Zombie queen in Army of the Dead

‘Army of the Dead’ Review: Action, Absurdity, and Dave Bautista at His Best

In the first few minutes of Army of the Dead, Zack Snyder perfectly sets the tone of his post-apocalyptic heist film. The opening credits are a montage of bloody violence. The zombie apocalypse has come to Vegas. Its events are breezed through to the tune of a jazzy “Viva Las Vegas” cover and overlapped by neon pink credits. The practice of contrasting gratuitous gore with an upbeat soundtrack might be slightly played out by now, but it works in this instance. It gives a pretty good indication of the bloody slaughter that’s to come, something that is by now expected of a Snyder film. What it fails to prepare us for is a surprisingly grounded and emotional performance from Dave Bautista, who shows real talent and range in the leading role of Scott Ward.

The zombie outbreak has been contained within the city of Las Vegas, which is now walled off from the rest of America. The surviving locals have been displaced and live in camps on the outskirts of town. Stuck in a dead-end job and estranged from his daughter (Ella Purnell), Scott is approached by a casino boss who offers him a job – he is tasked with breaking into a casino in the zombie-infested quarantine zone and taking $200 million from the vault. Seeing an opportunity for a better life and a family reunion, he accepts and assembles a team.

Bautista’s Scott Ward is undoubtedly the film’s emotional core. Many of his crew are two-dimensional, generic badasses, made something close to likeable by witty dialogue. They are personable at the surface level, but they often don’t have a defined past or anything that motivates them beyond the cash. Scott Ward is the opposite of this, having experienced a family tragedy during the outbreak. The incident haunts him and pushes his daughter away, and Bautista gives us a real and raw look at his internalised grief. There isn’t much time for long monologues or genuine emotional moments among Army of the Dead‘s carnage, but in the short time that Bautista is given, he shows incredible range.

Army of the Dead crosses into a variety of genres (it’s a zombie, heist, and action movie) and it is impressive that it manages to deliver on all three counts. The heist elements can be both brilliantly tense and comedic, with the team sneaking past dormant zombies and luring them into the traps set by the vaults’ security system. The zombies themselves are gruesome, and there are plenty of extremely bloody fights. Some of the character designs are very creative, especially a half-decayed zombie tiger and the elaborately costumed queen of the zombies, whose design clearly draws from fantasy fiction.

Snyder’s concept for the film is often a double-edged sword. The idea of an organised army of corpses forming their own kingdom is a fresh take on the zombie, but it often seems rather absurd. In a seeming nod to his own back catalogue, Snyder’s zombie leader is outfitted with a billowing cape and metal helmet. When he feels that the humans in his kingdom pose a threat, he brandishes a spear and rides off on a zombie horse that inexplicably materialises out of nowhere. His aesthetic invites comparisons with Gerard Butler’s Leonidas in 300, and the absurdity of it is hilarious in a way that could be good or bad.

Army of the Dead is lighthearted, unserious fun – a classic Snyder film full of bloody carnage. The interesting portrayal of the zombie apocalypse is just fresh enough for the film to feel unique, and Bautista carries it the rest of the way.

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