Before he was known for ridiculously self-important superhero movies and even more ridiculously self-important fans, director Zack Snyder made a hell of a fun first movie back in 2004, a remake of George Romero’s 1978 undead classic Dawn of the Dead.
Snyder’s version wasn’t as epic or convincingly built-out as the original, but it wasn’t trying to be. Instead, he took the most basic elements of Romero’s movie—a zombie outbreak, a group of survivors and a shopping mall—stripped them down and spun them into a wild, funny alternate take.
The best part of Snyder’s Dawn was a montage set to lounge singer Richard Cheese’s hilarious cover of Disturbed’s “Down With the Sickness.” There was more energy and excitement in those two-and-a-half minutes then in the entire two-and-a-half hours of Snyder’s Batman vs. Superman.
And for as hard as he fought to release his “Snyder cut” of Justice League—at four hours long, easily the most extreme example of his relentlessly square-jawed superhero aesthetic—there must be something in the star director that knew he’d been on to something way back then, because in 2019 he took a break from all the superhero stuff to film a decade-and-a-half-late zombie follow-up, Army of the Dead. It has finally arrived, and guess what its best sequence is? If you said another crazy montage set to a Richard Cheese cover (this time “Viva Las Vegas”), you win all the brains!
Truth be told, a lot of what’s most fun about Army of the Dead—and it’s pretty damn fun—is lifted from Snyder’s first zombie movie. The bright pop-art colors, horror camp and fast-talking characters have finally returned, replacing the grim palettes and stoic poses of his last three superhero movies.
This time, though, Snyder goes all-in on the horror pastiche, stealing from everyone and everywhere to tell this fairly basic story of a group of highly skilled thieves who try to rob a casino after Las Vegas has been walled off from the rest of the country—and is set to be nuked—following a zombie outbreak there. There’s even more Romero tribute here than Snyder was able to stuff into Dawn of the Dead, which is amazing considering that was a literal Romero remake. It had fast zombies in an era when Danny Boyle’s 21 Days Later had made those fashionable.
Here, though, Snyder has some slow zombies more in the original Romero mold, referred to by the characters as “shamblers.” He keeps some fast ones, too, and in an homage to Romero’s way-underappreciated Land of the Dead, introduces the idea that certain “alpha” zombies are smarter and more agile (some of these high-performing zombies also pose and preen like they’re auditioning for a Broadway production of Cats, I’m not sure what that’s about). There’s also a notion that the military wants these zombies for its own army, a la Romero’s Day of the Dead, although that never really gets explored.
Snyder doesn’t just borrow from the originator of undead cinema—he throws everything in here. From Aliens, the elite team tiptoeing through cramped passageways; from Ocean’s 11, the heist amid retro Vegas cool; from every monster movie ever, the notion that the humans are the real monsters, after all.
The weirdest echoes come from the fact that last year’s Train to Busan sequel Peninsula had literally this exact plot, but since Army of the Dead has been kicking around in development hell since 2007, that’s not as damning as it seems. They both steal a lot from John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, and are better for doing so.
The cast, especially Dave Bautista as the guy who puts the team together and Tig Notaro playing against type in every way as a cigar-chomping helicopter pilot (and stealing all the best lines, like “Was that a zombie in a goddamned cape?”), are good, and there are some genuine surprises in terms of who lives and who becomes zombie chow. The only real misfire is a terrible attempt at injecting some relationship drama into the proceedings that will make you think “Why tho?” every time the movie feels the need to check in on it.
So I guess that settles it: From now on, all Zack Snyder movies must include the ironic lounge stylings of Richard Cheese, and the only capes in them should be worn by zombies.
‘Army of the Dead’ debuts on Netflix on May 21.