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Review: Zack Snyder's Western zombie heist 'Army of the Dead' is a full bite

Eric Webb
Austin 360
Nora Arnezeder and Dave Bautista fight zombies who have taken over Las Vegas in Zack Snyder's "Army of the Dead."

God bless it, “Army of the Dead” is honest. The inciting incident in the first 10 minutes of Zack Snyder’s new zombie heist flick involves a military convoy crash caused by a highway sex act. The Liberace impersonator being eaten alive by zombie showgirls in the next 10 minutes feels perfectly explicable when that’s the first move on the chess board. 

Every generation of college students needs the film that will live on their dorm wall as a poster. I can easily see “Army of the Dead” — a gonzo genre mashup that manages to keep a brain in its head, unlike so many of its titular shamblers — taped up over a pile of beer cans. The film is a return to fertile undead ground for Snyder, most recently a hero to entitled nerds for HBO Max’s release of his director’s cut of “Justice League,” after much weird online badgering. Remember, Snyder’s 2004 “Dawn of the Dead” remake was a new-millennium touchstone for horror fans, a brutal and cheeky take on de rigueur midnight movie tropes.  

“Army of the Dead,” in theaters now and streaming on Netflix on May 21, is the demon baby of those two Snyder projects: both deeply committed to the art of flesh eating, and a little bloated. 

After that aforementioned opening scene, “Army of the Dead” efficiently and stylishly gives us the lowdown through the sacred art of montage. Wouldn’t you know it, that convoy had a killer zombie on board, and wouldn’t you also know it, he was one of the smart, predatory ones. Just like in “Dawn of the Dead,” the strains of a lounge singer support a collage of carnage, as hordes of infected monsters take over Las Vegas. Bachelorette parties fall to the soulless ones, and let's say the casinos should have bet on red.  

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Matthias Schweighöfer's safecracker is a highlight of Netflix's maximalist "Army of the Dead."

In the aftermath, the government cordons off Las Vegas, letting the zombies run the joint. Scott (Dave Bautista; large) was a hero defending the living when stuff went down, but post-zombie invasion, he’s a short-order cook in a desert diner. A shady casino mogul (Hiroyuki Sanada) approaches with an offer: Put together a team and infiltrate the ruins of Las Vegas to spring a vault full of a cash under one of his buildings, and then get a cut of the moolah.  

The customary “getting the gang together” sequence is a hoot. Among the misfits, there’s Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), a soldier with the mindset of a drum circle participant; Maria (Ana de la Reguera), a friend and lieutenant of Scott whose personality is “mechanic”; Lily (Nora Arnezeder), a cutthroat French mercenary who smuggles refugees back into Vegas; Marianne (Tig Notaro), a helicopter pilot who is Tig Notaro; Ludwig (Matthias Schweighöfer), a goshdamn delight of an excitable German safecracker; and Guzman (Raúl Castillo), a thrill-seeking vlogger who shoots zombies in the head for views.  

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Also along for the ride is Kate (Ella Purnell), Scott’s estranged daughter, who volunteers as an aide worker in the refugee camps bordering the hot zone. Gas cans strapped and guns blazing, they enter a Sin City where even the devil would probably cash out early. 

And — aaaaaand — I did not even mention several plot threads. The plight of the fenced-in refugees is told through TV news clips and the quest of a woman named Geeta (Huma Qureshi) who sneaks back into Vegas. Snyder is assumably trying to work in some topical meat, and brother, it’s like if your little brother was playing with Tonka trucks, and every 30 minutes he said something vague about fossil fuels and then went back to crashing toy big rigs together. To call the film's politics murky would imply that they started off clear.

Comedian Tig Notaro stepped into the role of the helicopter pilot in "Army of the Dead" late in the production process.

Too short of a straw in this production also goes to the zombie society that’s taken root where the Blue Man Group once roamed the earth. Zombie society! There’s just no room left. So sorry, zombies. 

Snyder, who came up with the story and co-wrote the screenplay, crafts genuinely compelling characters amid the cacophony. Bautista (still large) has grown into a compelling sci-fi action hero, from the dry alien wit of Drax in “Guardians of the Galaxy” to the silent strength and tiny glasses of Sapper Morton in “Blade Runner 2049” to hulking sweetie Scott in “Army of the Dead.” His big lugs with hearts of gold also have a palpable dignity that carries whatever film he’s in. 

Schweighöfer and Castillo are the other MVPs in “Army of the Dead,” each occupying their own flamboyant niche with the just right touch of camp. And Notaro must get her flowers; the deadpan comedian was green-screened into the film after the previous actor in the role, Chris D’Elia, was accused of sexually exploiting teenage girls. There’s not a note detached in her performance. Viva Las Vegas? Viva Tig Notaro, action hero. 

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Former Austinite Raúl Castillo has two big action blockbusters out now: "Army of the Dead" and "Wrath of Man."

Alright, the genre math: We’ve got zombies, heists, action, Western themes, family drama, social commentary and, of course, comedy. You expected less than the kitchen sink after the Liberace thing? “Army of the Dead” loves the movie that it is, and for that, it’s easy to enjoy without a second thought. If you do have that second thought, you might weigh how well Snyder executes all the moves he’s trying to pull off. It just tips over into success — the zombie-heist-Western-action works, and the family drama-comedy can’t quite keep up. (The social commentary didn’t even make it to the bus on time.) 

But hail, the blockbusters are returning after a dark pandemic year, and for that, let’s praise all the bigness and loudness we can get. “Army of the Dead” is not going into the Criterion Collection anytime soon, but it's not dumb, either.  

And whether it’s the undead or fanboys who bully film studios, you gotta hand it to Snyder. He knows a thing or two about harnessing a horde to realize a vision. 

'Army of the Dead'

Grade: B-

Starring: Dave Bautista, Ella Purnell, Omari Hardwick, Tig Notaro, Raúl Castillo, Matthias Schweighöfer

Director: Zack Snyder

Rated: R for some sexual content, gore, language throughout, graphic nudity and strong bloody violence

Running time: 2 hours, 28 minutes

Watch: Now in theaters and streaming on Netflix on May 21