All the fun stuff happens during Army of the Dead’s credit sequence — a short zombie-killing orgy set to a sardonic version of Elvis’s “Viva Las Vegas,” as if The Hangover took place in Kubrick’s Overlook hotel. But Zack Snyder’s new zombie movie works differently than his grand comic-book myths. It’s a grim vision of modern dystopia, outrageous and not very funny.
Snyder interweaves a Night of the Living Dead premise with what ought to be a moralistic Treasure of the Sierra Madre caper, but morality’s gone. Instead, this is a more prescient and cynical amalgam than was expected: It contemplates the defeat of heroism.
Set near Area 51, an unspecified terror escapes from government control (like a virus that slips from a lab), turning Las Vegas into Ground Zero. That’s where the film’s zombie apocalypse begins. Snyder updates the critiques of Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978), resolving George Romero’s alarm about race and class, yet his diversity roll call exposes a cultural virus, the common drive for wealth among people capable of anything.
A sinister foreign businessman (Bly Tanaka) offers experienced zombie killer Scott Ward (the bull-like Dave Bautista) $50 million to invade Vegas and steal a vault of cash. Ward recruits a team of zombie hunters from disparate ethnic and sexual backgrounds who epitomize a fractured society that has turned mercenary. Their desperation is mirrored in post-apocalyptic Vegas, where, in a bizarrely satirical subplot, Snyder introduces a super-powered zombie kingdom (a quarantined zone) headed by a pair of ghoulish monarchs. These depraved demigods, embodying Vegas decadence and German Expressionist exaggeration, display a surprising kink: They juxtapose capitalist greed with a reenactment of the horrors of abortion, a ploy that returns Snyder to his 300 mythos.
Army of the Dead’s overwhelming dread surpasses Hollywood’s usual adolescent rebuke of the military and conservatism. When one of the team’s hunters pessimistically boasts, “We’re not in America anymore!” Ward’s response is even more cynical: “Which technically makes it a freer country.” That very 2020 retort proves that Snyder has gone from classic fantasy to his own Millennial Götterdämmerung (the name on the blueprint for the Olympus hotel). While following the action-movie formula of James Cameron’s Aliens, with its old-fashioned sense of military unity and national mission, Army of the Dead is actually a vision of America’s twilight. Snyder is such a pitiless genre adept that he can put the Olympus Has Fallen, London Has Fallen series to shame and at the same time expose the ridiculous caper-politics in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods (Omari Harwick plays the macho black zombie killer).
But it’s undeniable that Snyder’s interest in myth has seen a sociological change. This film’s parallels to the COVID-era lockdowns are unmistakable. The zombie threat creates an oppressive environment (nuclear annihilation promised for July Fourth at sundown) that makes an encampment’s totalitarian command sounds very familiar: “The first sign of infection is belligerence.” In other words, Snyder’s interest in heroic mythology has been overwhelmed by the end of liberty, the zombification of American free will.
He situates our cultural bewilderment in conspiracy-theory jokes — one about “the Constitution written in the Founding Fathers’ blood” and a darkly comic sequence featuring partisan surrogates Donna Brazile and Sean Spicer in a televised debate over civil rights and government power on WBC World News. Snyder can’t play whataboutism here, pretending that both political operatives are corrupt. The contrast of Brazile’s brazen unethical behavior being rewarded with media approval against Spicer’s media disrepute shows that it’s not an even match. But Snyder makes both irrelevant — and shames us all — through the noticeable miasma of bad TV transmission and his own dismal perspective.
That’s as obvious as Snyder gets. His real political comment occurs in the happenstance of genre plotting in which the white male is repeatedly demeaned and women are valorized. (Snyder’s woke replay of Aliens’ crowd-pleasing ethnic sub-heroine Vasquez, memorably played by Jenette Goldstein, now substitutes several empowered #MeToo sub-heroines, although only one gets a bravura solo fight scene.)
The mix of myth and politics here (featuring the most emotive use of Wagner since John Boorman’s Excalibur) suggests that Snyder must be working through some private grief and career despondency. The movie is overlong, in the Netflix pattern that encourages string-along, TV-style sequences rather than narrative coherence, but the anxiety in Army of the Dead feels real. It’s a real bummer. It makes Snyder’s Joe Biden campaign ad look like a horror-movie trailer, the scariest coming attraction ever made.