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The Stew Review: ‘Army of the Dead’ reanimates shambling zombie sub-genre

Nora Arnezeder (left) and Dave Bautista in the movie “Army of the Dead.”
Nora Arnezeder (left) and Dave Bautista in the movie “Army of the Dead.”(Netflix)
Updated: May. 18, 2021 at 10:45 AM CDT
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TYLER, Texas (KLTV) - After becoming largely burned out on the sub-genre, Zack Snyder’s “Army of the Dead” helped revitalize my enjoyment of zombie-related entertainment.

I suppose it shouldn’t be too surprising that Zack Snyder delivered a cracking zombie movie. After all, his first (and some might argue still best) feature film was the superb remake of George Romero’s genre-defining classic, “Dawn of the Dead.” “Army of the Dead” (which is not related at all to Romero’s original or its sequels) takes what had become a shambling corpse of an idea and infuses it with a sense of fun that, to me at least, had long since been missing from the zombie movie sub-genre.

Snyder, who birthed the story idea and co-wrote the script alongside Shay Hatten and Joby Harold, accomplishes this by playing every inch of this incredibly goofy concept with a level of conviction that most straight dramas aim for. The result is a film that is often flagrantly absurd on its surface, but is so assured in its stone-faced seriousness you can’t help but go along for the ride.

It also helps that the core concept feels fresh, or at least significantly underused within zombie movies. A zombie infection has nearly consumed a walled-off Las Vegas. In a few days, the President of the United States is set to launch a tactical nuke to (hopefully) eradicate the sea of undead trapped inside the makeshift quarantine zone. A looming nuclear strike, of course, makes for a perfect opportunity for a team of mercenaries to sneak inside, crack open a casino vault and bring back hundreds of millions of dollars for a mysterious businessman who promises them a cut of the payload.

Oh and they have to do it while maneuvering through a literal kingdom of super-powered, smart (they communicate!), feral zombies who are ruled by a government-experiment-gone-awry “alpha male” who can at-will turn any living thing into one of his super-powered subjects.

As one would expect, very little goes exactly according to plan and our intrepid team of mercs soon find themselves getting more than even they knowingly bargained for.

It’s a fun premise, though I must admit that for a heist movie it focuses very little on the actual heisting, which is often the best part of these types of films. And for a movie that runs well north of two hours (it could stand to be at least 15 minutes shorter) there’s a surprising overall lack of action in the first two-thirds. Which isn’t to say it’s bereft of action, just less than one might expect for a zombie flick, much less a Zack Snyder zombie flick.

No, what really makes this work is the characters, which might be the first time I’ve ever said that about this director’s work. He’s a superb visual stylist and skilled purveyor of often thrilling bombast, but “character artist” isn’t even among his top five skills. Still, I found myself genuinely rooting for this motley crew, even the ones I expected to get on my nerves with how broadly cartoonish they seemed at first. Everyone gets at least one big moment to shine, whether it’s Tig Notaro’s Peters piloting a chopper like an absolute champ, Raul Castillo’s Guzman going on an absolute rampage on the casino floor or Matthias Schweighöfer’s Dieter getting his Götterdämmerung moment, every character is memorable in their own way.

And it’s in these character moments that I became thankful, for once, that Snyder plays everything so seriously. Even as a staunch defender of his “Man of Steel,” it’s not hard to see why some feel that the resolutely po-faced approach to Superman borders on feeling downright dour. Ditto for his version of “Justice League.” The circumstances and multitude of characters presented in “Army of the Dead” are no less ridiculous than any of his comic book movies, but here Snyder seems to have finally found the perfect note to strike when taking inherently silly elements and playing them completely straight.

Holding it all together is Dave Bautista in the lead as Scott Ward, a former special ops soldier who was forced to kill his zombified wife and is now merely trying to survive flipping burgers at a rundown greasy spoon diner. Performers like John Cena or Dwayne Johnson may be more immediately charming actors, but Bautista has shown that he’s got the better acting chops of any recent wrestler-turned-actor. His work in “Army of the Dead” is no exception. His particular brand of quiet charisma lends a gravitas to Ward that provides a nice window into a character that might otherwise feel a bit rote on the page. It’s a nice contrast to the outrageousness that otherwise fills so much of the screen.

If there’s significant criticism to be leveled here it’s that this in no way needed to be a two-and-a-half hour movie. While the movie never particularly drags, this could be an absolute firecracker of a two hour romp if it were tightened in more than a few places. And while Snyder remains a superb visual stylist, his choice to perpetually frame every extreme close-up with the background completely out of focus. This would be fine if it were used for emphasis on occasion or for significant character moments. But he uses it near-constantly to the detriment of the film’s aesthetic.

Those complaints aside, “Army of the Dead” may well be Snyder’s best movie. I realize that may not be high praise depending on how you feel about his body of work (I’ll personally defend about 50 percent of it), but this certainly feels like Peak Snyder for better or worse.

*”Army of the Dead” is now playing in theaters and debuts on Netflix on Friday, May 21.

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