Army of the Dead (2021) – An Undead Vegas Romp that Misses the Jackpot

Zack Snyder, the director who in recent years is most famous for his efforts in the superhero genre with the likes of Man of Steel, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League, has recently returned to his roots with the Netflix film “Army of the Dead”.

Having started his career with a stellar remake of Dawn of the Dead (to some, still his best work) he once again visits zombie territory with this crime caper set in the city of (deadly) sin – Las Vegas. 

The film kicks off with what is arguably the most fun, gory and innovative sequence, showing how things have escalated out of control and zombies taking over the many establishments around Vegas, eating patrons and making enchanting showgirls into undead ghouls. 

In the opening montage, we see an ecstatic player hitting the jackpot at a slot machine before being attacked by a group of former casino entertainers turned flesh-hungry zombies. This unlucky patron probably should have stayed at home and stuck with the online casino option, instead of being munched on by hunky undead Chippendales and blood-thirsty bachelorettes. You can click here to see what happens when you play slots without zombies breathing down your neck.

After this promising intro the action slides toward familiar territory. And for a kitschy zombie film, it’s weirdly devoid of humor, and the rare bits that do raise a smile are devoid of any real wit. There is a zombie genre template, and any filmgoer understands this, but for a film to rise above the mediocre it needs something fresh (rotting flesh notwithstanding) about it – look at Shaun of the Dead, for example, a movie that pays loving homage to the genre but recasts it effectively, and to hilarious effect. 

The recasting in Army of the Dead should work, but falls oddly flat, as does the combination of zombie disaster with a heist caper. The heist plotline is pretty thin too – basically getting from one place to another and back again without much in the way of the epic twists and turns from the Ocean’s franchise or the classic, Italian Job. Heist movies need to be smart, surprising, at their best drawing gasps from the cinema. This is flat-footed, and fairly witless. It doesn’t help that Dave Bautista is in the lead role as Scott Ward – the wrestler-turned-actor doesn’t have the charisma and likability of some of the other crossover stars. Heists also need suave, smooth-talking protagonists – Bautista, for all his physical prowess, does lack in this department. 

That isn’t to say there aren’t entertaining bits – the amount of gore and splatter is gratuitous and joyfully over the top, although the CGI is a bit grating and eventually starts to wear thin. But the relentless splatter will appeal to fans of loud, non-stop action movies, and there are plenty of loud explosions to keep everyone on their toes. 

The running time is a problem – the film is massively overlong for what is a pretty basic premise without much deviation. Clocking in at just under two-and-a-half hours, it’s pretty arduous viewing. And the deaths of each and every zombie that gets blasted at close range with a gun or blown up in one way or another get tired and… well… let’s just say the effect wears off after a while. 

Oddly, one of the movie’s biggest faults is the fact that it’s caught in that no-man’s-land between being a good flick and a boring one. A zombie film can be so gloriously awful that it has a kind of cultish charm to it, but Army of the Dead isn’t bad enough to belong to the pantheon of so-bad-it’s-good cinema. So, this isn’t a scathing review – you can tell some love and thought has gone into the production – but nothing quite works and it’s all a bit muddled and contrived. It just about ticks the boxes of a heist caper and a zombie comedy, but that’s all it does, there isn’t enough beneath the surface. 

Snyder is a divisive figure in cinema, and Army of the Dead suggests he will remain so, though it never gets near his Dawn of the Dead remake. Not the rottenest zombie film ever, but certainly not the freshest either.