Review: ‘Army of the Dead’ (2021), starring Dave Bautista, Ella Purnell, Omari Hardwick, Ana de la Reguera, Tig Notaro, Matthias Schweighöfer and Garret Dillahunt

May 13, 2021

by Carla Hay

Dave Bautista in “Army of the Dead” (Photo by Clay Enos/Netflix)

“Army of the Dead” (2021)

Directed by Zack Snyder

Culture Representation: Taking place in Las Vegas during a zombie apocalypse, the horror flick “Army of the Dead” features a racially diverse cast (Asian, white, African American and Latino) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A ragtag group is enlisted to retrieve $200 million in cash from a casino bank vault before the government drops a nuclear bomb in the zombie-infested area. 

Culture Audience: “Army of the Dead” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in epic and suspenseful zombie thrillers.

Ella Purnell in “Army of the Dead” (Photo by Clay Enos/Netflix)

What’s a filmmaker to do when there are so many movies and TV shows about a zombie apocalypse that cover a lot of the same problems? In the case of director Zack Snyder, you up the ante by making the story about looting a vault filled with $200 million in cash, before the area is detonated by government bomb. That’s the concept of writer/director/producer Snyder’s “Army of the Dead,” which definitely won’t be confused with director Joseph Conti’s 2008 low-budget supernatural horror movie “Army of the Dead,” which was about ghostly conquistadors.

Snyder (who was also the cinematographer for his “Army of the Dead” movie) isn’t new to directing a zombie film, since the previous zombie flick that he directed was the critically acclaimed 2004 remake of “Dawn of the Dead.” With a total running time of 148 minutes, “Army of the Dead” has a lot of time for viewers to get to know the story’s individual human characters, who each have a distinct and memorable personality. And believe it or not, a few of the zombie characters have semblances of personalities too—or at least a hierachy and customs that they follow—which is a departure from most zombie stories where the zombies only think about killing humans for their next meal.

Is it worth spending nearly two-and-a-half hours of your life watching “Army of the Dead”? It depends. If you’re inclined to watch gory horror movies, then the answer is a definite “yes,” because there’s enough of a good story and suspenseful moments that will keep you riveted. If you can’t stomach seeing brutal battles with blood and guts, then “Army of the Dead” is something that you can skip. The “Army of the Dead” screenplay (written by Snyder, Shay Hatten and Joby Harold) keeps things simple, so that even though there’s a relatively large cast of characters, nothing gets confusing.

“Army of the Dead” opens with a military convoy of trucks and vans somewhere in the Nevada desert, with one of the trucks carrying super-secret cargo. Two military guards named Corp. Bissel (played by Zach Rose) and Sgt. Kelly (played by Michael Cassidy) are in a truck together and speculate about what they might be guarding that’s so top-secret. Bissel thinks it might be an alien from outer space, because whatever is in the mystery truck came from Area 51. Kelly has been told on a walkie talkie to stay away from a truck that’s in the middle of the convoy.

Bissel and Kelly are about to found out what’s in that mysterious truck. A newlywed couple named Mr. Hillman (played by Steve Corona) and Misty Hillman (played by Chelsea Edmundson), who are in a car in the opposite lane of the highway, are engaging in some sexual activity, and the husband takes his eyes off the road while driving. Big mistake. The resulting crash is a big pile-up that ends with a massive explosion that kills the newlyweds and most of the people in the convoy, except for Bissel and Kelly.

The truck that was supposed to be “off limits” topples over. And out comes a zombie named Zeus (played by Richard Cetrone), who immediately goes on a rampage. Bissel and Kelly make a valiant effort to save themselves, but they inevitably become the zombie’s prey and then become zombies themselves.

“Army of the Dead” then fast-forwards to Las Vegas in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, by having a fairly long sequence of opening credits showing much of the action in slow-motion. The movie has many touches of humor, such as zombie showgirls who attack the type of creepy older men who would probably sexually harass them under other circumstances. Zombies have taken over casinos and are shown terrorizing people at slot machines and game tables. And because this is Vegas, there’s at least one Elvis impersonator who’s a zombie.

During all of this mayhem, a news announcement comes on TV that the government will drop a “low-yield, tactical nuclear bomb” in the worst zombie-infested area of Las Vegas, at sunset on (of all days) the Fourth of July. All people in the area have been ordered to evacuate. But a wealthy casino owner named Bly Tanaka (played by Hiroyuki Sanada) has other plans.

Bly’s eponymous high-rise casino is now abandoned and is in the area that’s scheduled to be bombed. The casino has a secret vault filled with $200 million cash. And he wants to get the cash out in time by having other people do the dirty work for him.

Bly visits Scott Ward (played by Dave Bautista), a widower who works as a cook at a diner. Scott isn’t an average diner employee though: He received a Presidential Medal of Freedom for saving several people at the start of the zombie apocalypse. (This heroism is mentioned, but not shown, in the movie.)

And due to his shady past, Scott knows the right people to assemble to get all of that cash out of the vault, even if it means risking their lives in an area crawling with zombies. Bly offers Scott $50 million to do the job and says that it will be up to Scott how Scott wants to divide the payment amongst Scott’s team members. Scott eagerly accepts the challenge because he wants the money to open his own fast-food business.

The decision of where to drop the bomb is controversial because it’s in a quarantine area for people who’ve been suspected of being exposed to zombie infections. In one of the movie’s satirical moments, there’s a TV news debate with political pundits on both sides weighing in on the controversy. Real-life liberal Democrat pundit Donna Brazile (a former acting chair of the Democratic National Committee) and real-life conservative Republican aide Sean Spicer (a former White House press secretary in the Donald Trump administration) are seen in this debate arguing over the ethics of this bombing. Brazile thinks the bombing is a human rights violation, while Spicer thinks the bombing is necessary to ensure the safety of non-infected humans.

Scott’s estranged daughter Kate Ward (played by Ella Purnell) works as a volunteer at the quarantine shelter/refugee camp. Kate has befriended a single mother named Geeta (played by Huma Qureshi), who is desperate to have her two underage children smuggled out of the shelter before the bomb hits. Geeta begs Kate to take the children to the nearby city of Barstow if anything happens to her.

One of the supervisors at the shelter is a sleazy bully named Burt Cummings (played by Theo Rossi), who takes particular pleasure in demeaning women. When he does a thermometer scan of Geeta, he stands too close for comfort and tells her that if she doesn’t like it, he’ll use another way to take her temperature: “I could use my rectal thermometer,” he smirks.

The bomb is supposed to be dropped in 72 hours. But Dave is able to quickly assemble his team. They are:

  • Maria Cruz (played by Ana de la Reguera), a strong-willed mechanic who had a past romance with Scott.
  • Vanderohe (played by Omari Hardwick), a quintessential action hero who has a sensitive side (he works at a retirement home) beneath his tough exterior.
  • Marianne Peters (played by Tig Notaro), a wisecracking helicopter pilot who will be responsible for flying the team’s getaway helicopter.
  • Dieter (played by Matthias Schweighöfer), a socially awkward and nerdy locksmith who will be responsible for cracking the safe’s complex security codes, which change on a regular basis.
  • Mikey Guzman (played by Raúl Castillo), a semi-famous YouTuber who likes to make extreme stunt videos of himself hunting zombies.
  • Chambers (Samantha Win), a feisty but emotionally aloof friend of Mikey’s who only trusts Mikey in the group.
  • Lilly (played by Nora Arnezeder), also known as The Coyote, a cunning warrior type who works at the quarantine shelter and was introduced to the group by Kate.
  • Kate, Scott’s daughter, who insists on being part of the team because she wants some of the money to help Deeta.
  • Martin (played by Garret Dillahunt), a security expert who works for Bly and is there to keep tabs on this motley crew so they won’t steal all the money for themselves.

One of Mikey’s friends named Damon (played by Colin Jones) was also supposed to be part of the team. But a fearful Damon quits early, before they even start their journey, when he finds out that the area they’re going to has a colony of zombies that will be sure to attack. Lilly knows the most about the zombies living in this colony, and she’s the go-to person to come up with strategies on how to outsmart the zombies.

As Lilly tells the rest of the team, these are not ordinary zombies. Regular zombies, which are more common, are called “shamblers” because they don’t think beyond eating and killing. The zombies that are near the casino are called “alphas,” because they’re smarter, faster and stronger than the shambler zombies.

These alpha zombies have formed a tribe headed by a king (Zeus, the same zombie who escaped from the military convoy) and a queen (played by Athena Perample), who expect the rest of the zombie tribe to follow their lead. These zombies, as seen in several parts of the movie, seem to have emotions of anger and sadness. And they also understand things such as bargaining, which might or might not come in handy for this group that will soon invade the alpha zombies’ territory.

“Army of the Dead” keeps things at a fairly energetic pace, although there are a few parts of the movie where people are standing around and talking a little too much. But the action, when it happens, lives up to expectations in intensity and realistic gore. There are some splatter scenes that were deliberately filmed for laughs. The movie also has a male zombie tiger named Valentine, which Lilly says used to be owned by Siegfried and Roy. Valentine is a scene-stealer, even though this creature is nothing but visual effects.

And in this group of opinionated people, there are personality conflicts, of course. Vanderohe doesn’t respect Dieter at first because he thinks Dieter is too wimpy and ill-prepared for the zombie-killing aspects of this mission. Kate has a lot of bitterness toward Scott because of how her mother died. (The death of Kate’s mother/Scott’s wife is shown in a flashback.) And no one seems to really like or trust Bly’s henchman Martin, who has a tendency to be a bossy know-it-all.

The big showdown battle toward the end of the movie is definitely one of the best scenes, as it should be. “Army of the Dead” doesn’t sugarcoat any violence, although there are moments that stretch the bounds of realism with some heavily choreographed stunts. All of the actors play their roles well, with Castillo, Notaro, Schweighöfer and Arnezeder bringing the most individuality to their characters’ personalities. Bautista doesn’t have a wide range of emotive skills as an actor, but “Army of the Dead” is the type of movie that showcases him at his best, rather than the silly action comedies that he sometimes does.

The biggest complaint or disappointment that viewers might have about “Army of the Dead” is regarding the movie’s final five minutes, when a character finds out something that this person should have found out much earlier. It drastically changes the tone of the film’s ending. But this potentially divisive ending doesn’t take away from “Army of the Dead” delivering plenty of thrills and chills that make it a better-than-average zombie movie.

Netflix released “Army of the Dead” in New York City on May 12, 2021, and will expand the movie’s release to more U.S. cinemas on May 14, 2021. Netflix will premiere “Army of the Dead” on May 21, 2021.