With a budget of $90 million Army of The Dead is easily one of the most expensive zombie films ever to be made (World War Z’s $190 million budget taking the top spot) and dwarfs what Universal spent on Snyder’s first entry into the genre, the 2004 Dawn of The Dead remake that cost the studio $26 million to make. Army of The Dead looks more expensive than previous Netflix original films where you can see a lot of the money spent directly on sets and special effects, rather than bloated salaries, a growing issue with these streaming originals.
The large budget is warranted in this case given the scale Zack Snyder was attempting and for the most part Albuquerque, New Mexico does a nice job of doubling for Las Vegas or at least a ruined version of it. Snyder is acting as his own director of photography (there is a cheeky nod to cinematographer Larry Fong if you can spot it) and manages to make the horror film look great despite some shots that are a little too dark during a few dialog scenes.
Army of The Dead focuses on a team of gruff hired-guns assembled to break into a vault filled with cash, the only problem is that Las Vegas has been walled-off and is full of zombies, alongside even more dangerous incarnations referred to as Alphas. It’s plot is as basic as it gets but the simplistic nature actually benefits their attempts to create a different type of zombie cinematic universe because they can fill in gaps along the way.
The action is what you might expect from Snyder, however, folks unfamiliar with the slow-burn of a zombie movie might have issues with some of the slower moments when it’s an action film with a runtime of almost two and half hours. However, it allows a lot of the characters to get moments beyond shooting and running. Some highlights for me on the action front were the shootout on the casino floor and the Alpha Zombie introduction with the military convoy.
The actors do their part for the most part but don’t expect Shakespeare-level performances, the banter is interesting enough, but it’s nice to see Dave Bautista in a decent leading role that doesn’t feel forced or a miscasting. I also have to say seeing Dave in a larger role instead of the comedic relief was refreshing and I can’t really blame him for choosing this project over The Suicide Squad. Tig Notaro might really be the only real standout in the supporting cast and manages to bring some much needed levity in bite-sized moments.
Junkie XL’s score helps build tension, an element that Zack’s superhero movies were lacking, having the characters hump gasoline on their backs felt like a good choice to give the extra element of danger outside of the zombies, it also has a small payoff.
Any genre movie buff can point out the nods to stuff like Mad Max, Aliens, Terminator, 28 Weeks Later, Day of The Dead, Land of The Dead, Return of The Living Dead, Return of The Living Dead II, World War Z, Indiana Jones, Ocean’s Eleven, Zombieland: Double Tap, Predators, and Riddick. Pulling the interesting elements from those films seems to work for the most part and doesn’t feel overworn, generic, or outdated which had been a problem for a while with zombie films and projects that attempt to mash together existing stuff normally end up feeling like fan films.
The inclusion of the Alpha Zombies is a neat element and there is enough new stuff there to add to the zombie lore, it feels like Snyder and his writing team retooling things we’ve already seen with “smart zombies,” a concept explored by George A. Romero in Day of The Dead and the rarely mentioned Land of The Dead.
I wasn’t thrilled with the obvious twist we saw a mile away and the ending could have been a little more impactful but the rest of the movie makes up for it. It’s the most coherent Zack Snyder film in years and it’s the kind film that got me into him originally back with Dawn of The Dead, it’s legit fun and knows what it is from the start. I’m happy to see Zack Snyder back to making original films again and want to see him continue this streak, hopefully, making stuff beyond Army of The Dead sequels as well.
Snyder knew what he was making from the start and ended up giving us a pretty damn good zombie flick.
Netflix is banking on Army of The Dead becoming a franchise and the world-building is pretty good for the most part despite the aspect that we see zombies outside of Las Vegas but it’s not addressed how things are still functioning, perhaps, other material will explain this in more in-depth.
I’m sure if you’re reading this you were going to watch it regardless but I do have to recommend it because it might be the best Netflix original film I’ve watched that has attempted to recreate a theatrical release’s experience. Army of The Dead feels like a movie, not an extended episode, something that has been an issue for me with previous films from Netflix. After the lack of action films during the pandemic, it’s sort of refreshing to see one that was executed so well on a technical level.