A juiced-up zombie flick with barely enough brains to cover a crouton, Zack Snyder’s return to the genre 17 years on from his Dawn of the Dead remake is everything you’d expect from 2021 model Sydner: Visually hypercharged, beefed up with splashes of gnarly violence and wildly overlong. And bar an early flirtation with the brutal treatment of immigrants, it’s also bereft of the kind of deeper subtext that marks out the classics in the genre. If you’re into what Snyder does, it won’t disappoint (he even gets a zombie tiger into this one). The unpersuaded will find it baggy and humourless.
Billed as a zombie Ocean’s Eleven and set inside a sealed-off Las Vegas overrun by the undead, Army of the Dead resembles nothing so much as a watered-down Aliens with slot machines. A band of locked-and-loaded mercenaries led by Dave Bautista’s hardened zombie killer, Scott Ward, head into the city limits with his estranged daughter (Ella Purnell), a freelance guide to get them in (Nora Arnezeder), a chopper pilot for the extraction (Tig Notaro), and a suspicious chaperone (Garret Dillahunt in the Paul Reiser role) foisted on them by the big-shot gangster who’s hired them. Their mark? A casino bank vault guarded by a near-impregnable vault.
Up against them is a super-zombie called Zeus, the equivalent of the alien ‘queen’ here. Escaped in transit from Area 51, he now controls Vegas’s populace of smart alphas and low-grade ‘shamblers’ and has a zombie bride by his side (not as sexy as the film thinks it is). Snyder and his prosthetics team have plenty of fun with these hordes of undead showgirls, gamblers and one-time hedonists. Most end up as exploding heads, smooshed bodies, and ribbons of zombie flesh hanging from doors. They’re bursts of gross-out fun amid the long ponderous stretches.
But what James Cameron’s Aliens has in spades that Snyder’s script lacks is quotable zingers to make you laugh and genius-level character work to make you care about the muscled, gun-toting protagonists – even as they’re been offed in a variety of grisly ways.
The action here is visceral and slickly handled, especially in the kind of expository opening credits sequence that Snyder is a master of (see also: Watchmen), but the patter is perfunctory and there's little grab to hold onto in this cadre of underdeveloped expendables as they negotiate the Vegas Strip, hotel corridors and the odd dull family dispute. Aliens is also a showcase for the kind of cut-to-the-bone editing Army of the Dead could have really done with. The zombies are fast here; the pacing definitely isn’t.