“Army of the Dead” basically skips straight to “the Snyder cut” phase, since co-writer/director/cinematographer Zack Snyder clearly felt little pressure to cut in assembling this 2 ½-hour zombie/heist hybrid. The result is a Netflix movie that yields plenty of striking shots — a Snyder specialty — without giving enough life to its non-zombie cast.
Snyder actually directed the 2004 remake “Dawn of the Dead” early in his career, before “300” and his extensive sojourn into the world of graphic novels and superheroes. While “zombie/heist” is convenient shorthand — “Ocean’s Eleven” meets “The Walking Dead” — the movie mashes up several genres and older films, owing perhaps its most sizable debt to “Aliens,” to the point of pilfering a memorable line of dialogue.
Like that film, this one involves a squad of soldiers (OK, mercenaries here, but close enough) heading into a perilous setting surrounded by slavering creatures, carrying out their mission under a ticking-clock scenario. The monsters, moreover, might be a little more complex than customary incarnations, adding an extra degree of difficulty.
In this case, the task involves cleaning out a Las Vegas casino vault before the government drops a nuke on the city to eradicate the zombie threat. If the idea of Sin City being overrun by mindless zombies sounds almost redundant, well, that’s intended to be part of the fun.
The main problem is that Snyder spends more than a third of the movie setting up the premise and assembling his team, before the real action begins in earnest. And while there’s an inevitable “Who will make it?” quality to this sort of exercise, too few of the characters stand out enough to make the prospect of becoming zombie food as concerning as it should be.
That begins with the group’s leader, Scott Ward, played by “Guardians of the Galaxy’s” Dave Bautista. He brings his share of baggage along for the ride, including his strained relationship with his grown daughter (Ella Purnell), which is mostly as tired as that sounds.
Tig Notaro and Matthias Schweighöfer do provide comic relief as a helicopter pilot and safecracker, respectively, the latter really serving as the linchpin of the whole operation. Yet even with some truly eye-popping explosions of gore, the various hurdles thrown in front of the gang make the movie feel bloated, a byproduct of wedding so many elements in a package that clearly carries a higher price tag than horror movies traditionally do.
In gambling terms, Netflix has already gone pretty much “All in” on Snyder’s zombie world, including plans for an animated series and prequels. In addition, the film is receiving an exclusive theatrical release — a potential godsend for newly reopened theaters — before its debut on the streaming service.
For all the craziness that preceded its arrival, Snyder’s expanded cut of “Justice League” reinforced the epic tone and vision he brings to that kind of material. Love it or not, it’s a distinctive skill, dating back to his bloody work on “300” and “Watchmen.”
“Army of the Dead” possesses dribs of those qualities, but not at a similar level. So while this might represent a diverting lark in its dizzying combination of movie conventions, this is another one of those instances where what happens in Vegas probably should stay there.
“Army of the Dead” premieres May 14 in theaters and May 21 on Netflix. It’s rated R.