Army of the Dead

Review by Hannah Strong @thethirdhan

Directed by

Zack Snyder


Dave Bautista Ella Purnell Omari Hardwick


Like zombie films. Like heist films. What could go wrong?


Zombie Tiger innocent.

In Retrospect.

Anyone for a Dawn of the Dead/Oceans 11 double bill?

A team of mercenaries with nothing to lose are hired for the heist of a lifetime in zombie-infested Las Vegas.

Way back in 2004, long before anyone had ever uttered the words ‘Snyder Cut’, a virtually unknown filmmaker impressed audiences with his zippy remake of George A Romero’s Dawn of the Dead – no small feat, given how highly regarded the original is. Zack Snyder’s film (written by James Gunn) satirised the genre, turned the dial way up on gore, and seemed to mark the arrival of a major new directing talent.

Romero himself was a little more critical: “It was better than I expected. I thought it was a good action film. The first 15, 20 minutes were terrific, but it sort of lost its reason for being. It was more of a video game. I’m not terrified of things running at me; it’s like Space Invaders. There was nothing going on underneath.”

This description could just as easily apply to Snyder’s new zombie shoot ’em up, Army of the Dead, in which a team of mercenaries led by Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) attempt to rob a Las Vegas casino to the tune of $200 million. One small hitch: the city has been walled off, as it’s become overrun with the undead. Seeing the money as an opportunity to help his estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell), who works at a nearby refugee camp for displaced Vegas citizens, Ward assembles a crack team at the behest of billionaire casino owner Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada).

There’s Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), a former philosopher turned soldier; Cruz (Ana de la Reguera), a friend of Ward’s; Ludwig Dieter (Matthias Schweighofer), an eccentric German safecracker; Marianne Peters (Tig Notaro), a pilot; Mikey Guzman (Raul Castillo), a sharp-shooter with a YouTube channel where he kills zombies; and Lily (Nora Arnezeder), who has a reputation for getting people in and out of the walled city. They’re joined by two villains: Martin (Garret Dillahunt), Tanaka’s Head of Security, and Burt Cummings (Theo Rossi), a sadistic guard from the refugee camp.

That’s a lot of characters to keep track of, though Snyder achieved a good balance in Dawn of the Dead, which ran at 100 minutes and managed to convince us to care about at least a few of the unfortunate mallrats. Ward and his team travel into the ruins of Sin City where they learn of a special breed of ‘Alpha’ zombie – led by one called Zeus who has a cape and rides a zombie horse – which are capable of thought, organisation, forming bonds and using tools.

This does create a sense of unease, as we’re still supposed to root for the human protagonists, even as they slice and dice their way through primitive hoards that are capable of experiencing emotion. It takes the shine off a premise that has been pitched as a zombie-heist romp, and Snyder simply doesn’t possess the storytelling chops to explore the myriad implications of the plot beyond vaguely gesturing towards them. (They’ve built a wall, you see, and they’re containing innocent people in camps! And the zombies are actually intelligent!)

Instead we’re left with a tedious, overly familiar father-daughter storyline, and we don’t spend enough time with any other character to really care about them. The film could have done with more from Omari Hardwick and Tig Notaro, undoubtedly the most charismatic members of the crew (a scene where Vanderohe goes mano y mano with the Chief Zombie is a rare highlight).

At just shy of two-and-a-half hours in length, Army of the Dead shambles from one set-piece to the next, mostly filmed with Snyder’s trademark grey-blue colour palette (he also serves as DoP) which seems at odds with Las Vegas’ reputation as a garish, neon-lit wonderland in the middle of the desert. There are only a couple of scenes that take advantage of the city’s reputation for grandeur and decadence, giving the impression that the film could have been set anywhere with a few casinos; it’s only the presence of a few Vegas landmarks that gives an indication of the setting.

This includes various casinos, but also Valentine, a zombie tiger which the film does disappointingly little with. “She was one of Siegfried and Roy’s; she guards the beginning of their territory,” one character says with total conviction. Given that Siegfried and Roy retired in 2009, are we to believe that the “zombie war” has been ongoing for over a decade, or that the film exists in some parallel universe where they never stopped performing? If the city has been locked down for a decade, why have the zombies not died? To wit, why is Zack Snyder so hung up on the idea of zombie fetuses?

It’s impressive that a film which runs at 158 minutes can leave you with more questions than answers, not only concerning the genesis of the harder, faster, better, stronger zombies but the backstories of our heroes themselves, who are barely given a chance to establish their histories or personalities before being unceremoniously offed, typically without much fanfare. Reading the film’s press notes, this appears to have been intentional, as there is a spin-off anime series and a prequel film in the works, which will presumably fill in the narrative gaps.

This represents a wider problem with modern blockbuster filmmaking – to fully understand one film you have to watch a litany of adjacent films and TV crossovers. Self-contained storytelling feels like it’s slipping away, and increasingly studios demand that audiences invest in a multi-narrative arc from the offset. Perhaps this is appealing if you’re already a big fan of Snyder, or the freewheeling zombie antics of AMC’s The Walking Dead, but if you just want to settle in for some humans-vs-zombies action, it’s a tall order.

It’s a shame that Army of Dead falls so flat, because the concept of a zombie heist movie is undeniably intriguing, particularly at a time when we all need a little escapism. It’s not even that zombie films can’t be political (Romero’s filmography attests to that), but if you are aiming to make a statement then mere glancing in the direction of social injustice isn’t going to cut it. Snyder’s enthusiasm always comes across in interviews, but it rarely translates to the screen, and Army of the Dead ends up as a bloated jumble of slo-mo violence and misjudged attempts at emotional resonance. Space Invaders indeed.

Published 11 May 2021

Tags: Army of the Dead Zack Snyder


Like zombie films. Like heist films. What could go wrong?


Zombie Tiger innocent.

In Retrospect.

Anyone for a Dawn of the Dead/Oceans 11 double bill?

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