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The opening credits for the zombie-packed heist thriller “Army of the Dead” play out over a buffet of Boschian images, emphasis on the buffet. The walking (and running) dead have overtaken Las Vegas, and the director, Zack Snyder, illustrates the fallout with a series of painterly Grand Guignol tableaus. Slot-machine junkies lose their earnings and their innards; infected strippers turn a Roman bath into a bloodbath. An aging Elvis impersonator wanders down the Strip, with only a telltale smear around his mouth to suggest he’s having an unusual morning. Military forces are sent in to contain the threat, and when that fails, they firebomb and wall off the entire city. What splatters in Vegas stays in Vegas.
Amid this chewy, gristly spectacle, Snyder’s own tongue remains firmly in cheek: From the brassy accompanying cover of “Viva Las Vegas” to the bright, satirical gloss of the visuals, he’s soliciting more smirks than screams. He knows he’s picking at the bones of a genre that’s already been cannibalized many times over; in pushing the carnage to numbing maximalist extremes, he’s saluting and mocking his forebears and trying to top them all anyway. More than anything, he’s trying to top himself, namely his own 2004 remake of George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead,” his first and best feature. (One of that movie’s juiciest moments featured a badly deployed chainsaw; in this one, the power tools — and the experts wielding them — have been significantly upgraded.)
Snyder’s lean, mean Romero riff launched his career; the gross, engrossing and sometimes weirdly moving “Army of the Dead” clearly means to resurrect it. And why not? The movie industry, slowly emerging from a non-zombie-related pandemic, could use a revival or two, and the 55-year-old Snyder is already this year’s designated comeback kid. After the 2017 debacle of “Justice League,” the belated release of his studio-spurned four-hour cut earned him and his fans a measure of vindication or at least closure. Notably, Snyder was given full creative control on “Army of the Dead” — a benefit of working with Netflix, which pulled the long-gestating project out of undead development hell and is planning a full franchise. (In a rare move, Netflix is opening the picture in hundreds of theaters May 14, a week before it becomes available for streaming.)
Creative control, of course, can be a tricky beast — sort of like the zombified white tiger that roams the Vegas outskirts in a simultaneously tasty and tasteless nod to Siegfried & Roy. Mercifully, “Army of the Dead” doesn’t run four hours, though at 148 minutes it’s still the cinematic equivalent of a “shambler,” to invoke that original subset of zombies that slowly stalk their prey in the classic Romero tradition. A more judicious hand might have reduced the narrative padding and sharpened (or eliminated) the strained attempts at comic banter in the script, which Snyder co-wrote with Shay Hatten and Joby Harold. If the action here is pretty cut-rate Romero, the team dynamics are a far cry from Howard Hawks.
Still, the friendly-fractious camaraderie and shared sense of mission are there, much as they’ve been in every Snyder joint. Starting with “Dawn of the Dead,” “300” and “Watchmen,” nearly all his films have pitted a brave few against vast and often undifferentiated enemy multitudes, a genre template that more than a few critics have interpreted through an objectivist/right-wing lens. (Snyder’s forthcoming adaptation of Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead” will surely offer them more ammunition.) “Justice League” obviously continued in that vein, and so does “Army of the Dead,” though minus the overt trappings of heroism and sacrifice. The fighters we follow into Vegas aren’t trying to save the world; they’re mercenaries trying to lift $200 million from a casino vault, hopefully without getting eaten by zombies or blown up by the nuclear bomb the U.S. government is about to drop on the city. So it’s “Ocean’s Eleven,” more or less, at least until it becomes “Ocean’s Ten,” then “Ocean’s Nine” and, well, you get the idea.
Some of these big, brash fighters have been here before. Their leader is Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), a sensitive slab of muscle first seen in that early montage, knee-deep in Vegas carnage. That’s where he met other seasoned fighters like Vanderohe (an excellent Omari Hardwick) and Cruz (Ana de la Reguera), both of whom he’s recruited for this mission, along with some fresh blood including Mikey (Raúl Castillo) and Chambers (Samantha Win), both tough as nails, and genius safecracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer, who grows on you even if he overdoes the bumbling comic relief). Rounding out the eccentric mixed bag of a cast are a fierce Nora Arnezeder as an expert local guide; Tig Notaro as a cynical helicopter pilot; and Garret Dillahunt and Theo Rossi as two sleazebags you can’t wait to see turned into Strip steak.
To its credit, though, “Army of the Dead” doesn’t always go straight for the obvious payoffs. Having opened with cataclysmic visions (complete with napalm-dropping echoes of “Apocalypse Now,” one of Snyder’s favorite touchstones), it soon downshifts into a more unsettlingly intimate register — a little “Mad Max,” a little “Escape From New York” — as Scott and his heavily armed crew try to stay as undetected as possible. That means not only avoiding the shamblers but also negotiating with the fast-moving, fast-thinking alphas, an evolutionarily advanced breed of zombies who have turned this sinners’ playground into their own fallen kingdom. (They’ve holed up in a hotel called the Olympus, in the first but not the last of the story’s ancient Greek allusions.)
It’d be overstating the movie’s qualities to call it a return to “Dawn of the Dead” basics for Snyder, given its more elaborate zombie mythology and its inflated budget and running time. But in contrast with the heavy, self-admiring sheen that has weighed down Snyder’s imagery since “300,” the filmmaking here feels nimbler, grittier, more energized. The visuals don’t seem embalmed in their own grandeur; the most striking element of Julie Berghoff’s production design — the post-apocalyptic Vegas skyline, complete with denuded Luxor pyramid — is all the more persuasive for staying mostly in the background. Notably, this is the first feature that Snyder has shot himself and the first one he’s shot entirely on digital, and while some of the images have a gauzily processed desert-mirage look, it’s nice to see him moving the camera and going easy on the slo-mo for a change. (Also nice: a blink-and-you-miss-it shoutout to one of his frequent collaborators, the cinematographer Larry Fong.)
Other than that, for better or worse, it’s very much a Zack Snyder production: unwieldy but absorbing, awash in bone-crunching violence, stilted dialogue, ridiculous-verging-on-sublime needle drops (hello, Cranberries) and have-it-both-ways political subtext. The zombie outbreak allows for some borderline-topical satire that takes aim at liberal pandemic overanxiety and conservative police-state authoritarianism alike (though I really could’ve done without the Sean Spicer cameo). Snyder has always seemed to enjoy thumbing his nose at all sides, daring his critics to ask if he’s advancing, say, a neo-fascist aesthetic or an implicit (and perhaps unwitting) critique of one. In a sharply ambivalent recent essay for the Ringer, the critic Adam Nayman nailed an essential hallmark of Snyder’s work: “Even if we’re all watching the same movie, we won’t be seeing the same things.”
While that will likely prove just as true of “Army of the Dead,” its streak of sincerity is hard to miss or deny. The story’s key emotional arc involves Scott and his estranged daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell), who insists on joining the mission in a contrived subplot that nonetheless generates moments of raw, unembarrassed emotion. Snyder has turned the spotlight on parent-child angst before (and spoken of his own recent family tragedy), and this thread of the story can’t help but take on a particularly poignant dimension. It also gives Bautista, an actor of limited range but irresistible presence, some expressive notes to play as this foolhardy mission’s trustworthy leader, turning his motley crew into a veritable Army of the Dad.
‘Army of the Dead’
Rated: R, for strong bloody violence, gore and language throughout, some sexual content and brief nudity/graphic nudity
Running time: 2 hours, 28 minutes
Playing: Starts May 14 in general release where theaters are open; available May 21 on Netflix