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Rip-roaring, gory with a capital G and nihilistic – never mind justice, Army of the Dead should mark a new dawn for Zack Snyder.
The year is 2005, I’m seven years old. My aunt and uncle bring my brother and I over to their house, with promises of watching Keanu Reeves’ Constantine. Regrettably, the disc is missing. Instead, they put on the Dawn of the Dead remake – from that bedroom silhouette, I’m wracked with fear until the end.
We’ve since had an epic Watchmen adaptation, Spartans warring with pulpy fury and the most debated comic book films of all time, and Snyder’s ferocious undead debut remains unbeaten. However, his first outing with Netflix is a resurrection to die for. Think Ocean’s Eleven meets George. A Romero.
When an Area 51 convoy goes tits up, Sin City becomes ground zero for the zombie apocalypse, with humans, horses and Siegfried and Roy’s tiger roaming the strip looking for ‘braaaains’. With the horror cordoned off from the rest of the US, the government plans to drop a patriotic nuke on July 4, because the president thinks it’ll be ‘really cool’ – as Tig Notaro’s character grumbles, ‘they should’ve nuked it in the 90s.’
Enter Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada), a rich man with a proposition for Scott Ward (Dave Bautista): go to Vegas, break into a casino’s safe and escape before the bomb drops. In return, $50 million for him and his team of soldiers, locksmiths and trigger-happy influencers, and later, a chance to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Ella Purnell). You may not be in or out, but you must be intrigued.
Directed, shot and penned by Snyder (alongside Shay Hatten and Joby Harold), it’s the product of unbridled creative joy. Just shy of two-and-a-half hours seems indulgent, and it is, but any lapse in momentum, some overegged moments and questionable commentary – like leftists arguing zombies are political prisoners’ – rarely outweighs the fun. There’s impressive innovation with the zombies, made up of squalling queens, scary alphas and classic runners.
It’s essentially Snyder’s own Suicide Squad; there’s enough meat to care about the flesh-eating terror that befalls them, without too much heartbreak. They’re all likeable enough (it’s a convincing star vehicle for Bautista and Omari Hardwick) and the film loves giving slimy fools their comeuppance. Not to spoil anything, but it features the best animal attack scene since The Revenant.
The violence is comically, ludicrously grotesque – a simple slap to the face splatters blood across the wall. Admirable practical effects make for – literally – jaw-dropping, gloopy viscera, whether it’s body-smooshing booby traps, a man’s face being munched off his skull or a Jackson Pollock of human chum. Watching it on my own, I longed for the whoops and retches of a cinema crowd.
Snyder says it’s inspired by the likes Escape from New York, Aliens and RoboCop – that tracks, but the most discernable roots come from games like Dead Rising and Left 4 Dead, with baseball bats with nails and custom buzzsaws to mow down the hordes. There’s even a nail-biting scene straight out of The Last of Us, right down to a ‘screw stealth’ Hail Mary.
If you remain unconvinced, just watch the opening 15 minutes; just as memorable as 28 Weeks Later’s horrifying beginning and Dead Island’s iconic trailer, only with way more laughs, Rambo artillery gun levels of gore – if you know, you know – and complete clarity of vision. One of the best zombie sequences in years.
Army of the Dead is basically the best video game movie ever made. All that’s missing is Frank West.
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