Review: Zack Snyder’s ‘Army of the Dead’ starts strong before eating itself

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Army of the Dead'

Director Zack Snyder (“300”) regained his pop-culture mojo in March when fans successfully argued to #ReleaseTheSnyderCut of “Justice League” on HBO Max.

Now, Snyder returns to the roots of his directorial debut, the 2004 remake of “Dawn of the Dead,” by returning to the zombie genre in Netflix’s “Army of the Dead,” which combines the horror and heist genres for “Ocean’s Eleven” meets “28 Days Later.”

The story follows Scott Ward, who leads a team of mercenaries into the quarantine zone of a zombie outbreak in Las Vegas. They attempt a heist in a casino vault, but the clock is ticking before the President of the United States launches a nuclear strike.

D.C. native Dave Bautista earns a leading role after playing supporting henchmen in “Spectre” (2015) and “Blade Runner 2049” (2017) and comic relief as Drax in “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014). It’s great to see him go solo like when he left the Evolution stable of Triple H, Ric Flair and Randy Orton to become WWE champion.

His performance isn’t “electrifying” like The Rock; Bautista is the strong-and-silent type with deadpan quips about tofu, lobster rolls and dreams of opening a food truck (call Jon Favreau!). He even forces a few teardrops over his estranged daughter (Ella Purnell), becoming Snyder’s vessel to grieve the loss of his own daughter to suicide.

Rounding out the supporting cast are Nora Arnezeder as the badass “The Coyote;” Raúl Castillo as a Mexican sharpshooter; Ana de la Reguera as an unrequited love interest; Hiroyuki Sanada as billionaire employer Tanaka; and Garret Dillahunt as Tanaka’s deceptive right-hand man, who is telegraphed early on as a double-crosser.

Stealing the show is the buddy banter of Omari Hardwick and Matthias Schweighöfer, who bond as a Black soldier and German safecracker, respectively, not to mention Tig Notaro as a wisecracking helicopter pilot ready and waiting with a zinger up her sleeve.

Still, the biggest stars are the zombies themselves with Richard Cetrone and Athena Perample shining as the Alpha Zombie king and queen. The makeup and special effects show just how far the industry has come since George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” (1968), while the shrieking sound design is truly blood-curdling.

It’s the type of sensory experience you’d rather watch with a packed audience howling at every zombie smash: “Zombies and tigers and scares, oh my!” Or, you can watch it on Netflix sitting at the dinner table, but beware, this zombie dish isn’t fully cooked.

That is to say the style outweighs the substance. Snyder delivers a kickass opening with parallel action between “just married” newlyweds driving to Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds” and a government truck loaded with top-secret science. Their collision launches the opening credits of slow-motion mayhem set to “Viva Las Vegas.”

The soundtrack tests your patience for needle drops as Snyder resorts to a cover of “Bad Moon Rising” to avoid the cliched overuse of Creedence Clearwater Revival. We just know he’s going to use The Cranberries’ “Zombie” if we wait long enough.

It’s a long wait at 2 1/2 hours with plenty of fat to trim. You’ll cringe when a character professes her love instead of running. You’ll roll your eyes when a character “makes it rain” with dollar bills instead of grabbing the loot. By the time they stop for a casual rooftop conversation as zombies chase them, you’ll yell, “Get to the chopper!”

Throughout, Snyder goes to great lengths to build up the Alpha Zombies as a special, elevated monster race. After all, they have a king-and-queen power structure, they hold humans hostage rather than devouring them, and they are organized on the battlefield with tactical horseback attacks, showing a level of evolved sophistication.

Audiences will giddily think to themselves: “Maybe there’s more to these zombies than meets the eye! Maybe they are attempting to transform back into humans! Maybe we should be rooting for the undead! We can’t wait for the juicy twist, Mr. Snyder!”

It’s a big reveal that never comes. Instead, we get the same old finale we’ve seen a million times where the zombies are evil and the humans must escape the big kaboom, making it feel less significant than its better predecessors like “Zombieland” (2009).

Most disappointing is the falling action. Instead of fading to black with a beautiful sunset shot between two important characters, we stick around for an extra scene that should have been a post-credit teaser or eliminated altogether. It’s an implausible moment to rival Steven Spielberg “nuking the fridge” in the fourth “Indiana Jones.”

Yes, even the best directors can get carried away.

As the credits roll, you’ll realize just how unsatisfying the ending really is. On a plot level, we get no comeuppance for the mastermind Tanaka. On a subplot level, we don’t even get to enjoy the protagonist and his daughter opening their family food truck. The script leaves too many things unresolved with multiple setups that never get payoffs.

Alas, this movie is “review proof” for fanboys who will follow Snyder to the gates of hell to #RestoreTheSnyderVerse. It’s easy to spot both the sheep and the haters by reading their predictably glowing or disdainful reviews. Let’s call it like it is: “Army of the Dead” boasts impressive creative flourishes undercut by untapped potential.

3 stars

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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