Movie review: Army of the Dead

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

For beings that are essentially nothing more than reanimated corpses, zombies are doing rather nicely at the whole evolving to a higher life form thing.

It’s highly unlikely Charles Darwin had them in mind when he penned Origin of Species, but momentous scientific breakthroughs in understanding aside, zombies have taken the idea of moving on up from the whole shambling, lethargic chompers to being that can think and organise and even, god help us all, grieve.

In Army of the Dead, Zack Snyder’s great return to the world of the undead, his first foray since 2004’s Dawn of the Dead, itself a remark of the 1978 George Romero classic of the same name, zombies are now not simply faster but of the alpha variety, the ones who start the whole mess to begin with and are likely the result of tinkering in good old Area 51 in search of a easily-controllable undead military force.

These zombies are capable of organising themselves better than most government agencies, and can outthink the living to the point where the head of all the alphas comes with a rather novel way of stopping people from doing the whole grievous injury to the head schtick.

It’s a whole new undead world in the bombed out ruins of Las Vegas, which is now ringed by a fearsome stack of shipping containers and only days away from being turned to nuclear toast, the better to stop an epidemic of zombies from taking over the world.

Into this morass of humanity’s hubris drops a typically ragtag team of people who stand to gain a lot financially from recovering $200 million in lost cash locked in one of the vaults beneath a casino and who stare death in the face, knowing it is coming for them but having not a lot going on in the world of the living, decide to take their chances.

It’s an open-and-shut case of epic heist meet zombie romp meets B-grade emotional issues talked through in the world’s worst setting and it sort of kind of works.

Not spectacularly well if you’re talking meaningful characterisation or intimately touching exploration of actual issues that matter – one thing Army of the Dead is not is a thinking person’s flick so do not go in there expecting to be wowed by Oscar-worthy or moving examinations of existential angst – but as a shoot-em-up, bang-em-up, edge-of-your-seat race to inevitable doom, complete with gore, violence and corporate double crossing, it excels, happy to shove the mind to one side (ironic given the nature of the film) in favour of brute-forced trauma and gung-ho action.

In this regard at least, Army of the Dead is a ceaseless adventure into a world not of us really want to inhabit.

Overrun by the undead, Las Vegas is not the sort of place you really want to enter and from which any sane person with options would run a good mile or more from, but Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) and ex-army/mercenary buddies, Maria Cruz (Ana de la Reguera) and Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick) don’t exactly have choice aplenty at their disposal, and with a team of similarly desperate people (the stand out being Tig Notaro as helicopter pilot Marianne Peters), all of whom have fallen foul of the American Dream in one form or another, they have to enter the cursed city or die trying.

They are, much as you’d expect from a film of this type, a serviceable collection of archetypes.

We have the hard-done-by ex-solder who’s nursing the grief at having to dispatch his zombified, wife, causing a rift, so he believes, with his daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) who is a volunteer at the quarantine zone outside of Las Vegas, which rather ridiculously sits hard up against the city it is evacuating people from.

With the city so overrun by very clever, conniving zombies, is that really the best idea?

Likely not, but then Army of the Dead is not there for logic, it is there for geewhiz undead adventure and action, ands it’s best you don’t engage your critical faculties too much.

You are better to be like Marianne Peters, wisecracking, hilariously devil-may-care helicopter pilot who simply knows she’s going to get a truckload of money for flying everyone out of the hellzone and doesn’t think or consider beyond that.

Army of the Dead is best approached that way frankly.

Unlike other more cerebral zombie storytelling such as the humanity-rich Fear the Walking Dead or Cargo, which tells an intensely moving story of one father’s dying attempt to save his daughter from the very worst of the zombie apocalypse, Zack Snyder’s latest excursion into the darkness of the rotting carcass of civilisation is happy to tell the kind of story in which people do their best to triumph over the dread handiwork of their own species.

It is visceral, it is, rather ironically, vividly alive and cardboard cutout characters and meaningful attempts at actual connection aside – the rebuilding of bonds between Scott and Kate is less touching than fancifully and comedically ill-timed – it delivers on the opening scenes which see a military convoy carrying a secret payload collide with a car containing unobservant newlyweds racing down the freeway, an accident which unleashes an apocalyptic monster which soon establishes Las Vegas as its eternal kingdom of the undead.

If you think you know where the (too overlong) film is heading at any one time you are likely right, and if you think, even for a nanosecond, that anyone bar one or two lucky souls will escape unscathed for some kind of monetarily-enhanced happy ever after, you will be sadly wrong.

The great thing about Army of the Dead is that it nails its colours to the mast from the very beginning, makes of them a bloodied pretty gown of nightmarish hellishness and unleashes people with very little to lose into its rapacious narrative maw, providing the kind of visceral entertainment people crave when the world around them has royally and comprehensively to the dogs and the only option is to lock yourself inside and watch people who have it far, far worse than you do.

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