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'Army of the Dead' brings new life to zombies

by Courtney Lanning | May 14, 2021 at 1:34 a.m.
Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) is the leader of the group of mercenaries who’ve gone to Nevada in the middle of a zombie apocalypse to steal millions of dollars from a Las Vegas casino in Zack Snyder’s “Army of the Dead.”

I thought I was burned out on zombies. But having just finished "Army of the Dead," I can say, apparently, there was a little more room in my attention span for the living dead than I estimated.

When I was at Arkansas Tech University, a game called "Left 4 Dead" was released. The premise was really simple. You (and three other people) take control of a character, kill zombies, and try to get to a safe room at the end of the level. A few years later, "Left 4 Dead 2" dropped -- same premise, just different characters and more zombies.

Between the two games, I logged about 150 hours of playtime. For some gamers, that's a drop in the bucket. I stayed up late so many nights playing with complete strangers and mutilating the living dead, sometimes more successfully than others.

I've seen a handful of zombie films. Some I enjoyed, like "28 Days Later," "I Am Legend," and "World War Z" (blasphemy to fans of the book, I know). Others, I hated with all my heart, like "Dylan Dog: Dead of Night."

"Zombieland" was something my friends talked about and quoted for years. And the sequel was ... fine -- definitely showing faded wallpaper on the formula and genre.

Somewhere along the way, I got burnt out on zombies. I didn't watch "Black Summer" when it came out.

But then I saw the trailer for "Army of the Dead." It looked fun, stylized, and actually seemed to combine the conventional zombie film with elements of a casino heist. I really liked that idea. "Dawn of the Dead" meets "Oceans 11." Yes, please.

The fact that Zack Snyder was at the helm left me extra curious, especially after he fixed "Justice League," and turned it into a good movie. That was something I thought to be impossible.

"Army of the Dead" opens with a military transport moving a zombie through Nevada. Standard stuff. What's strange is, opposite the special forces, we're shown newlyweds having sex while driving all over the road. Odd choice to open a zombie movie with road sex, Zack.

Nonetheless, the car crashes into the vehicles transporting the zombie, and it gets loose. It kills everyone and makes its way to Las Vegas, infecting the whole city. Later, the U.S. government surrounds the city with steel cargo containers. I'm not sure how that would work.

"Army of the Dead" follows a group of thieves working to break into a casino vault and steal millions of dollars in cash.

The main character is named Scott Ward, and he's played by Dave Bautista, an underrated actor, who is fantastic in this role. He can bring the action, some quiet moments, and even a couple of laughs when they're needed. A+ job playing Scott.

It's the script around Bautista that leaves me with questions. We're never told where the first zombie comes from. But he's apparently named Zeus (though I had to read that off the Wikipedia page since the movie never reveals that info). Zeus is an alpha zombie -- the kind that runs fast (like in "World War Z") and has some basic intelligence.

When he bites people, they turn into alphas. But if any other zombie bites a person, they turn into the slow, moaning zombies without any real smarts, like in "The Walking Dead." Having different kinds of zombies is cool, and it makes the story feel more like a video game.

Perhaps the biggest question mark for me in this movie is a quarantine camp outside the city. The way people talk makes it seem like less than desirable members of society end up there under the guise they might be infected. There're some immigrants in the camp, and a few main characters come from that setting to join Scott's team.

I don't understand the purpose of the camp. It seems like Snyder wanted to make some cheap political commentary, having one character say in an interview that people who support gay rights or abortion can end up in the camp. There's no logical sense to the facility. And I only saw one guard in the entire place. Apparently you can buy your way out, which, to me, defeats the purpose of a "quarantine camp." It's all very muddled and unnecessary.

With that said, "Army of the Dead" does a good job at making each member of Scott's team interesting (and sometimes ridiculous). From the wise-cracking helicopter pilot to a philosophy-spouting German safecracker who can apparently open the casino vault.

Since "Army of the Dead" has such a big cast, it's hard to say anyone, besides Bautista, gave a standout performance. Omari Hardwick and Ana de la Reguera both do fine as Scott's main lieutenants in the group. Ella Purnell does fine as Scott's estranged daughter, though the story may not have needed her presence. It seems like there was enough happening with the zombies and the heist that her family drama plotline was a tad superfluous.

Snyder put some stand-out imagery in this movie, even if it's just for aesthetics. There's a badass zombie tiger, an undead queen alpha who you apparently have to sacrifice humans to in order to have safe passage into Vegas, and even an Elvis zombie that really catches your eye in the opening sequence.

With that said, a few things don't really work. I'm down with the zombie tiger. But Zeus rides a zombie horse, and that's the dumbest part of this movie. I didn't like zombie horses in "Game of Thrones," and I don't like them here. I also would have been perfectly happy without seeing a zombie fetus. What is it with Snyder and pregnant zombies?

For an alpha zombie that serves as the main villain of this story, Zeus doesn't really look all that impressive. Rather, he has the appearance of a dehydrated Hulk from 2008's "The Incredible Hulk." He wears a helmet to protect his head from bullets, which is neat. But he also has a cape and a metal pole he carries around. Those aspects felt a little too "Batman" for a zombie movie.

For the most part, the visuals in "Army of the Dead" are fantastic. There's just the right amount of blood and guts, cool explosions, convincing CGI, and an awesome shot of Bautista rolling on the ground to dodge a zombie alpha and shooting him in mid-jump. The action in "Army of the Dead" is plentiful and delicious.

Snyder clearly borrows scenes from other zombie films. He lifts the nuking the city and escaping via helicopter plotline from "Resident Evil: Apocalypse," sneaking through a hallway of hibernating zombies from "Silent Hill," and the concept of smarter zombies from "I Am Legend." But he uses all these borrowed plot devices nicely, and it never feels like he's ripping anything off.

The one thing "Army of the Dead" has in common with the last two films I've reviewed is the main characters receiving exposition from a news channel. And this particular instance just made me angry.

To run the elevators in the casino and reach the basement, Scott powers up a generator. Fine. That makes sense. But then in the lobby, the main thieves find a television that just happens to be playing cable news. I'll buy the generator powering the TV. I will not accept that a cable or satellite company still provides service to a defunct casino in a bombed-out zombie city.

And all that aside, these characters just happen to turn on the TV and catch cable news delivering the one piece of information they need at that exact second? No. Hollywood script writers, I'm begging you: Stop delivering exposition through cable news in your movies. It's lazy. It's my biggest complaint in an otherwise extremely fun movie.

"Army of the Dead" is packed with entertaining scenes. The climax is appropriately tense and stressful. And there's a scene where the main characters use a zombie to activate booby traps before they can access the vault. That's my favorite scene in the entire movie. I laughed so hard.

Some things in "Army of the Dead" are predictable, betrayals, etc. But the movie still surprised me with some abrupt deaths I didn't see coming.

I'm unsure how I feel about the use of "Zombie" by The Cranberries for an ending song. It might be a little too on the nose. One character also vanishes toward the end of the film. I have no idea what happened to her.

With all that said, my complaints with this movie are tiny things. Netflix and Snyder knocked it out of the park with "Army of the Dead." It's a fantastic summer blockbuster that delivers big action, entertaining characters and breathes new life into the zombie genre. Mixing zombies and a heist film was brilliant.

"Army of the Dead" is opening in a few central Arkansas theaters today, but if you can't catch it on the big screen it'll be on Netflix in a week.

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