Mercenary Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) is approached by businessman Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) to put together a team to go into Las Vegas to steal $200 million from a safe beneath the Strip. The only problem is Las Vegas is walled off from the rest of the world and is overrun by zombies – some of which appear to be a lot smarter and faster than you’d think.
At almost two and a half hours long, Army of the Dead is a film where you feel that run time. There are entertaining sequences but there’s more lulls than not and there are certainly portions of the film which drag. The fact that this crew of people don’t get into Las Vegas into almost an hour into the film is telling. There’s a fair few characters to recruit but it takes so long and never uses any of the typical narrative choices from the heist genre to do so so it’s interesting. Not to compare a zombie heist film to Ocean’s Eleven but that film shows how you can quickly get what the key skills an personality quirks of characters in quick succession and how they’ll fit in the team. And to be honest, while Army of the Dead is pitched as a zombie heist movie and though there are certainly a lot of zombies, the heisting is actually quite minimal. There’s really only Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer) who’s the safe cracker, everyone else is former military or gang members who can handle themselves in a shootout. Though an argument can be made for Peters the helicopter pilot (Tig Notaro) having the getaway driver role.
Naturally being a zombie film and having about a dozen characters in this band of thieves, there’s going to be some casualties and potentially a lot of death but there was far more than I was expecting leading to a very bleak viewing experience. Plus, so many of the characters get little to no development and many don’t seem to have strong ties to one another that the vast majority of deaths have no impact. Dieter and Peters had key roles to play in the plan, so the threat of their death means something but with everyone else it just let like they were there to be zombie fodder.
What I presume is supposed to be the emotional core of this film is the relationship between Scott and his daughter Kate (Ella Purnell), a volunteer at the camps outside Las Vegas who joins her father and his team on their mission though she has her own reasons for going. I say presume as it really didn’t do anything for me. Bautista and Purnell are both fine in their roles but it’s the dialogue and story that surrounds them that doesn’t work. It was also very difficult to care about Kate when her actions were often infuriating. Personally, I was more interested in the dynamic between Dieter and Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), one of the former-military guys, as small interactions between them actually built the foundations of a relationship, something that none of the other characters had. More often than not you were told why these characters liked or cared about one another than were shown it.
One thing Army of the Dead has going for it are the zombies themselves. These creatures are fast and intelligent and there’s interesting power dynamics in play with them. Plus, the way these zombies move and the sounds they make is very unsettling. There’s a sequence with a room full of hibernating zombies that is very suspenseful, though character decisions after it are very annoying.
I’ve realised that there’s more negative here than positive but that’s what’s sticking out to me about Army of the Dead. There are fun moments like Dave Bautista jumping from car table to card table while money rains down, guns fire and zombies attack, but those are few and far between. It’s hard to care about the characters when they make so many bad decisions and seem to be bad at the jobs e.g. former-military people not doing basic things like watching each other’s backs so they don’t get bitten by zombies. The heist element is minimal and while the zombie element is good, it’s hard to care about it when the story is pretty dull. 2/5.
Honestly I think I’ve given Army of the Dead two stars instead of one because of how well Tig Notaro was added into the film (she shot all her scenes on greenscreen as she replaced an actor who was fired during post-production) and because her character was fun and weird. Something the rest of the film was lacking.