Morir Las Vegas! — Army of the Dead
I apologize if that headline is not grammatically correct. My knowledge of Spanish is comprised entirely of what I remember from Sesame Street and the Taco Bell menu, so I’m relying on Google Translate and hoping the conjugation is right. Anyhoo, after a surprisingly kick-ass trailer for this movie, as noted in the May edition of TFINYW, I was super stoked to see Zack Snyder’s latest creation, Army of the Dead. Snyder had already achieved success in the genre with the remake of Dawn of the Dead, and freed from the shackles of Warner Bros. and the DCEU’s expectations, he was free to make a more stylized, graphic, joyfully ultraviolent spectacle a la 300, which I still say is his best work.
Well, after seeing the finished product, I think he overall accomplished his goal, which was to combine zombie films and heist movies in a way that was a feast for the eyes. He definitely nailed that part, as there are some amazing set pieces and visuals. Unfortunately, he seems to have blown his proverbial wad on that aspect alone, because the rest of the film, particularly the stories and characterizations, are just completely stupid at times. There are a lot of interesting ideas that get completely tossed off, because Snyder intends this to be the start of a new cinematic universe, where presumably the burning questions this film frustratingly left us with will be answered, but not until we pony up the dough. As a stand-alone, though, this is largely sound and fury signifying nothing.
After a freak car accident in the Nevada desert which gives whole new meaning to the term, “blowjob,” a zombie escapes military containment and begins consuming and transforming the survivors on the way to Las Vegas (really just the Strip, which isn’t technically in the city of Las Vegas). This leads to an incredibly-executed opening sequence where the zombies take over and a team of mercenaries led by Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) helps to evacuate the area before it’s walled off. This montage is absolutely gorgeous, filled with blood, nudity (topless showgirls covered in blood devouring a rich man in his suite), and high-octane violence, all while highlighting the film’s major players, and set to a fantastic cover of “Viva Las Vegas.” It might be the best opening seven minutes of a movie this side of Up (though obviously for vastly different reasons), but sadly, the rest of the film completely fails to live up to the promise of this teaser.
Some time later, Scott is working as a fry cook when he’s approached by casino owner Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada, who played Scorpion in the recent Mortal Kombat movie) and his lackey, Martin (Garret Dillahunt). Tanaka makes Scott an offer he can’t refuse — the U.S. government is going to destroy Vegas with a nuclear bomb in three days, but before that happens, Tanaka wants Scott to reassemble his mercs and steal $200 million from his casino’s vault.
This is where the film starts its inevitable careen off the rails. Tanaka explains that he’s already received an insurance payout for the money, so the paper in the vault is essentially worthless, and could raise several red flags if it was ever recovered and spent. This means the money is only good for counterfeiting or laundering purposes. Tanaka promises Scott he can have half of it to split amongst his team any way he sees fit, which is also nonsensical. Not only does it set up a montage where Scott recruits people with diminishing cuts, setting up a potential conflict that never gets paid off, but the idea of getting half of something that arbitrary should be immediately suspicious. Finally, Tanaka notes that Scott will need a safecracker, even though Tanaka owns the casino and the safe, and could therefore just give Scott the combination. Anyone with even the slightest ability to think critically should be able to tell this is a bad idea. Even the worst heist movies don’t telegraph the danger this obviously, and that’s before we get to the fucking zombies.
Scott then assembles his team of definitely gonna die cannon fodder, including his two best friends, Maria (Ana de la Reguera, who gets no character development) and Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick; he has a cool buzz saw weapon that never gets used, like a reverse Chekhov’s Gun), helicopter pilot Marianne Peters (Tig Notaro, doing excellent solo work because she was inserted into the film via CGI to replace Chris D’Elia), safecracker Dieter (a comically delightful Matthias Schweighöfer), a zombie-killing “influencer” (Raúl Castillo), and of course, Martin, who is so obviously and clearly evil, yet he’s allowed to tag along. The best part of this entire cliché recruitment montage is that Mikey Guzman, the influencer, brings in two associates, one of whom looks around, hears the plan, and then immediately says, “Fuck it, I’m out, you’re all gonna die.” I kind of want to see the movie of what he got to do, blissfully away from all of this.
Still, this is the makings of a good crew, and if you’re going to satirize heist movies, this is a decent start. Then it all goes to shit once they get to Vegas, and again, we’re not even dealing with zombies yet. See, in an, I guess, salient political point, there’s a “refugee camp” just outside the city walls where those who “might” be infected are held essentially prisoner with no due process. Before you can say, “Trump border concentration camps,” we’re introduced to Geeta (Huma Qureshi), who asks a coyote named Lily (Nora Arnezeder) to smuggle her into the quarantine zone so she and her friends can steal enough money to bribe their way to freedom, and get her children out as well. Geeta is discouraged from this guaranteed suicide mission by Kate (Ella Purnell), a volunteer at the camp who just so happens to be Scott’s estranged daughter. When Scott and his team arrive, he begs Kate to convince Lily to help them into the zone as well. Kate learns that Lily did in fact take Geeta inside, so she insists on coming along with Lily to rescue her. Lily completes the final crew with Burt (Theo Rossi), an abusive, rapacious, racist guard at the camp who’s been harassing everyone.
Well, we had the beginnings of a decent heist parody, but that’s out the window now, too. Burt is so evil that he’s destined to be early fodder that somehow comes back to be a final obstacle (though his initial dispatch is pretty funny). Martin is shady as all fuck, and EVERYONE points that out, but no one takes the time to just kill him and be done with it (it’s not like he serves any real purpose, and Tanaka didn’t condition the money on his safety or anything), even when he commits mind-numbingly obvious betrayals. In a crew of mercenaries initially built for efficiency and detachment, Kate is so overly emotional that she’s guaranteed to do something impulsive and stupid that will result in at least half the group getting killed due to her own shortsightedness. There’s making fun of tropes, and then there’s just ruining the fun because we can all see what’s about to happen from space.
Thankfully, once the extended ensemble finally enters the land of the dead, we get some truly interesting and fun shit. Lily immediately introduces us to the concept that there are different types of zombies throughout the area, including the “dry shamblers” that are piled up at the entrance. There’s also a zombie queen who sort of negotiates free passage in exchange for a sacrifice to her leader.
This is a cool idea. The Zombieland movies played with the idea of different breeds of zombie that had different behaviors, but that was done more for comedic effect. Here, Snyder sets up a structured hierarchy of the threat. There’s the prime zombie from the opening, who in turn makes “alphas,” who are of higher intelligence than the “shamblers” that they infect. The “dry” ones lie dormant in the sun until it rains, at which point they become active again. There are some who “hibernate” in darkened areas. And then there are animals under the leader’s control, including zombie horses and the zombie white tiger teased in the trailer. This stuff is really intriguing, and sets up a ton of possibilities for the different obstacles the group will have to overcome.
But again, the problem is that it’s not paid off in any meaningful way. It never rains to wake up the dry shamblers (it’s Las Vegas, why would it?). The tiger gets exactly ONE awesome moment. Hell, there are even ROBOT ZOMBIES that come out of nowhere, are never explained, and after one bit, are never seen again. I mean, what’s the point of all this, except to look good? And even then, it’s hit and miss thanks to Snyder’s penchant for shooting out of focus. There are some truly fascinating ideas here that could redefine the genre, both for zombie AND heist movies, but it’s all just a passing fancy to Snyder, who seems more interested in moving from set piece to set piece without any of the required journey to get there, and it’s maddening at times because there are so many ways to do it and do it in a tremendously badass way.
Fortunately, when it’s clear that Snyder wants us to have fun, we get to. The shootouts with the zombies are cool as hell. There’s a fun rapport that develops between Vanderohe and Dieter, including some booby traps in front of the safe that are just downright hilarious. Tig Notaro just by herself for half the film provides enough comedy gold to make up for the lost cash.
The problem is that for the rest of the cast, they don’t get to be nearly as fun as they should. Dave Bautista is at his best when he’s allowed to be funny. He’s the best character on the all-star roster of the Guardians of the Galaxy films, and he even made Stuber tolerable. He’s a genuinely funny guy, and none of that gets to show here. He’s so super serious all the time that it borders on self-parody. The “Honest Trailer” for this movie, released just yesterday, notes that he looks like he’s trying to hold in a sneeze for the entire film, and now I can’t unsee that. His relationship with his daughter is completely paint-by-numbers, and it’s not believable for one second, especially when you know nothing he says or does is going to matter because she’s going to do her own stupid thing to get everyone killed. In fact, any attempt at emotional resonance is wasted here, because the moment anyone gets to be human, that’s your clue that they’re about to die. Honestly, the zombie king gets more development than most of the humans we’re ostensibly supposed to be rooting for.
It’s like Snyder took the worst tropes of every heist movie and then magnified them against a zombie backdrop, where there’s just enough cool shit happening on the periphery to not completely piss you off, but still leave you feeling like you might have been had. Hell, just for funsies, halfway through the film the nuclear strike is arbitrarily moved up to 90 minutes from the movie’s current moment, just to add in some fake stakes for the climax. It’s beyond frustrating, because there is definitely a paradigm-shifting movie somewhere in the rubble of what this became. And to be clear, even with all the bullshit going on, this is still passable. It just could have been so much more, and we can all tell watching it that it could have been so much more. But Snyder took the easy, arguably lazy, way out, in hopes of getting to expand in a new franchise rather than just delivering the goods on the first go. Like Vegas itself at times, he teased the time of our lives, but left us broke and staring at a sad buffet.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you think genre fusion movies work? Where do zombie babies come from? Let me know!
Originally published at http://actuallypaid.com on June 3, 2021.