Army of the Dead flatters to deceive with a premise that should make it stand out. But a severely bloated script containing needless subplots detract from what should be a simple film. With a truly intriguing zombie idea, the film soon becomes all too predictable. There are shining sparks, sadly they are continually held down by one reason or another. Neither disappointing nor great, this is a film that rests too comfortably at being just okay.
A group of mercenaries led by Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) venture into the ringed off zombie ravaged city of Las Vegas to steal $200 million from the Olympia casino vault. When Scott’s stepdaughter Kate (Ella Ward) comes along to find a friend missing in the restricted city, their task becomes all the more difficult.
What should, in theory, be just an Ocean’s 11 with zombies becomes quite a bloated conflicting film. We have some great moments that could easily cause a prequel to exist with the different forms of zombies present. Be it the Alpha’s led by the King and Queen or the ones that sleep standing up. These are zombies that do become interested in, (perhaps a little more than the actual humans invading their land). Add to this the surprise of what these zombies can do biologically, a world is opened and created. This inventiveness is almost wasted in this film.
It almost feels as if these versions of zombies should have been left to the side for another project as it is nearly too interesting, and they never get enough runtime to expand upon it entirely. The reason why this feels wasted is simple; this story isn’t that great. Sure this could be put down to expectations of what we could have expected. However, with characters written as thinly as we have present in Army of the Dead, combined with how obvious some of the characters are to what to expect from them, it leaves you deflated. These wonderful zombie ideas are just a subplot to a poor story. They deserve better and when you start imagining better stories for those zombies, or at the least a story that would suit them, while the film is still running, there is an unavoidable issue.
Some moments frustrate the life out of you as an audience member; this is a crew with all the weapons they can carry (and an electric saw). Yet, for reasons beyond all reason, they do not wear gear that could potentially protect them from any bites or attacks from the zombies they are aware of. So many tank tops and arms are on show here that aesthetic won over reasoning. A fair number of character deaths could have been avoided if they wore anything to protect themselves—just nonsensical decision making from the characters and, by proxy, the costume department. Looking cool with bandanas doesn’t keep you alive, folks.
It has to be assumed that there was a lot of footage shot in front of a green screen as there is a distracting trait of having characters gloriously shot in focus, but with the background so out of focus that it is blurry and gives off the pretense that the characters are not there. It is a small complaint, of course, but it is quite distracting and makes the film look a little cheap, which it was not considering some of the sets and set pieces we have before us. Sadly another of several nagging issues that distract in a film that should just be full of fun carnage.
The runtime is another issue that reeks of someone who wanted everything in and nothing out. There are zero reasons for this film to be a shade under two and a half hours long. Being so bloated, Army of the Dead accidentally makes itself predictable and, at times, a tad boring. So much time is wasted on the nonsense subplot of Kate having to find her friend and all the political aspects of the camp just outside from the walled-off city. If they had to have a reason to include Kate in the gang, make it simple as this doesn’t work, and worst of all, there is no payoff to it. It is just wasted space and needless as Army of the Dead would work so much better without its inclusion.
Without a doubt, the expected shining light of Army of the Dead is Dave Bautista. When the film needs a dramatic moment, they wisely give it to him to handle those large shoulders. Wonderfully we see Bautista get better and better with every starring role and his improvement as an actor is quite remarkable. From the rest of the cast, Nora Arnezeder does great work; at the start, you are never overly sure which side she is on and her reasoning for carrying on with the mission. She also looks the part as someone who could cause considerable damage.
While the rest of the supporting cast have their moments, no one really stands out and even worse; some are worryingly bad to the point that if Snyder had the budget, he should have digitally replaced them as he did to bring Tig Notaro in. Notaro, by the way, has a hard job of trying to be present when she was never around the cast, and she does as good a job as she can. Sadly, however, she doesn’t fit that character. You never feel any authenticity with her, which is a shame. Though at least she had an excuse not to have chemistry with the cast, they were not there for her to bounce off. There are no excuses for almost everyone else who never mesh together convincingly. With the sole exception being Omari Hardwick and Matthias Schweighöfer who are just so damn delightful together.
The deaths are rather formulaic as our team starts to get picked off one by one, either by their own mistakes or by the sabotaged efforts of one character. The only exception to this is when that wonderful Valentine gets to strike and brutally rip apart one team. It is such a wonderfully gruesome death that you wonder why on earth they didn’t do more of this throughout the film. Everything else in the film feels rather tame in comparison. It is one of those deserving deaths. Yet it is also very rewarding for anyone wanting or expecting a good slice of gore to come from Army of the Dead.
This is a b-movie, so treat it as a b-movie with the deaths; when a number of the team just die off-screen, it leaves you a little deflated. Especially when considering how creative Zack Snyder can be and is with death scenes. A feeling of missed opportunity arises when Snyder doesn’t have to worry too much about limitations; he doesn’t go as full-on as you would expect. Certainly, there are some tremendously gruesome moments, but in comparison to say his version of Dawn of the Dead, it just quite live up to that level of gore.
Army of the Dead could have been a great movie; the whole concept is rather spectacular; sadly, it never sticks the landing and, worst of all, never tries to. Some bright sparks do little to distract you from what could have been. Alas, we are left with a film that isn’t terrible or bad for that matter, but it isn’t good either. It suffices as a late-night B-movie watch, and even then, it probably should have soaked in that B-movie trope a far sight more.
Army of the Dead is out now on Netflix.
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