Demotion’s Eleven: ‘Army of the Dead’ a genre guilty pleasure, and little more

BY NEIL MORRIS, CN+R Film Critic
Posted 5/26/21

“Army of the Dead” begins promisingly enough, with a cold open featuring a mysterious über-zombie escaping from and decimating a Area 51 military convoy, punctuated by it and two newly undead …

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Demotion’s Eleven: ‘Army of the Dead’ a genre guilty pleasure, and little more

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Posted

“Army of the Dead” begins promisingly enough, with a cold open featuring a mysterious über-zombie escaping from and decimating a Area 51 military convoy, punctuated by it and two newly undead soldiers standing atop a cliff overlooking the bright lights of Las Vegas, a zombie smorgasbord not unlike the gluttonous brunch buffet at a Vegas hotel.

Director Zack Snyder’s opening credit sequences often succeed at propelling the plot in short, efficient order — his spectacular start to “Watchmen’’ springs to mind. For “Army of the Dead,” Snyder fast-forwards through the fall of Vegas, a protracted collapse and war that showcases casino patrons, performers, and even show tigers ravaged and turned into zombies. It’s a pitched battle that sees the emergence of everymen into heroes, personal tragedies, and the drastic decision to wall-off Vegas from the outside world and leave a teeming undead city to lie fallow. In other words, Snyder shows us the movie we want to see in a three-minute montage.

The principal plot of “Army of the Dead” picks up years later, with Vegas still under quarantine and the countdown under way to drop a nuclear bomb on Sin City and finally put the zombie problem to rest. Casino owner Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) still has $200 million left behind in the vault of his derelict casino, so he hires a crew to recover the loot before the city is nuked.

Bly turns to Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), a short-order cook who we know is a retired mercenary and decorated zombie slayer because, well, that was featured in the opening credit sequence. Scott’s de rigueur reluctance to return to zombie land quickly crumbles versus a $50 million reward.

Scott’s crew eventually grows to a not-coincidental 11, as the movie becomes a “Walking Dead” edition of “Ocean’s 11.” The group includes Scott’s daughter (Ella Purnell), who is on the hunt for an immigrant mom wrongly exiled behind the Vegas walls, Scott’s gal pal (Ana de la Reguera), a Dutch safecracker (Matthias Schweighöfer), a Frenchwoman sherpa (Nora Arnezeder), a helicopter pilot (Tig Notaro), a couple of Internet-famous zombie sharpshooters, one of Bly’s henchmen (Garret Dillahunt), and an unwitting sacrificial lamb for the zombie leaders/gatekeepers.

Yes, there is a zombie caste system, with the typically slow, unthinking carnivores (called “shamblers”) in the majority and a cadre of cunning alphas leading the pack. It goes unexplained how the super-strong, super-quick, and above-average intelligent zombies cannot figure out how to breach the single reinforced steel door preventing their escape.

“Army of the Dead” unfolds as a zombie heist film filtered through the construct of “And Then There Were None.” And while that may sound like a hoot — and it occasionally is — the audience never quite shakes the origin story that wasn’t and the wanting character development that might have lent the story more resonance. It is a far cry from Snyder’s directorial debut, his well-regarded 2004 remake of George Romero’s zombie classic “Dawn of the Dead.” Instead, we get the endless barrage of cannon fodder that suffices for a latter-day genre guilty pleasure.

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