An expert team of mercenaries must infiltrate a zombie-infested Las Vegas and recover $200 million from a high-tech safe in the heart of a casino in the latest Netflix film. Throughout the heist, the team must contend with an army of super-smart ‘alpha’ zombies, thousands of creepy ‘shamblers’, and a “goddamn zombie tiger”. It doesn’t take long before the plan goes awry, and all hell breaks loose in the hostile environment of a dilapidated Las Vegas.
The premise of Army of the Dead is simple, but it’s in the execution of the idea where the film really entertains. Director Zack Snyder is no stranger to spectacular set-pieces, stunning cinematography, and stylish action, and he certainly delivers here in this highly entertaining flick. Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Dave Bautista brings in the most star power as the team’s leader, alongside everything from a safecracker, Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer), to a helicopter pilot, Marianne Peters (Tig Notaro), and even a zombie sharpshooter, Mikey Guzman (Raul Castillo).
Overall the film is rather predictable in terms of plot, but the action keeps you on the edge of your seat, and the sudden violence and gruesome deaths will leave you shocked in an often darkly comedic way. Sometimes all you need is pure entertainment, something that gets the blood pumping from start to finish, and Army of the Dead certainly delivers in that regard.
Army of the Dead is available to stream now on Netflix.
Story – There Will Be Blood
The film begins with a succinct introduction to the origins of the zombie attack, how they took over Las Vegas, and the background of many of the main characters set to Viva Las Vegas, performed by Richard Cheese and Allison Crowe. This effectively provides enough context in fifteen minutes to understand the rest of the story while leaving enough loose threads for fans to theorize. As long as you don’t focus on how incredibly stupid the military acts here, this intro effectively allows for the rest of the film to happen.
From there, Bautista’s character, Scott, is approached by shady businessman Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) and offered a cut of $200 million if he goes into Vegas to retrieve it. It’s a simple but enticing premise; crazy enough to be exciting but justifiable. We then get gradually introduced to the team as well as Scott’s estranged daughter, Kate. The whole storyline surrounding Kate feels too forced and is unnecessary compared to the wider story. It seems like it exists just to complicate things, and it’s obvious what it will lead to.
Talking about predictability, once everything is set up, you’ll likely be able to guess what will happen throughout the rest of the film. An idyllic series of events is shown during the planning stage, where everything goes perfectly, but it’s clear that this will never happen, something that the film plays with by using fourth-wall breaks and dream-like cinematography.
In the third act once it all kicks off, it’s basically constant action until the credits roll. Zombie kills come thick and fast with a satisfying spray of blood and gore with each shot fired. There are still some quieter moments between set-pieces, but they fail to land much emotional weight when the characters just aren’t given much depth, and their lives are comparatively boring compared to everything else.
A New Take On Zombies
Not long after entering the city, the team comes across the super-smart alpha zombies. The whole ecosystem and lore surrounding this world’s version of the undead is very interesting. Snyder builds upon those who came before, such as the Legendary George Romero, and adds new elements to mix things up. The army has a leader, Zeus – played by Richard Cetrone, who has some sort of twisted relationship with his Queen (Athena Perample).
Anyone bit by Zeus becomes an alpha and will be faster, stronger, and smarter than your typical shambler zombies. The shamblers are generally the slow-moving corpses of other zombie stories. There’s a scene where the characters come across of room of hybernating shamblers and, without wanting to spoil anything, it’s one of the creepiest and scariest moments in the film.
Characters and Performances – Not Quite Dead
Unfortunately, apart from Scott and his daughter, every other character is just too one-note. They are each given a specific skill that justifies their place on the heist team (and thus in the film itself), but beyond that, there’s not much to relate to or be invested in. The shady guy does shady things, and the annoying girl is annoying.
It’s clear to anyone who has seen a zombie film before that not everyone is going to make it out alive. Based on the brief and shallow character introductions, it’s clear who is expendable and who will actually have a significant role to play. This means that from the outset, the audience has no connection with the characters until they are ultimately killed off.
Occasionally, however, someone will surprise you with a moment of comedy or impressive fighting prowess, and it just makes you wish that we were given more backstory to get to know these characters. However, with the announcement of the prequel spin-off focusing on safecracker Dieter and the ‘anime-inspired’ series that will cover the start of the Vegas outbreak, we may just get a closer examination of these characters.
Many of the stand-out moments come from the performances of the actors. Matthias Schweighöfer perfectly captures the weirdness of safecracker Dieter in a way that is strangely relatable as an everyman who finds himself in the middle of a zombies outbreak. Tig Notaro also makes the most of the witty dialogue as she plays the role of sassy pilot perfectly, despite joining as a replacement last-minute.
Bautista provides the majority of the emotions with his performance. Despite behind relegated to comic relief in his role as Drax in the Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers films, he handles this well in this film. He strikes a good balance between awkward Dad and zombie-slaying badass. The performances of the rest of the cast are respectable but nothing special. This is likely due to the fact that they don’t get much to work with.
Pacing – A Simple In and Out
The overall pacing of Army of the Dead is good. Despite being almost two-and-a-half hours long, it doesn’t feel like it. The first fifty minutes of the film, before they enter Las Vegas, go by in a flash. We bounce from character to character as the heist is set up and exposition is given. It’s clear that they want to get to the action as soon as possible, which, as mentioned, comes at the cost of character development. Although, when the action’s as good as it is, you can’t really complain.
The only time when things really slow down is after they arrive at the casino. The crew settles down while Dieter cracks the safe, Peters fixes the helicopter and Scott attempts to rekindle his relationship with Kate. It’s all pretty mundane stuff and only picks up again after as we move towards the third act.
Editing – Surrounded On All Sides
There not much that specifically stands out in terms of editing in the film’s quieter moments, but it’s in the action where it all comes together. There are a lot of quick cuts that come together while still able to give the audience a clear sense of what’s going on even in the most chaotic moments. With the various members of the team, the biggest fights often have several characters doing their own thing at different levels of the buildings. A good sense of space and time is established in these instances, making it easy to follow what’s going on.
If there were any complaints, it would be that the editing seems to make Las Vegas a lot smaller than it really is. For example, at one point, it appears that a horse is able to outpace a helicopter and other characters are able to traverse large distances much faster than should be possible. Regardless, this is likely a consequence of the nature of films themselves as they need to keep the pace up can’t be superseded by the necessity for realistic travel times.
Cinematography – Glorious and Gruesome
Zack Snyder is also behind the camera as the director of photography for Army of the Dead, and his flair for gorgeous and stylish cinematography is evident here. Las Vegas is bathed in a dusty yellowish-hue that emphasizes the apocalyptic nature within the wall of the city. Natural light sources are used here whenever possible to add to the rustic and run-down tone one would expect in this environment. The sharp distinction in visual styles between the outside world and the city helps to reinforce this fact. Then once the characters get the power on in the casino, the area is flooded in bright neon lights, flashing slot machines, and oppressive artificial light.
Almost the moment they enter through the shipping container walls, a really shallow depth of field is applied. This makes everything behind the characters in the foreground very blurry, adding to the feeling of claustrophobia with threats on all sides that may be hiding in the shadows hidden by a veil of obscurity. This effect does get a little disorientating at times, however, as it can make your understanding of the space around the characters difficult. Such as the moment when they come across the zombie tiger and the Queen – it isn’t very clear how far away the zombies are and how much dangers the characters are in.
The special effects are top-notch. While the make-up on the undead isn’t on the same level as The Walking Dead, it’s the use of CGI where the impact of the horror is really felt. Gunshots tear chunks out of the zombies and even blow holes through heads; this really shows off the firepower of the guns and explosives. CGI is also used to fill in the wide shots with thousands of zombies all crowded together on-screen to add to the immense scale of the hordes. And then there’s the zombie tiger itself which looks incredible with bones and muscle protruding through decaying flesh; it looks terrifying and definitely what you’d expect from an undead tiger.
Sound and Music – Giving a Voice to the Action
The sound effects and music work together with the images to reinforce the desired impact of the film itself. Every zombie kill is met with the loud blast of the gunfire and the soft thump, and the bullets tear through flesh and bone. It’s honestly gruesome stuff, but it supports exactly what fans expect from this sort of film. The groans and screams of the alphas add a lot to their monstrous and intimidating design.
The soundtrack also does not disappoint. Scored by Junkie XL (Tom Holkenborg), known for many popular action films over the past decade, it acts to support the intensity of the action and simmers down to keep the pace up during the quieter moments. The film also makes good use of covers of popular songs. Such as Viva Las Vegas, and mentioned earlier and Zombie by The Cranberries.