‘It’s fast, it’s frantic and above all, it’s fun to watch.’
That’s what I said about Train to Busan. Unfortunately, this is Army of the Dead and, though the expertly-edited trailer suggests that this could be up there with Sang-ho Yeon’s movie, the end result is frankly not in the same league. This is a film by Zack Snyder.
Snyder has previous form in this genre. His 2004 reworking of George Romero’s horror classic, Dawn of the Dead, was actually pretty good. It was the film that originated the idea that the undead didn’t have to shuffle along like… well, zombies, but could hurtle after their prey like Mo Farah on steroids. This might not sound like much but, in its own way, it was a bit of a game-changer. Of course, over the intervening years, Snyder has pursued a path of making his films bigger, louder and er… longer. Sadly, Army of the Dead is no exception. To be fair, it opens brilliantly. The title sequence galumphs merrily along to a jaunty tune, and manages to convey the film’s entire back story in a blood-spattered nutshell.
But then the titles end and we realise we’ve still got got two hours and twenty six minutes to go…
Former mercenary Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) has been a major part in saving the world from a zombie epidemic. His reward is a dead-end job, flipping burgers in a cafe. He’s understandably miffed. Then, he’s approached by Casino owner, Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Tanaka), who informs him of millions in dollars in cash, locked up in a vault beneath Las Vegas. The only problem is, the place is currently a walled-off zone, housing all the remaining zombies from a disastrous outbreak, and it’s due to be tactically nuked in a few days’ time. Would Scott be prepared to assemble a squad of former associates and head into the city to ‘liberate’ the money? He can keep fifty million and divide it up however he wants.
Before you can say “Hmm, sounds risky,’ Scott has his team assembled and is heading into Las Vegas intent on setting himself and his friends up for a more prosperous future. He has a way in. His estranged daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell), works in a detention centre right next to the barricades. Scott and Ella are distant, mostly because Scott had to push a knife into his wife (Ella’s mother)’s brain back in the day, but, to be fair, she was turning in to a zombie. So here’s the ideal opportunity to reconnect.
Anyhow, in the mercenaries go and we’re all set for a taut, exciting bloodfest, right?
But no, Snyder wants to take every opportunity to establish his characters. It doesn’t help that they are a fairly tedious bunch, who seem incapable of making the right decision in any given situation. They say things that no real person would ever say, have a predilection for making bad jokes at importune moments, and an attempt to play up a feminist angle for Lily (Nora Arnezeder) is woefully misjudged. The most interesting of the characters is undoubtedly safe-cracker, Dieter (Matthias Schweighöff), but a plot hole the size of Nevada means that there’s no logical reason for him to to be on the team in the first place.
But what really weighs this down is the film’s lack of pace. Busan threw its characters headlong through a whole series of frantic set-pieces, hardly giving an audience the chance to take a collective breath, but Army takes us along at a slow trudge, with too many tedious stops along the way. Snyder always has a great eye as cinematographer – indeed, I suspect this is where his true talents lie. The world building here is skilfully done and the renderings of a devastated Las Vegas are spot on. There are also some stirring action sequences, including a thrill-packed helicopter flight, towards the end.
But it’s not enough to salvage the dead weight of what’s gone before. An odd conclusion (with another gigantic plot hole) seems to be setting up for a sequel but perhaps that’s just wishful thinking on Snyder’s part.
In short, this zombie film is ultimately toothless – and it sucks.