“Army of the Dead” is the newest big budget Netflix film, directed by Zack Snyder and stars Dave Bautista. This is Snyder’s first departure from the superhero genre in 10 years. Snyder is no rookie when it comes to the zombie subgenre as one of the more critically beloved zombie films is his remake of “Dawn of the Dead” from 2004.
Immediately, within the first 15 minutes of the film, it’s clear that this is where Snyder feels the most in his element. The opening scene is well crafted and helps to set the tone for the entire rest of the movie.
Not only does it blend comedy with spectacle but also is still overbearingly frightening. This in connection to the second part of the opening sequence is really where fans of Zack Snyder recognize that he is extremely comfortable. Slow motion, a dreary cover of a famous rock song, a touch of societal issues, and a dash of fire power.
Despite Snyder working with themes and genres that he is more comfortable with, he also does a great job distinguishing this zombie film from almost all the rest that came before it.
The plot is essentially a casino heist job with zombies looming as a delicious bonus. The blend of a heist and an undead film is one that you would immediately say to yourself, “How has no one thought of that before?”
And the execution of this clever idea is greatly effective. This is probably one of the more entertaining films from beginning to end that I have seen in about two years. Not only is it a frolicking good time, but it succeeds in everything that it is trying to do.
When certain characters bite the dust, you’re upset that they had to go; as intended and when others pass on… you’re happy to see them go, which was the obvious goal. Too often with horror films, the characters are either cannon fodder for the antagonist and we don’t care to see them go or they become so important and overwritten that we know that they have no chance of dying, which eliminates all the intensity.
Snyder does a great job at molding characters who are fun to watch and seem accurate for the world that he builds while still being compelling on a human level when he wants them to be. It may seem like I am praising Snyder on my knees so far but that is because he clearly worked his tail off and was extremely passionate about this film. Not only did he direct this film, but he also created the story, wrote the screenplay, produced it, and was the director of photography, which is rare nowadays.
It’s clear that Snyder felt the handcuffs come off that he was attached to the last decade from directing something so studio heavy and established like the DC universe.
The entire cast is really quite great and clearly dug into their roles, but a few specific actors deserve special shout outs.
To start, Tig Notaro who is known mostly for her stand up is quite funny in the film but deserves attention because of the circumstances she went through while filming. Notaro was added into the film through additional photography and green screen to replace another actor and stand up comedian Chris D’Elia. When D’Elia was accused of sexual misconduct in 2020, Netflix and Snyder decided to replace him in the film and cast Notaro in the role.
Not only is she well-suited for this specific role that is often found in the heist genre, but she reportedly shared no time with the other actors while filming and how to do each scene by herself behind a green screen. To say this is a difficult task is an understatement, and it is more than appropriate to give her proper kudos for blending herself into this film without making her character feel inorganic.
And additionally, unless you’re really trying to look for it, the special effects and green screen captures of her character are well blended with the original scenes shot and are difficult to notice.
Two more actors who deserve proper attention are Omari Hardwick as Vanderohe, a retired soldier who is mentally affected by the undead and Matthias Schweighöfer who plays Ludwig Dieter, the smart mouth and big-headed safecracker. This pairing has a fun arc that blends well to form an unlikely duo, and their chemistry is very personal and effective.
Lastly of course is Dave Bautista in the lead role playing another retired soldier, Scott Ward. For many wrestling fans like myself it has been performances in 2015’s Bond film, “Spectre” and 2017’s “Blade Runner 2049” where we knew Big Dave was a real actor. It is more than appropriate to start referring to him as a strong actor overall instead of a strong actor for an athlete. He really grounds the film in a surprising way.
When you see a man of his stature especially when he is playing someone who is a respected soldier, you may not expect to see him so emotional, but there are several scenes where he is either very depressed, crying hysterically, or just doing really strong subtle face acting. And it’s clear once you see the movie that a large reason why he took this role was to stretch his acting muscles and showcase to a more general audience what he already knew that he could do.
With this strong protagonist performance by Bautista and the recent news of him being cast in the sequel to “Knives Out” this has been a great start to the year for the rising star. It’s rare for a Snyder film to be critically acclaimed all across the board, and this one gets just about as close as he gets.
Even with its overall positive reviews the film is not perfect. The runtime is very bloated. It runs at just under 2 1/2 hours, and you can feel this in a few sequences. At least five scenes run between 10 seconds and two minutes too long. Despite this issue, I would say the overall pacing of the film is average for its run time, and I was not ever feeling the urge to check my phone to see how much time had passed.
Another issue related to runtime is that the film feels like it has multiple endings. Although the last 40 minutes are very intense and one of the better third acts in a zombie film in recent memory, it does feel like it has too many cooks in the kitchen. Ultimately it just wants to do too much without properly spreading it out.
What you see is what you get with Zack Snyder, he has such a specific brand of filmmaking. So, if you’re not a fan of his previous work in the zombie genre or just his overall style of directing, then obviously this new film most likely will not be for you.
Although it’s clear that Snyder is also trying some new things out which is most likely why he took on the role of also being the director of photography. Many of the shots are intentionally out of focus or are focused on something that is usually the opposite of what you may typically see. This is very similar to the “Knightmare sequence” at the end of “Zack Snyder‘s Justice League” and feels very fresh as I can’t think of too many films that are compiled like this. However, not everyone will love this style of cinematography.
All in all this, film was just a ball of fun. It’s exactly what I wanted it to be: fun, frightening, enthralling, and escapism that isn’t unintelligent. This is a really fresh take on a subgenre of horror that has been oversaturated in the last decade, and Snyder has truly put a great twist on a beloved but tired type of film. The characters are portrayed as Snyder intended to be, the gore is extremely fun and, at times, cringe inducing.
Overall, I can’t recommend this film enough. There’s no way around saying it’s just a really fun time and is better than it needs to be. I highly recommend you check this film out on a big screen if you can, but if not, this film is on Netflix right now and is absolutely worth your time.