With zombie-infested Las Vegas walled up and due to be nuked in 32 hours, casino boss Bly Tanaka offers zombie war veteran Scott Ward a slice of the $200 million in the vault under Bly’s casino if he can assemble a team and retrieve it.
This review is not massively spoilery. If you are in fact looking for that — or a dive into some of the ideas in the film — check out my article Winner or dinner? Army Of The Dead: who dies, who survives, what we know and what we don’t.
Picking their way through the remains of Las Vegas’s Bly casino, zombie war veteran Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) and his team find more blueprints for the underground vault, and by the vault’s locked door more bodies.
Ward’s team aren’t the first to go looking for the $200 million inside, but earlier teams didn’t have ace safecracker Ludwig Dieter. Or did they? Fighter and thinker Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick) suggests to a thoroughly spooked Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer) that maybe these dessicated bodies, which bear an uncanny resemblance to Ward and his team, are in fact them, and they are stuck in an infinite time loop, destined to repeat their unsuccessful heist and die in the process.
There are lots of ideas like that thrown in to this sci-fi / horror / heist thriller sweet shop pick-and-mix. Zack Snyder’s 2.5 hour zomfest is brazenly funny and disgustingly gory. The first 15 minutes are eye-popping, from the accidental release of First Zombie Zeus from his transporter coming out of Area 51 to attacks by topless zombified chorus girls and last-minute escapes; before Las Vegas is overrun by the undead and the authorities wall them in. It’s alternately madcap and sombre, watching a new society, and potentially a new hybrid species, emerging out of the rubble of war.
Army Of The Dead — the title can refer as much to Ward’s team, especially in the light of Vanderohe’s musings on their fate, or indeed the mass of Western humanity, some of them gambling blank-eyed in Tanaka’s casino — may be long but it flew by, thanks to the world-building and Ward’s team.
They are all — apart from the obligatory double-crosser and obligatory abusive man — a delight, even when flawed. First recruited is Maria (Ana de la Reguera), who has fought alongside Ward before. They find expert gunman Guzman from his zombie-killing youtube videos. Guzman (Raúl Castillo) brings along the ass-kicking Chambers (Samantha Win). Marianne Peters (Tig Notaro) is a pilot, who will, they hope, fly them out in the rescue helicopter that still sits on the casino roof, a remnant of a failed evacuation during the war.
Martin (Garret Dillahunt), Tanaka’s head of security, comes along to give them advice about the tower. Ward’s estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) insists on joining them after her friend Geeta (Huma Qureshi) goes missing inside the city.
Ward is flipping burgers when casino owner Bly Takana (Hiroyuki Sanada) offers him a $50 million slice of the $200 million locked in his Vegas vault — with only a 32-hour window before the government obliterates the city with a tactical nuclear strike. And in a surprise to absolutely no one except me, Tanaka’s endgame is not what he has told Ward.
Breaking into the city has shades of going through the wardrobe into a post-apocalyptic Narnia. They file through a shipping container furnished like a Downton Abbey sitting room, emerging out into the Vegas wasteland.
It’s a vista of tattered towerblocks and burnt-out cars. It looks like there’s been an earthquake and there’s certainly been a seismic shift.
Zombies in this world are dimwit shufflers or, if bitten by Zeus, the superior Alphas. Death for zombies has to involve the brain or they just keep going. One is decapitated and I’ve not seen such a chatty head since Elizabeth Shaw carted off David’s noggin in a man-bag at the end of Prometheus.
The wall is terrifyingly leaky. Where now we have brave urban explorers waxing lyrical over your nan’s 1970s avocado bathroom suite, Army Of The Dead has YouTube stars breaking into the city and shooting shamblers for Likes. Why haven’t any Alpha zombies — the clever, fast ones who look like skinny, ageing rockers after 40 years of drugs and debauchery — escaped? Lilly (Nora Arnezeder), experienced at getting people in (and less often out) of the infested city, has the answer for Scott and his team once they are inside: we think Las Vegas is a zombie prison but for the Alphas it’s their kingdom.
First to arrive to greet them is Valentine, one of Seigfreid and Roy’s lions, now zombified. He’s not the only zombie animal (zominal?) with Zeus (Richard Cetrone) later perched on a zombie horse as he launches his battle against the incomers, metal mask protecting him from having his brains blown out, cape flying, like Snyder’s own 300 set in an alternative Underworld. ZomButler anyone?
Lilly tells them they can pass unmolested if they offer a trade, and she’s brought along abusive quarantine camp guard Burt Cummings (Theo Rossi) as bait. Soon the zombie queen appears to take this tribute, wild-haired, crouching and leaping, emitting wails and shrieks, a 100-year-old Kate Bush after a dose of glucosamine. With a soundtrack already stuffed with pop classics I was half-expecting it to crank up Wuthering Heights.
As they venture into the city there are jokes galore, and a rather interminable father-daughter heart-to-heart which left me growling at their wasted time.
Stretches of high tension — tiptoeing through hibernating zombies — are offset by a fiery casino battle as Ward, Lilly and Guzman try to fight their way through fast-moving Alphas to the roof. Do You Really Want To Hurt Me by Culture Club blasts out from the lift, both anachronistic and on the nose. In fact the soundtrack is mostly hilarious, moving from cheery pop and bouncy standards to cod-classical to mark the momentousness of the occasion.
Existing connections and new friendships determine events. The highlight is Dieter, the nerdy brainbox who becomes a zombie killer, attaching himself to Vanderohe and using his need for the other man’s approval as a lever to reach heights he never thought possible.
The ending teases defeat snatched from the jaws of victory (you can read about it in detail here) and not all the stories are completed; threads are left hanging and there are more red herrings than a communist fishmonger’s.
What happens to zombies in the rain? Why are government agencies so bad at transporting highly dangerous cargo? And where is Geeta? The lore and hints of more keep it compelling, though it’s not scary, and is more of a heist thriller than anything else.
Zombies often look like evolution in reverse, the pre-Enlightenment hordes (shuffling, stupid, driven by base instincts) we are too sophisticated to beat until we get our act together. In Army Of The Dead though you can look at it as humanity evolving, with AI zombots, and zombabies conceived after their parents have turned. Alternatively it’s another parable of modern society: polarising into the Alphas and the rest, the gap widening.
Like many movies made before the pandemic and released during it, it somehow reflects what we’ve been through. That’s not surprising, considering how predictable society’s responses are to new threats: quarantining, scapegoating, trying to reverse-engineer to discover its origins.
Whatever, at least I’m not being criticised for my shopping habits with this one.
Tig Notaro replaced actor Chris D’Elia, her scenes shot without her co-stars, and it does show, though Peters is an entertaining presence. Generally performances are fine (Schweighöfer and Hardwick are standouts, and Bautista is an ever-reliable presence) though it’s not the kind of film where it really matters.
There is a prequel focused on Dieter which has already been shot, called Army Of Thieves; and an animated movie set during the early days of the Vegas calamity. But now we know zombies can fall in love and reproduce, I’m holding out for the big zombotromcom.
Army Of The Dead is streaming on Netflix now and is also out in US cinemas
Who’s the winner? Who is dinner? Read my article on Army Of The Dead: who dies, who survives, what we know and what we don’t.
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