill one of the undead. We also see the montage backstory of hero Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) and his daughter Kate (Ella Purnell). Scott was forced to kill his infected wife (Colby Lemmo) when she turned. While Kate understands what happened intellectually, she just can’t bring herself to fully embrace her father after seeing him kill her mother right in front of her. Following the full zombie encroachment of Las Vegas, the formerly-glitzy city is walled off by stacks of shipping containers and is effectively quarantined. After their estrangement, Kate works a volunteer at the Barstow relocation camp, where the poorer Vegas refugees find themselves dead-ended if they lack the funds to relocate elsewhere (Katrina all over again).
Note: There was so much interesting family backstory rushing by during the credits that I wished the movie would’ve stopped a moment to tell some of it, instead of rushing on to the duller, melancholy parts afterward. In a movie that’s two and a half hours long, Snyder could’ve easily trimmed some of the padding at the back end to give the Ward family story a few more minutes to breathe.
Years later, the once-formidable Scott finds work as a short oder cook in a roadside greasy spoon, doing his best to make ends meet. While slaving another day away at a hot grill, Scott is met by Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada); a super-slick, shady-as-hell Japanese businessman with an illegal but well-paying job offer ($500 million). Much like “Ocean’s Eleven,” Tanaka tells Scott to put together a team and meet him the following day. Scott immediately seeks out his old comrade Maria Cruz (Ana de la Leguera), who is nursing a secret crush on the brooding widower. Scott and Maria immediately begin to subcontract additional members for the team (for decreasing cuts of the take), including YouTube zombie killer Mikey Guzman (Raul Castillo), anal-retentive German safecracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighofer), weapons-guy Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), helicopter pilot/mechanic Marianne Peters (Tig Notaro), mercenary Chambers (Samantha Win), seasoned zombie hunting expert Lily “the Coyote” (Nora Arnezeder), and other future zombie chow, including sleazy, sexually-harassing Barstow relocation camp bully Burt Cummings (Theo Rossi). A self-appointee arrives in the form of Scott’s daughter Kate. Over Scott’s objections, Kate wants to search for some missing kids from her Las Vegas Relocation camp who were abandoned within the city by the coldly calculating Lily. Kate holds “the Coyote” personally responsible and refuses to listen to her rationale. Tanaka then adds one of his own to the team–his sinister associate Martin (Garrett Dillahunt), who plans to look out for Tanaka’s “interests,” which he refuses to divulge with the team.
Note: The instantly suspicious Martin character is similar to the equally untrustworthy ‘company guy’ Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) in the movie “ALIENS” (1986), who also ‘volunteered’ with a group of Marines to look out for the company’s “interests”, which are exactly the same in this movie. Martin is tasked with returning an undead specimen (either a vial of blood or whole parts) in order for Tanaka to genetically engineer an army of undead bioweapons which can be used as super soldiers. *yawn* Not exactly the most original of sci-fi/horror motives, and it only gets worse from there, as Martin’s villainy is practically telegraphed. At least Carter Burke pretended to be an “okay guy” for a little while in order to win Ripley’s trust. None of that shit for Martin…he’s as unsubtle as they come.
The story’s ticking clock is a Trump-like president’s announcement that he plans to drop a tactical nuke on the city of Las Vegas to eliminate the zombie threat once and for all—and he’s going to do it on the 4th of July, because, well, he thinks it’d make a “really cool” fireworks display (sure sounds like Trump–wonder if he worried about the ratings, too?). That deadline gives the team a full day to get into the casino, “liberate” the money from the vault, and escape via an abandoned casino rooftop chopper, which pilot/mechanic Marianne will spend all of her time getting into working order. With their mission goal set, the team breaches the walls of shipping containers barricading Las Vegas and enters the zombified city…
Note: I have to admit, that line about the president who wanted to drop a tactical nuke on the 4th of July because it would make a “really cool fireworks” display gave me one of the few genuine laughs I had in this surprisingly humorless movie. I say surprisingly because the very concept of ‘zombies in Las Vegas’ is inherently hilarious as a pitch line. Yet “Army of the Dead” has few laugh out loud moments, and most of those come from the team either mocking Dieter’s perceived effeminate behavior or, more welcomely, from Tig Notaro’s one-liners—which she gives in her usual deliciously deadpan delivery. After playing Starfleet engineer Jett Reno on “Star Trek: Discovery” for two seasons now, I wonder if comedian Notaro is worried about typecasting?
Once inside, Kate rehashes her feud with the heartless Coyote, who abandoned some of Kate’s friends from the Relocation Center somewhere within the city limits. This is a contrivance to give Kate motivation for joining her dad’s mission, of course, when she really has no business being there. Mercenary Chambers also voices her objection to the last minute inclusion of Martin on the team, trying to goad the shady operative into revealing his real purpose. Martin, of course, tells the team (in so many words) to mind their own damn business. In a George Romero zombie film, the breaching of the Las Vegas barricade by fresh warm human bodies would make the zombies converge on the group, but instead Scott’s team are greeted to the sight of a lazy zombie tiger (a leftover from Siegfried and Roy’s show) and an alpha zombie male (Richard Cetrone) along with his zombie “queen”, an undead former showgirl (Athena Perample).
Scott and the team are puzzled why they aren’t being immediately attacked by the alpha zombies, or even the more common ‘shambler’ kind. Coyote, who’s made this run many times, explains to them that there’s a zombie hierarchy within Las Vegas: the first generation of infected have rudimentary intelligence, as well as a “king” and “queen.” There is social structure. They don’t just attack human prey on sight; they evaluate them, and even bargain with them. The ruthless Coyote, realizing that the king and queen will have to be appeased for the group to go into their territory, offers up useless security guard Burt as an ‘sacrifice’ in exchange for safe passage to the casino. Much to the horror of the others, the alpha zombies quickly abscond with poor sleazy Burt so that they can have ensure access. Kate reminds Coyote that if Burt is turned into a zombie by an intelligent alpha, he will become one as well. With the admittedly useless Burt lost to them, the group presses on…
Note: I have so many issues with the zombies of this film I barely know where to begin. Zack Snyder tries to have his mummified cake and eat it too, by suggesting there are both the running, stronger zombies (the kind who populated his “Dawn of the Dead” remake) as well as the slower, shambling kind seen in George Romero’s movies and “The Walking Dead”. What is never made clear is exactly how rotting, decaying corpses can run fast, or possess seemingly superhuman strength. Later fight scenes depict the alpha king zombie tossing Scott around like a rag doll, and Dave Bautista is built like a semi truck. Aside from these nagging questions of pure logic, the idea of giving the zombies a stratified, ritualized society also makes them seem more like just a primitive culture instead of ghoulish, rotting cannibals. It really saps an implacable enemy’s mojo if they can suddenly be negotiated with, let alone understand the concept of bartering for passage.
Making their way to the casino, the team cranks on the generator with some of the spare fuel cans they brought along. Marianne goes to the roof and gets to work on the dilapidated chopper, which will act as their ride out of town before the nuke strike. Carefully creeping around “hibernating” zombies, the group makes their way to their respective assignments, with the high-strung Dieter and philosophical Vanderohe being paired up as the group’s odd couple in order to crack the almost impenetrable vault. The bulk of the group make their way out of the hibernating nest, but some of the zombies are awakened by their presence. Shots are fired, as they make their way through the casino. With the power back on, the group also learns that the tactical nuclear strike has been moved up to July 3rd—giving them a matter of hours instead of a full day.
Note: Many story beats of ALIENS are liberally stolen outright. The group’s moving through the ‘nest’ of hibernating zombies is very similar (both in look and pacing) to ALIENS’ scene of the Marine squad cautiously making their way through the cocooned human host bodies on Acheron. This is the first of many times ALIENS is, ahem, ‘homaged’ during this derivative movie. Even the pushed-up nuclear strike is similar to the breached fusion reactor in ALIENS, which gave that movie a similar hours-long ticking clock for their rescue mission. Oh, and did I mention that both movies feature last-minute dropship/helicopter rescues which occur moments before their respective nuclear blasts go off?
After rudely interrupting Dieter’s careful safecracking, which requires absolute silence for him to hear the clicks, the vault is soon opened. In awe at the sight of so much raw cash, the team begins stuffing their bags full of the green stuff. Complications ensue when Martin, who is outside, chops the head off of the alpha queen zombie and sticks it in a bag. Chambers is once again very open in her distrust of Martin. More of the zombies arise, and a betrayed Chambers is deliberately left behind by Martin to protect himself (why they didn’t just sacrifice Martin instead of Burt still makes zero sense to me). Martin then confesses that the reason he went along with the group was to ensure that he got a sample of an alpha zombie in the hopes of using them to create a race of super-soldiers. The vault heist was merely a ruse; Martin was using the gang as personal security for his mission. Realizing money won’t help them against the angered army of alpha zombies, the group makes a run for it, sacrificing the obscenely large wads of money they risked their lives for. The surviving members quickly become very expert in making head shots on running targets…
Note: Okay, movie… give me a break. Zombie super-soldiers? Thats the company’s interest in going to Las Vegas? There’s ‘homaging’ the ALIEN movies and then there’s just ripping them off. So much genuine storytelling potential with a zombie outbreak in a colorful city like Las Vegas, and this is the best idea Zack Snyder and his scripting team could come up with—an overlong, beat-for-beat ripoff of ALIENS.
During their retreat out of the casino’s main floor, several other team members are sacrificed including Coyote and Guzman, who uses one of his own grenades to blow himself up, along with a horde of hungry zombies who were dining on him at that moment. In the confusion, Scott realizes that Kate has gone AWOL, but he soon realizes that she is going after the missing kids from the Relocation camp. With the clock ticking, Scott and his original recruit Maria—who spontaneously confesses her feelings for him—make their way to the rooftop to rendezvous with pilot Marianne. The pilot/mechanic is having trouble getting the chopper operational, but she manages to get the vehicle up-and-running at the last moment. Scott knows that the alphas most likely have Kate’s kids holed up in their hotel, which is being used as the alpha’s main—er, living complex, if such a word applies to the undead.
Note: Just how did I know poor Maria was a goner the minute she confessed her true feelings for Scott? “Army of the Undead” leaves few cliches unturned.
Meanwhile, Martin makes his way outside of the casino, and plans to slither out of the city when he opens his bag and realizes that it’s been switched; he’s no longer carrying the queen’s disembodied head. Making Martin’s day a bit worse, the zombified tiger encountered earlier creeps up behind him unobserved and, well… you know the rest. Scott makes his way into the alpha stronghold, finds Kate and her friends, but loses Maria (of course). Kate has survived by hiding, fighting and holding her own against the zombies … like father, like daughter. With no time to grieve for Maria, Scott and Kate make their way to the hotel’s rooftop—only to discover that Marianne has left without them. Moments later, Kate hears chopper blades, and Marianne flies back into view. As the group boards the helicopter, they take off. Like Han Solo, Marianne had a last-second change of heart.
Note: One more time with the ALIENS comparison, because they even stole android Bishop’s moment where he seemingly abandoned Ripley and Newt on the rooftop of the terraforming complex, only to return seconds later.
Before the chopper can get clear of the roof, it is boarded by the leaping masked alpha king zombie, whose iron mask also protects its head from would-be fatal bullet shots. During a struggle with the alpha for Scott’s gun, the weapon is accidentally fired at Marianne, and her spattered blood almost completely obscures the chopper’s windshield. Scott is also bitten by the king, who is finally killed by shots fired from Kate. The sun begins to set as the mortally wounded Marianne barely manages to clear Las Vegas city limits after the tactical nuke is dropped. A mushroom cloud rises, and the chopper is forced to crash just outside the city boundaries when it is struck by the shockwave’s turbulence. After the crash, Kate stirs and realizes Marianne is dead. She also finds her father thrown free of the chopper. Scott has only moments before his zombie bite transforms him, but he slips Kate one of the gargantuan wads of cash stolen from the vault in the hopes that she will start a new life. After telling her that he’s proud of her, Scott begins to writhe in agony as his zombification begins. Kate is forced to repeat her own traumatic past when she euthanizes her father with a single bullet to his skull.
Note: Did the alpha zombies manufacture that bulletproof iron mask? Do the alpha zombies have knowledge of metallurgy? Once again, their ‘culture’ is only seen with rituals, supplication gestures, and other primitive tribal organizing, but to make a bulletproof mask would require sophisticated metal-working. I doubt they found such a mask just lying around the ruins of Las Vegas…
Also of note: Did anyone else notice how odd it was that Kate’s Las Vegas QC ‘Volunteer’ tank top stays pristinely white throughout the entire movie? After all she’s been though—close-quarters combat with decaying corpses, hiding out among rotting skeletons in an abandoned tour bus, rummaging through the dirty halls of an abandoned hotel and riding in an old filthy chopper with no door— yet there is not one smudge of dirt on her white tank top. Really, movie?
After the conclusion of Scott and Kate’s story, there is a coda where we see weapons guy Vanderohe emerge from the wreckage of post-nuclear Las Vegas and make his way back to civilization after stealing an abandoned car (which mysteriously runs just fine, by the way). He then makes his way to an airport, along with his own huge wad of stolen cash from the vault. Bribing his way onto a private jet that isn’t being used, Vanderohe flies away in the lap of luxury. After merrily sipping booze with a couple of flight attendants, he makes his way to the plane’s washroom, where he then realizes he’d been bitten during his escape. Vanderohe himself will soon turn…threatening to carry the zombie plague outside of the nuked Las Vegas.
Note: Ignoring the extreme convenience of finding a perfectly working abandoned car (happens every day) and his ‘hiring’ a private jet with a cash bribe, just how the hell did Vanderohe make his way out of a freshly-irradiated Las Vegas without glowing in the dark? The entire city was just nuked, yet Vanderohe travels around all day feeling perfectly fine, until he just happens to notice his bite in his plane’s washroom. Sure, movie…whatever.
Reanimating the Undead.
I am a big fan of Snyder’s “Dawn of the Dead” (2004), as it is a prime example of how to do a reimagining. Snyder’s 2004 film took the 1978 classic’s premise of zombie apocalypse survivors holed up in a shopping mall, but went in very different yet equally valid directions with it. The immediate comparison that comes to mind is Ron Moore’s “Battlestar Galactica.” The “Dawn…” remake featured all new characters thrown into a similar scenario, but with very little else in common with its parent film. This distance allowed breathing room for the new characters and their respective situations. The 2004 “Dawn…” featured genuinely disturbing horror moments too, such as a zombified woman giving birth to an undead baby (high-octane nightmare fuel on soooo many levels). Some of the 1978 version’s consumer satire was present as well. As remakes go, “Dawn of the Dead” was certainly one of the more successful movie remakes in recent memory.
Synder’s zombies in “Army of the Dead” are little more than video game targets. There’s action, but very little genuine horror. This is detrimental when one is making a movie about cannibalistic reanimated corpses. Even worse, the zombies of “Army…” are more of a mashup between Mad Max villainy and velociraptors. Part of what makes zombies so terrifying is their mindless will to devour the living. Zombies are the embodiment of our own fears of disease and death—all-consuming and without compassion, like death itself.
The higher-functioning zombies of “Army…” spent a lot of time just roaring in people’s faces and tossing live humans around like pro-wrestlers, but there’s not a lot of ravenous flesh-eating going on. Snyder’s zombies are more like a different culture than a mindless mob of hungry corpses. Snyder’s new zombies are less decaying stink-bags and more like wrinkly-skinned cage fighters. These aren’t armies of undead ghouls so much as a bunch of Burning Man attendees with a bad attitude.
Summing It Up.
2004’s “Dawn of the Dead” heralded a promising career for Zack Snyder, and he indeed prospered by embracing the more mainstream-friendly superhero genre (“Batman V. Superman” “Justice League”). Audiences seem to have a love-hate relationship with Snyder’s work; when he’s good, he’s very good. However, Snyder also lapses into self-indulgence and over-length. Brevity may be “the soul of wit,” but it’s also the soul of action and horror as well. Two hours and 28 minutes is far too long for this type of story, which, in times past, could’ve clocked in at a tighter and stronger 100 minutes. “Army of the Dead” simply has too much excess baggage weighing it down. It also doesn’t help that visuals of the film look surprisingly muddled, with tacky over-filtering and murky shadowing that almost looks like an Asylum-SyFy coproduction at times.
Note: Zack Snyder is also credited as director of photography, and he chose to frame the movie in a 1.78:1 ratio, looking almost like a TV movie instead of a modern feature film. With a canvas as broad as Las Vegas, the movie could’ve been more effectively framed at 2.40:1.
One element that Snyder’s muddled visuals and cage-fighting zombies can’t blunt is the sheer effectiveness of lead actor Dave Bautista (“Guardians of the Galaxy” “Blade Runner 2049”). Bautista is the sort of strong-yet-believable presence you imagine writers of Steven Seagal’s old movies secretly hoped would walk into the casting director’s office, but never did. As the former wrestler/mixed martial artist has proved elsewhere, he’s certainly credible in action scenes, but he is also a genuinely talented actor as well. He has a great deal of depth and quiet intensity in dramatic moments. Bautista is also very adept at comedic timing as well (see: “Guardians of the Galaxy”, where he effortlessly stole every scene he inhabited). Watching this potentially great zom-com actioner fizzle where it should’ve popped, I kept thinking Bautista, and this solid cast, deserved a better movie.
Almost makes me wish that what happened in Vegas stayed in Vegas.
“Army of the Dead” is currently available to stream on Netflix and is in limited theatrical release as well, with theaters gradually reopening (masks may be required). To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are just over 586,793 as of this writing. Meanwhile, several vaccines are available and inoculations are finally widespread (whew!), which is greatly slowing the US mortality rate (though numbers in Brazil and India are spiking dramatically). Given a certain level of vaccine hesitancy (around 8 percent in the US), it may take a while longer for for eventual herd immunity. Even vaccinated, it is possible to catch the coronavirus, though your chances of getting ill from it are slim-to-none. So, if you haven’t already done so, please get vaccinated as soon as possible (I myself have been fully vaccinated now for over a month now), and let us vaccinate our way out of the COVID pandemic.