17 (!) years after Zack Snyder first revealed his plans for ARMY OF THE DEAD, the zombie action spectacle is now hitting the Netflix streaming service. And it was worth the wait. Even without using too many familiar undead tropes, the 90-million-dollar production is convincing across the board. Find out more in our review.
OT: Army of the Dead (USA 2021)
The Plot Summary
Not so long ago, a zombie epidemic broke out near Las Vegas. The poker mecca quickly became a zombie hell and Las Vegas was abandoned by the US authorities. The US President’s plan is to wipe out the city for good in a few days with the help of a nuclear missile, thus putting an end to the undead once and for all. But until then, billions of dollars are still stored underground in the vaults of Las Vegas hotels and casinos. They are the target of a group of mercenaries, led by Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), who has lost his wife among other things to the zombie plague. On behalf of casino boss Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada), the well-trained giant fights alongside his self-assembled squad of henchmen, including tough helicopter pilot Marianne (Tig Notaro), anxious safe-cracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer) and Scott’s own daughter Kate (Ella Purnell), who has joined the group against her father’s wishes. Under the leadership of the warrior Coyote (Nora Arnezeder), who knows the zombies and their structures inside out, the fighters, armed to the teeth, take on the undead. But the clock is ticking: soon the bomb will hit the city…
Army of the Dead Movie Meaning & ending
There are film projects that at some point you simply no longer believe they will be completed. Zack Snyder’s “Army of the Dead” is one of them. Since 2004, when Snyder had just completed his “Dawn of the Dead” remake, the film has been in production – sometimes more, sometimes less actively – and has passed through almost every stage of development hell in the 17 years to date. Back then, Snyder was offered the opportunity to direct a zombie film à la “Army of the Dead”, but turned it down due to other projects. Warner Bros. put the idea on ice for the time being, only to bring it up again in 2007 and 2010. In 2010, “The Thing” creator Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. was even confirmed as the director and a start date of fall 2013 was announced. But once again, nothing came of it. Neither did the plan to hire the man who had already written Zack Snyder’s “Dawn of the Dead” in 2004 as the screenwriter for “Army of the Dead” – but James Gunn was simply too busy with his “Suicide Squad”. So the cards were reshuffled once again – but this time by Netflix. The streaming service secured the rights in spring 2019 and finally brought momentum to the faltering plans. Snyder was hired again, this time to direct, write the screenplay and do the camera work, and a diverse cast was put together. The latter also brought unforeseen problems when Chris D’Elia, who was originally scheduled for the project, was linked to allegations of sexual harassment after filming was completed. His character was replaced with actress Tig Notaro (“Suddenly Family”) and D’Elia’s scenes were reshot using green screens and body doubles. God knows, “Army of the Dead” was not under a good star.
Whenever you come to this conclusion when looking at a difficult production story, there is a good chance that the finished film will show its teething troubles. Just recently, Joe Wright’s thriller “The Woman in the Window”, which was also released on Netflix, confirmed this impression. Even “The Empty Man”, which gradually became a horror insider tip, would actually have been a good deal shorter had the director not been informed of certain deadlines during the film’s development phase. But Zack Snyder himself can also tell you a thing or two about that. The hullabaloo surrounding the making of “Justice League” only recently led to the release of the “Snyder Cut”, a separate director’s cut version, a full four years after the actual film had long since disappeared from cinemas. First things first: “Army of the Dead” is a notable exception in this illustrious series of films released with bad omens. Not even such obvious faux pas as the reshoots with Tig Notaro can be seen in the film. And Zack Snyder is not only convincing with his structure and overview, but also manages to fill the running time of two and a half hours with plenty of content without giving the impression of either having nothing to tell or too much to deal with. Overall, “Army of the Dead” is a movie packed with content, starting with the characters. Led by Dave Bautista (“Blade Runner 2049”), the illustrious cast of main and important supporting actors includes almost a dozen men and women. With so many characters, it makes sense to equip them with the clearest possible quirks in order to save characterization, which is only of secondary importance in a film like “Army of the Dead” anyway. But, surprise: although all the characters can (also) be broken down into just a few characteristics, the script allows each of them – no matter how important their existence will be for the next few hours – at least one moment in which we can get to know them better. This still doesn’t make “Army of the Dead” a character drama, but it does help the cast and therefore the movie to gain enormous sympathy.
“With so many characters, the obvious thing to do is to give them the clearest possible quirks in order to save on characterization. But, surprise: although all the characters can (also) be broken down into just a few characteristics, the script allows each of them at least one moment in which we can get to know them better.”
In short: you simply don’t care who is trudging through what at first glance appears to be a rather banal plot, which also “de-banalizes” the story itself over time. Ultimately, it’s “only” about working your way through an area populated by the undead as quickly and effectively as possible and saying goodbye to the zombie hell with a lot of money “towards the sunset”, as the movie says, before a nuclear bomb hits. But the dynamics within the group, the humorous interactions between the characters, together with the contrasts and similarities evoked, keep the interest in this suicide squad alive right from the start. What’s more, Zack Snyder fires up this feeling by making it clear early on: In “Army of the Dead”, no one is immune from becoming the victim of a deadly zombie attack. Regardless of casualties, the undead mob works its way through various main and supporting characters over the course of the film, which creates an unpredictability unimagined in mainstream cinema and is good for various surprises. In “Army of the Dead”, you can never be sure that all the good guys will survive in the end. And just when you think you’ve got the rhythm of the movie figured out, Snyder gets rid of yet another character who you were firmly convinced was actually going to fly off into the sunset towards a happy ending. Nowadays – ergo: in sequel-addicted Hollywood – you have to dare to do that…
Alongside Dave Bautista as a tough guy with a hard shell and a soft core – a well-worn but no less convincing character profile here – Tig Notaro is particularly convincing as an ultra-tough helicopter pilot with a decidedly dry sense of humor, Nora Arnezeder (“Alexandre Aja’s Maniac”) as a badass fighter and zombie expert, of whom we would have liked to have seen a little more overall, and Matthias Schweighöfer (“100 Things”) in a duo with Omari Hardwick (“Sorry to Bother You”). The signing of the actor and filmmaker, who is primarily known in this country for his shallow comedies, is likely to have caused the greatest irritation for German film fans in the run-up to the film; after all, an involvement in a zombie shocker is a far cry from his previous role preferences. However, Schweighöfer recently not only impressed in Thomas Vinterberg’s submarine drama “Kursk” or as a Nazi officer in the otherwise below-average “Resistance”, but also tried his hand as a director in the genre: namely in the thriller series “You Are Wanted”, which is broadcast on Amazon Prime. In “Army of the Dead”, he and Hardwick play the roles of the comic relief characters, who develop their humor primarily from their contrasting character traits. While Schweighöfer’s “model German” Dieter is initially (and as the only one in the squad, as if such a mission were the most normal thing in the world!) extremely skeptical about the project, he not only develops dexterity in shooting over time and tries to make the best of the situation. Above all, he is also the one who always says exactly what the audience at home is likely to be thinking at the crucial moments. While the much more detached Hardwick accepts the whole thing with a shrug of the shoulders, but over time learns to appreciate his partner’s skills. Evil tongues could claim that with Schweighöfer’s intentionally comical performance, he should tonally unbalance a dark zombie horror setting. But since Zack Snyder (and the other characters) never take the premise more seriously than it needs to be anyway, a character like Schweighöfer’s Dieter fits in perfectly with the cast. And if Schweighöfer hadn’t been cast, someone else would have played this part anyway. The plans for such a constellation of characters existed from the very beginning.
“In “Army of the Dead”, you can’t be sure that the good guys will really survive in the end. And just when you think you’ve got the rhythm of the movie figured out, Znyder gets rid of yet another character who you’d firmly assume would actually sail off into the sunset towards a happy ending.”
Speaking of “right from the start”: the best opening credits of this year’s film year so far provide a foretaste of the audiovisual power with which Zack Snyder is equipping his “Army of the Dead”. In a montage lasting several minutes, Znyder lets the demise of Las Vegas rush past his audience and unleashes a veritable firework display of zombies and action that you can’t get enough of, and not just because of its sheer gigantomania. In between the zombie panoramas, Snyder directly hints at the sometimes louder, sometimes quieter humor when he juxtaposes the madness of an undead apocalypse with the half-baked attempts to master it. This is sometimes hilarious in its banality (the fact that a tiger formerly belonging to Siegfried and Roy stomps through the dilapidated Las Vegas, for example, gives the film a smugly trashy note), but at other times the meticulousness with which Snyder created his zombie world in “Army of the Dead” becomes apparent. And also how he defines the term “zombie” in it. The zombies in “Army of the Dead” have nothing in common with the classic creeping, will-less creatures – despite their scary faces transformed into the undead by outstanding effects make-up. Instead, they show hints of free will when they sometimes make survival deals (“We’ll leave you alone, but you’ll leave us alone!”) with humans, organize themselves structurally or even enter into a kind of love affair with fellow zombies. To what extent such a reorientation of the “primal zombie” can still be called a “zombie”, or perhaps even becomes an interchangeable movie monster, is something everyone has to decide for themselves. With the exception of its equally juicy and exaggerated splatter interludes, “Army of the Dead” has little to do with conventional zombie horror. Ultimately, however, this is more of a problem in principle. After all, the movie is convincing on so many levels that the discussion of zombie or not is hardly important.
Conclusion: No, Zack Snyder’s “Army of the Dead” is not a classic zombie film. The very free interpretation of the word “zombie” might bother purists of the genre. But if you can live with the fact that the undead can organize themselves here and form romantic relationships with each other, you will experience a damn entertaining mix of heist movie and action adventure with a good dose of splatter horror on top. Always finding the right balance between “serious enough to take it seriously” and “never too serious that it becomes ridiculous”, Snyder presents us with a diverse group of mercenaries who grow on you surprisingly quickly and drive a movie forward that never lets you notice its two and a half hours. Viva Las Vegas!
“Army of the Dead” will be available to stream on Netflix from May 21.