The opening credits of Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead provides an early indicator of what the filmmaker has in store. After a nasty, effective cold open involving an army convoy, ill-fated Las Vegas honeymooners and – you guessed it – zombies, Snyder gives us a montage that shows how the Vegas strip became overrun with the undead, and also introduces the movie’s mercenary protagonists. For about 90 seconds it’s all fun and games; Snyder even brings back Dawn of the Dead lounge singer Richard Cheese to cover “Viva Las Vegas” as zombified Elvis impersonators and showgirls chow down on the living. But then, suddenly, the music gets sad and slow, and the visuals tragic. It’s unclear whether we’re supposed to be amped or sad.
The rest of Army of the Dead reflects that same tonal whiplash. It should be fun (a Vegas heist! With zombies!), and there are moments of dark humor peppered throughout. Those moments are overwhelmed, however, by intense, unnecessary heaviness, as well as a glut of characters and plots that don’t need to be there. Instead of lean, nasty genre entertainment, it’s a weighty, overly complicated two-and-a-half hour slog with occasional bright spots that serve as a reminder of the movie’s squandered promise.
Dave Bautista plays Scott Ward, the leader of a group of soldiers decorated for their efforts in confining the zombie apocalypse, now haunted by PTSD. Scott is recruited by Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) to gather a team for a Vegas strip casino heist inside zombie territory before the government nukes the spot. In addition to his old army buddies (Ana de la Reguera, Omari Hardwick, Tig Notaro), Scott recruits a hotshot sniper (Raúl Castillo) and a wunderkind safecracker (Matthias Schweighöfer) as well as a shifty member of Tanaka’s team (Garret Dillahunt). Scott’s estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell), a zombie refugee camp volunteer, tags along in search of a missing friend.
What seemed like a straightforward job is anything but, as zombie culture on the other side of the wall has evolved into its own flesh-eating kingdom. Making the abandoned Vegas into a self-contained world is a clever turn that gives Army of the Dead a different flavor. However, it also significantly slows the movie’s momentum, which is already bogged down by an abundance of characters. Many of them also carry significant emotional baggage, which all gets worked out over the course of several overlapping subplots, slowing things down even further.
Said baggage also makes Army of the Dead’s few fun moments feel slightly out of place. The insertion of Tig Notaro to replace former cast member Chris D’Elia is enjoyable, but her bone-dry delivery feels at odds with everything else around it. Hardwick and Schweighöfer have a fun dynamic, but it’s underexplored because we’re spending too much time with Scott apologizing to Kate for being a bad father. Kate’s subplot adds nothing, and feels like an excuse to shoehorn in a father-daughter relationship the movie doesn’t need.
There are seeds of good ideas in Army of the Dead, and the ruined retro Vegas aesthetic is fun to spend time in. Unfortunately, what’s most noticeable here is the amount of fat that could be trimmed for a shorter running time (though at least it’s not four hours) and to make the action and plotting more coherent. A good heist movie provides a reason for every choice it makes. A good zombie movie shows more than it tells. Army of the Dead does neither.
“Army of the Dead” is in theaters now. It streams Friday on Netflix.