“Army of the Dead” is that rare film that will unite two disparate audiences — both the hardcore fans of director Zack Snyder (and they, it has been clearly established, will eagerly consume anything he makes) and the viewers who can’t stand his superhero movies but wish he would make another film like his 2004 remake of “Dawn of the Dead.”
Granted, this latest saga has no direct narrative connection with that earlier film, telling a brand-new and totally discrete tale of the undead. It also overextends its welcome at nearly two-and-a-half hours, but after the bloated excess of Snyder’s extended “Justice League” cut, “Army” feels lean and brisk.
It’s not that Snyder can’t be an economical storyteller when he wants to be; “Army of the Dead” opens with a prologue and credits sequence that’s an effective mini-movie about the onset and ensuing combat of the Zombie War. A car accident dislodges a container being hauled out of Area 51, and the alien inside bites his military captors and turns them into zombie-like creatures. Soon, they’ve spread throughout Las Vegas, with a hearty band of human survivors facing massive loss and trauma before the military walls in Sin City.
Post-credits, we jump ahead a few years. War hero Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) is flipping burgers in a Nevada greasy spoon when billionaire casino owner Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada, “Mortal Kombat”) shows up with an offer Scott can’t refuse — breach the wall, get to Tanaka’s casino, crack the safe, snag the $200 million in the vault, escape in the medevac helicopter on the roof, divide up $50 million with his team.
It all seems easy enough; fellow Zombie War vets like mechanic Cruz (Ana de la Reguera, Comedy Central’s “Ana”), buzzsaw-wielder Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), and helicopter pilot Peters (Tig Notaro) are eager to join in, as is safecracker Ludwig (Matthias Schweighöfer, “Resistance”), who’s beside himself over the opportunity to open an impenetrable safe. (The name of the manufacturer? Götterdämmerung, prompting Snyder’s notoriously on-the-nose musical needle-drops to go full Wagnerian.)
Nothing is quite as simple as it seems, from the company man (played by Garrett Dillahunt) placed in the mission by Tanaka for reasons not immediately explained, to Scott’s daughter Kate (Ella Purnell, “Belgravia”) who insists on tagging along to rescue Geeta (Huma Qureshi), a refugee who snuck into the walled city. Geeta had hoped to get the money she needs to buy herself and her kids a ticket out of the camps that the government set up post-war, ostensibly to deal with the zombie outbreak but mainly as an excuse to crack down on abortion-rights proponents, LGBT activists, and undocumented people of color.
Snyder and co-writers Shay Hatten (“John Wick Chapter 3”) and Joby Harold (“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”) play around with the zombie mythos, introducing the notion of “alphas” (smarter, faster creatures with the ability to strategize) and “shamblers” (the staggering undead we’re used to seeing in movies like this). It may be, however, that they brought too many ideas to the table; “Army of the Dead” feints toward the idea of characterization — we’re meant to understand that Scott’s PTSD fueled an emotional shutdown that left him estranged from both Kate and Cruz — but too many of the players here feel like cut-outs with one or two personality traits, even by heist-movie standards.
The talented ensemble makes the most of the fleeting moments that the film throws them, from the banter between tough-guy Vanderohe and nerdy Ludwig, to Notaro chewing the scenery (and a series of Hav-a-Tampa cigars) with gusto. (You’d never guess that Notaro was digitally inserted into the film to take over for another actor whose name doesn’t need to be mentioned.) But while the supporting players get what they can out of the film, Bautista has been stranded with an underdeveloped backstory and barely-there motivations.
Editor Dody Dorn (“Power Rangers”) doesn’t assemble the heist with much suspense, even as it goes completely awry, and even with the added ticking-clock of the Army’s impending nuking of Vegas. We’re left with a somewhat sluggishly paced film that doesn’t make use of its running time to go deeply into either story (the reveal of Tanaka’s true agenda zips by in two lines of dialogue) or characterization, much less chills or thrills.
What “Army of the Dead” does have, however, is the glorious excess of Las Vegas itself, left to rot and inhabited with unsettlingly capable alpha-zombies dressed in all manner of showgirl and high-roller regalia. When Scott goes mano-a-mano with some of the alphas, they elude his punches with a balletic grace that implies that before they were zombies, they were performers in one of the town’s various Cirque du Soleil productions. (There’s also a four-legged alpha who’s definitely a vet of one of the Strip’s most venerable attractions.)
There’s enough gore, mayhem, and decay in “Army of the Dead” to make for a satisfying zombie-movie experience, and while it’s the best film Snyder has made since his last “of the Dead,” it’s also one that continually hints at the more satisfying work it might have been. The director goes all-in on spectacle, but his script is a pair of threes.
“Army of the Dead” opens in US theaters May 14 and premieres on Netflix May 21.