Zach Snyder’s Army of the Dead (currently playing in select theaters and streaming on Netflix) presents itself as an intriguing genre hybrid. In this zombie/heist film (think Ocean’s Eleven meets Dawn of the Dead), a team of mercenaries assembles to infiltrate the burnt-out, undead-infested, walled-off city of Las Vegas and steal a sizable cash bundle from a casino vault. The problem, though, is that heist element of the story is sorely underdeveloped. No especial cleverness–mainly just militaristic might–is required to reach the casino. The penetration of the vault is basically accomplished by the team’s safecracking expert quietly listening to the door-lock’s internal mechanisms (the preceding uncovering of the booby traps leading up to the vault does make for a witty sequence, however).
No doubt, the undead end of the mashup gets greater play here, mostly to positive result. Represented as a primitive tribe rather than a stereotypical mindless horde, the zombies bring some fresh thrills to the table. But their battles with the mercenary team still manage to disappoint, as the zombies are either picked off with video-game ease by high caliber weaponry or inexplicably manage to avoid point-blank shooting with Matrix–esque expertise. Repeated instances of the mercenaries choosing to shoot the barechested zombie king in his protective face plate struck me as mind-numbingly dumb.
Snyder’s film appears to revel in reference to other genre fare. Watching it, I detected visual echoes of, and plot parallels to, a host of predecessors (e.g., Aliens, Predator, Clash of the Titans, Escape from New York). But all this entertaining allusiveness only accentuates the fact that Army of the Dead never manages to find its own cinematic footing. The film’s story beats are all too familiar, offering viewers nothing unexpected. The few attempts at plot twist are clumsily handled (i.e. clearly forecasted).
If this film proves one thing, it’s that Dave Bautista is not yet worthy of leading-man status. His acting here is wooden (his Scott Ward is consistently out-emoted by the zombie king, a character with zero lines of dialogue). Admittedly, the script does Bautista no favors, forcing him into a series of torturously corny conversations with his estranged daughter. Perhaps what is most surprising, though, is the lackluster nature of his action heroics. Prior to the conclusion (the inevitable showdown with the zombie king), the nominal leader of the mercenaries takes a decided backseat to the other killing-machines on his team.
There’s a lot I did enjoy about this film. The post-apocalyptic Las Vegas mise-en-scene (complete with a zombified, untamed Siegfried and Roy tiger on the prowl) is marvelous. Army of the Dead also makes inspired–and often quite amusing–use of its soundtrack (starting with Elvis’s “Suspicious Minds”). The inventive kills and glorious gore that fans have come to expect from zombie narratives are finely displayed. But even with a two-and-a-half hour runtime, the film seems to stuff in more story than it can adequately unpack and more characters than it can develop beyond clichés. Never living up to the promise of its zombie/heist premise, Army of the Dead forms an underwhelming campaign.