By John H. Foote
(***) Streaming on Netflix
Like the rest of the yawning press around me, I did not expect much when I attended the screening for Dawn of the Dead (2004), a remake of the 60s classic from George Romero. But they had the good sense to cast Sarah Polley, and I adore her so I went out of loyalty. Sarah is among the finest artists Canada has ever produced, remaining fiercely loyal to her country (although I must confess, I would have loved to have seen what she would have done with Penny Lane in Almost Famous (2000), a role Cameron Crowe wrote for her). She knocked me out with her Oscar-worthy performance in The Secret Life of Words (2005), simply paralyzing in its power, and then when she directed Away from Her (2007), it was over. I was in love with this magical, tiny blonde artist.
But I digress.
Zombies have always, since Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), shuffled after their prey, kind of lurching, catching them off guard, or wearing them down. So in Dawn of the Dead when Anna (Polley) escapes her husband-turned-zombie in the house, breaking through a bathroom window, I figured she was safe. But then he runs at top speed chasing her. GEEZUS, he ran, incredibly fast; all the zombies were running. In an instant, Zack Snyder had altered the zombie film forever,
making them all the more frightening. Now the zombies could run after their prey and more often than not, caught them and began devouring on the spot, ripping and tearing into flesh, vital organs and beyond.
Zack Snyder exploded into movies with Dawn of the Dead, and has been very busy ever since, most recently with his 300 (2006) and Man of Steel (2013), leading to Director’s Cut of Justice League (2021), running four hours.
Army of the Dead is an interesting return to the zombie genre, a terrific action thriller with surprising performances, and some stunning action scenes that will blow your mind. With The Walking Dead eating up TV viewers, the zombie genre is ubiquitous these days, but Snyder keeps it his own with another solid entry with a few surprises. The creatures within this film are organized, they can think, feel, even reason, and like us, they feel loss with terrible grief, but are still driven by a unsatiable need to kill and eat human flesh. Just a bite can increase their numbers which they too have learned over time.
Years before the start of the film, a government operation on the highway goes awry when there is a terrible accident. A transport smashes into a married couple doing the deed orally as they hurtle down the highway, releasing a creature from the back of the transport. It is some sort of intelligent zombie that quickly wipes out the crew, biting enough of them to turn them, bringing them to descend on Las Vegas and very quickly turning the city into Zombie Central, USA. The government and military have long since walled the zombies into the abandoned city and the decision has been made to nuke it, ending any further threat of a zombie plague.
BUT, and there is always a but, a quietly menacing Asian businessman approaches our hero, Ward (Dave Bautista), a muscular chap, former soldier and mercenary, who years before was forced to kill his much-loved wife when she became a zombie. Ward is visited in the shabby diner where he works as a cook by a mysterious billionaire, Tenaka (Hiroyuki Sanada). Left behind in Las Vegas in one of the casino vaults is $200 million in cash and Ward can have $50 million free and clear if he can retrieve it before the government drops its nuclear arsenal. Tasked with finding a team, Ward reunites with two soldiers who escaped Vegas with him, Cruz (Ana de le Reguera) and Vanderobe (Omari Hardwicke), each a fearless warrior he trusts implicitly.
He adds to the team an expert although cowardly safecracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighofer), who we learn screams like a child whenever in danger, a gutsy chopper pilot (Tig Notaro) and Ward’s estranged daughter, wide-eyed Kate (Ella Purnell). Added into the mix when they arrive inside the zombie wasteland of Las Vegas is the dangerous coyote, Nora Arnezeder, and one of Teneka’s own men, the sleazy Garrett Dillahunt, bad and crooked as they come.
Inside the walls of an abandoned Vegas is a masterpiece of production design and CGI visual effects. In ruins, the once great city is gone as casinos and hotels, once instantly recognizable, are now crumbling and decayed. A zombie tiger roams the streets, and the zombie population is nothing like they expect.
Warned by the coyote they take with them, the crew learns that these zombies are not stupid, shuffling beings, oh no. They are organized, have feelings and operate with a hive mentality. There is a King and a Queen, each intent with building their numbers by eating their way to new recruits. This is nothing as Ward expected. When the government moves up the nuke date, their time is cut in half. Ward instructs his team to get to the money fast. One by one, the team is picked off, each in horrible ways. The sleazy Dillahunt cuts the head off the queen and lets the coyote know that what Tenaka was really after was DNA. Still alive in the bag in which he places her decapitated head, her living head is worth billions to anyone wanting to build an army of zombies they can control. He then betrays the team, placing them all in terrible danger.
Not that they weren’t to begin with. Surrounded by tens of thousands of hungry zombies puts anyone in danger. The moment the Queen is touched, the zombies organize and go after each of them. Earlier, when they entered Vegas, the coyote made a sacrifice of an idiot guard and left him for the zombies in exchange for passage to where they wanted to go. But the second that Queen was butchered, any agreement was off, they were all targets.
Ward gets them to the safe which Dieter goes to work on cracking, eventually opening it to stacks of cash. But can they get out in time? High atop the Olympus Casino, a helicopter sits waiting to transport them to safety.
Can they get out before the nukes hit?? If you know anything about zombie movies, not all of them, that’s for sure.
Look, it’s a stupid movie, but damn if it is not a diversion. Great action sequences, massive zombie wars, exceptional visual effects and some very good performances. No kidding.
Dave Bautista is terrific as Ward, a kick-ass warrior angry at himself for abandoning his daughter after killing her mother, who had become infected as a zombie. He gives a great physical performance, throwing his big, burly body around in some great scenes, and he gives the character a touch of humanity at the same time. His final scenes with his daughter are warm and moving. Ella Purnell is sweet and resourceful as that daughter, Kate, who goes into Vegas looking for a friend she hopes to get out. She makes clear her anger for her Dad, but of course they evolve back to love by the end of the picture amidst tragedy. I bet you can guess what happens! I did. From the second he found her again, I knew where it was going. Not because I’m exceptionally brilliant but because I have seen a lot of movies.
I liked the fact the zombies had evolved into something other than a lurching group of flesh-eaters, but speech has still eluded them. Tears on the other hand have not, and I found that interesting.
I wondered if Snyder was trying to say something with the film, but then I shook my head and realized the film is pure fun, like a video game run wild. Not a lot of art here, but a great deal of entertainment.
Testosterone to spare, great weapon play and non-stop action it is a terrific ride.
BUT, and it is a huge but, I longed for a moment like in Dawn of the Dead when Sarah Polley escaped her home and her now zombie husband did not lurch after her. He ran. Now that was terrifying.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.