Cast: Dave Bautista, Ella Purnell, Nora Arnezeder, Ana de la Reguera and Huma Qureshi
Director: Zack Snyder
Rating: 3.5 Stars (Out of 5)
A zombie extravaganza that throws everything from the genre playbook into a constantly boiling cauldron that brims over with unrelenting action, Army Of The Dead plays out along largely predictable lines. But since it goes hell for leather, it has enough pace and pizzazz to paper over (if only occasionally) the inevitably trite premise.
For director Zack Snyder, who is also the writer and cinematographer of the film, this marks a return to his ‘roots’ – his directorial debut, the 2004 remake of George A. Romero’s 1978 zombie apocalypse classic Dawn of the Dead. But that isn’t where Army Of The Dead stops. It has more stacked in its arsenal.
Army Of The Dead, on Netflix, isn’t so much a follow-up to a single film as a thorough mop-up of a wide array of defining elements from zombie actioners made over the several decades that have witnessed emergence of the shamblers as an integral part of American popular culture.
The initial portions of Army Of The Dead represent an unusually slow-burn setting of the stage – intriguing because the deliberate momentum is in sharp a contrast to what is to come. Besides blending zombie film conventions with heist thriller devices, Snyder throws in an emotional father-daughter drama and also touches upon the possibility of the reignition of an old, unrequited romance.
Army Of The Dead opens with a prelude that culminates in a zombie – not any old shambler, but an alpha undead capable of causing far greater damage – escaping from the custody of soldiers entrusted with its transportation.
A military convoy from Area 51 in on its way to Las Vegas with a top-secret consignment. Simultaneously a newly married couple drives away from the city to celebrate. A head-on collision between two vehicles busts open the payload. A zombie is freed. The soldiers are slain and the ghoul ends up in Las Vegas, sparking an outbreak – and complete bedlam.
Doesn’t this in a way mirror the accidental spread of a virus that triggered the pandemic that the world is grappling with today? Army Of The Dead, in keeping with genre traditions, has other contemporary resonances as well. Infection is tangentially posited as a pretext exploited by those in power to isolate political dissidents and immigrants with the purpose of crushing protests.
As the credits flash on the screen, a war against the rampaging zombies that have overrun Las Vegas rages. Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) not only survives the all-out confrontation, he also saves the life of the Secretary of Defence and earns himself a medal. But that is all the reward he gets for his act of courage. He now works in a burger joint.
Sin City is now in ruins and walled off to keep the zombies from slipping out. On the edge of Las Vegas, a quarantine camp has been set up for those that are suspected to be infected. The President draws up a plan to drop a low-yield tactical nuclear bomb on the city to wipe out the undead population for good. The sunset of the Fourth of July, four days away, is chosen as the time for the bombing with an eye on arousing collective patriotic pride.
Amid all the blood that is drawn and all the zombie heads that are blown off, Army Of The Dead seems to want us, if only fleetingly and superficially, to focus on the story as a parable for our pandemic-ravaged times aggravated manifold by self-serving, myopic, incompetent political overlords who thrive on imposing their will on their nations and suppressing opposition.
Here, the villain is a billionaire casino tycoon Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada). He has $200 million stashed away in a vault of his twin-towered Sin City hotel, or what remains of it. He has already taken the insurance money for what he has lost as a result of the zombie outbreak and the consequent destruction of his casino, but he now wants to make a bit on the side.
Tanaka offers Scott one-fourth of the money to get past the zombies and pull off a heist. Scott accepts – he sees the offer as an opportunity to change his life – and assembles a team for the job. The success off the operation rests on a safecracker and a helicopter pilot. The former will get the team into the vault, the latter will ensure a getaway in a chopper – “a junk of a hunk” – abandoned on the terrace of one of the hotel towers. But neither of them is promised the biggest payouts.
Those are reserved for Scott and two of his mates from the earlier zombie war, his old flame Maria Cruz (Ana de la Reguera) and Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick) – $15 million each. Once the duo is on board, the sullen, taciturn Scott assembles the rest of the team. The pilot, Marianne Peters (Tig Notaro), is an old pro at flying into conflict zones, but the locksmith Dieter (Matthias Schweighofer), great at his work, is no zombie killer. Vanderohe takes him under his wing.
Scott convinces a trigger-happy hitman Mikey Guzman (Raul Castillo), his associate Chambers (Samantha Win) and Lily the Coyote (Nora Arnezeder), who smuggles people into the walled area of Las Vegas, to join the team.
Scott’s estranged daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell), works as a volunteer in the quarantine camp where she shares a special bond with single mother Geeta (Huma Qureshi) and her two children. Kate was witness to Scott putting a knife into the head of his infected wife. She insists on being a part of the team because Geeta is suspected to be in Hotel Olympus, the den of the alpha zombies ruled by Zeus (Richard Centrane) and his Queen (Athena Perample).
A slimy guard at the quarantine camp Bert Cummings (Theo Rossi) and Tanaka’s head of security Martin (Garret Dillahunt) accompany the gang. The latter claims to know all the access routes in the casino towers.
As Lily the Coyote points out, the walled city isn’t a prison for the alphas; it’s their kingdom. They, as it turns out, are formidable foes. They aren’t the usual sluggish, ungainly, aimless zombies that audiences are accustomed to but undead creatures in total control of their physical faculties. Once Scott and his team are inside the crumbling casino, there is no turning back. The action flows without let.
The cast is made up of actors from numerous countries. Bautista and Hardwick are American, Purnell is English, Sanada is Japanese, Reguera is Mexican, Win is Canadian, Arnezeder is French and Schweighofer is German. But we aren’t strictly talking performances, but Huma Qureshi, in what can only be described as a minuscule secondary role, gets to leave a mark.
Parts of Army Of The Dead are suitably horrific. But, unless you are an inveterate zombie movie fan, it parts do not exactly add up to a movie that will blow your mind.