The zombie movie is an inherently contemplative genre; amidst the blood-spilling and brain-eating, the soullessness of its monsters turns our gaze back towards the living and reveals who we are. From its humble beginnings as a radical piece of anti-racist agitprop (1968’s Night of the Living Dead) to its appropriation of post-9/11 apocalyptic anxieties (2002’s 28 Days Later and 2013’s World War Z), it’s a genre that changes with the times. That’s why it’s something of a disappointment that at this moment, when a story about a deadly pandemic—ultimately, that’s what zombie movies are—could be at its most resonant, it has arrived in such a toothless, brainless form.
Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead has been billed as a zombie heist movie, but it’s actually a crowd-pleaser, a genre wrongly defined simply by the box office. It actually has its own rules, conventions, and cliches: A crowd-pleaser has jokes, hugs, and fights, but not enough of any to be an actual comedy, romance, or action movie. It has quippy dialogue, most of which isn’t actually clever, though it adequately fills the void between inventive set pieces. The characters are hazily sketched, and in this decade, the actors are cast with a sharp eye towards representation. It’s usually about a guy getting a team together for some sort of dangerous mission. The Marvel movies are all crowd-pleasers. So are most entries in the Mission: Impossible series. Fast Five fashions itself as a heist movie, too, but it’s a crowd-pleaser. Army of the Dead is definitely a crowd-pleaser.
Most importantly, the crowd-pleaser doesn’t take sides. It aspires to appeal to people of all genders, races, and creeds, so while it often hints at political themes, it doesn’t actually stand for anything. Some might call it pandering, for example, to have the main character in Army of the Dead muse aloud about the vegan items he’s going to serve at his food truck (if he ever makes it out of the apocalypse), but it’s better appreciated as a necessary skill on the part of the crowd-pleaser. In an era of deep polarization, appealing to a broad swath of consumers is an herculean task, and Army of the Dead pulls it off. Finally, vegans have a zombie movie of their own.
On the other hand, the film opens on a scene seemingly designed for reactionary conspiracy theorists. A military envoy crashes in the desert, unleashing its payload, an uber-powerful zombie that the government was planning on weaponizing, into the wild just outside of Las Vegas. The zombie makes his way towards the strip, and in a slam-bang opening credits montage that packs in more plot and style than most entire movies, Snyder explains the rest: The government sent in the military, which failed to stop the outbreak. A massive wall was constructed to contain the zombies inside the city, outside of which is a refugee camp run by ruthless, abusive law enforcement agents. A nuclear strike is planned for July 4 to wipe out Las Vegas and end the crisis. End of story.
Of course, it’s not. A Japanese businessman hires Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), a military badass who lost his wife and one of his daughters in the battle of Vegas, to break into the quarantined city and steal $50 million from a safe inside a casino. Scott puts together a crew that includes old military buddies, an expert safe cracker from Europe, and a social media influencer who has made a splash online with videos of his zombie-killing exploits. Oh, and Scott’s daughter—the one who didn’t die in the zombie invasion—tags along to retrieve a friend who entered the quarantine zone days earlier and never came out.
The plot is driven by the heist, which unfolds along predictable lines: alliances are formed, traitors are exposed, and the body count rises. Its adherence to familiar genre elements gives Snyder the audience buy-in to stretch his imagination in other areas. It’s not his first zombie movie—Snyder directed the 2004 remake of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead to acclaim and success—but he seems more liberated here. Dawn of the Dead’s major contribution to the zombie canon was a zombie baby. Army of the Dead has a zombie fetus, a zombie tiger, zombie stripper, zombie Elvis, and a few other surprises I won’t spoil for you.
Snyder’s risk-taking ethos extends to the most long-held conventions of zombie lore: his undead are not mindless flesh-eating drones. They have built a society with a hierarchy, including a king and queen. They have inner emotional lives and intellect. When a key zombie is killed, another one grieves. This allows for a more familiar narrative, but it robs the film of a key emotional response: fear. Zombies who have brains and inner emotional lives and who you can bargain with aren’t zombies at all. They’re just gnarly humans. And they’re certainly not scary.
What Army of the Dead lacks in frights, it makes up for in gore. The film might break the record—currently (unofficially) held by John Wick—for featuring the most kill shots in the head, but those are only the perfunctory deaths. Like a kid in a hellish candy store, Snyder gleefully invents ways to tear the undead apart, from chainsaws and daggers to decapitations and booby traps. It’s not a thought experiment; it’s pure viscera. You can feel the zombie flesh being punctured, exploded, and torn apart by the tendon.
As for the living, well, they’re all present and accounted for. The zombies in Army of the Dead are more human, and the humans are less so. Comedian Tig Notaro (digitally pasted over Chris D’Elia, who was cut from the movie for multiple allegations of sexual misconduct) gets quippy as the snarky helicopter pilot, while Matthias Schweighöfer, as the violence-averse safecracker, ably functions as a nervous audience surrogate. Bautista is the only one who really stands out, and mostly that’s just because of his enormous size. The actor has followed the path set by The Rock from wrestling champion to movie superstardom, appearing in films like Guardians of the Galaxy and Blade Runner 2049. While portraying a man desperate to save his last remaining family member, he favors brooding masculinity over anything resembling grief, but he does what the movie asks him to do, which is to look convincing firing a machine gun and to occasionally talk tofu. Mission accomplished.
And Snyder accomplishes his. If this were a normal summer, Army of the Dead might be the season’s first hit, inspiring bloodthirsty teenagers to go back to the theater over and over to dance in their seats to the on-the-nose needle-drops and cheer for their favorite kills. As it stands, the film will be released in just 600 theaters, and most people will still watch it on Netflix. Maybe that’s the perfect place to watch the world burn, and a genre once rife with meaning be reduced to sanitized gore.
Army of the Dead is available on Netflix and theaters on May 21.