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Army Of The Dead Review: Needs More Braaaaaaains

An exercise in zombie mediocrity, Zack Snyder's "Army of the Dead" takes an interesting gimmick — a group of mercenaries try to rob millions from a Vegas vault before the living dead-compromised city is nuked — and somehow turns it into forgettable fare. While there are some inspired moments that will make you chuckle and/or look away from the screen in repulsion, the flick is predominantly braindead.

Watching a zombie movie or TV show, you enter into an unspoken contract with the creator, typically laid out in the first few scenes. Will these characters be grappling with old-school, slow-moving Romero-esque zombies? Or fast-running, "I Am Legend" and "28 Days Later"-type zombies? Can these members of the walking dead climb walls, a la "World War Z," or traverse water, a la "Land of the Dead"? Will decapitation finish them off, or do you still need to put a bullet through the brain? So many things to consider.

To keep their rancid flesh-eaters fresh, filmmakers will often introduce a new angle. The movie "Zoombies" gave us zombie monkeys, the original "Resident Evil" movie had Milla Jovovich fighting a zombie Doberman, and of course it's hard to top the zombie dragon from "Game of Thrones." As "Zombieland" showed us, the occasional celebrity-as-a-zombie cameo can also be fun, and "Dead Snow" gave us zombie Nazis. 'Nuff said.

In the opening scenes of "Army," Snyder lays out his rules of engagement. A military convoy transporting secret cargo from Area 51 gets overturned outside Las Vegas, the result of some fast-driving honeymooners who can't wait to consummate. From their cargo climbs a fast-moving, hand-to-hand combat-trained zombie who moves like Jason Bourne but looks like the guy who got hit by a car in "RoboCop." As one of the doomed soldiers from the convoy points out before being munched, this thing is hunting them.

One refreshing element about "Army of the Dead" is that it turns what would typically be the main focus of such a movie — the zombie apocalypse — into a "yada, yada." Instead, the audience gets some funky opening credits that depict (in Snyder-certified slo-mo) all the characters we'll soon meet chopping, slicing and blasting their way out of Vegas before the city gets walled in by storage containers.

Inside, the once-fabulous city of sin is wall-to-wall zombies. Outside the city limits, the rest of the world believes itself to be safe enough for the President to make plans to drop a nuclear bomb so we can all get on with our lives — and be sure that what happened in Vegas, stays in Vegas.

This is when we meet Scott Ward (Dave Bautista from the "Guardians of the Galaxy" films), a former mercenary-turned-fry-cook who is approached by casino owner Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada, "Mortal Kombat") with a chance to turn his life around. Scott is told that Tanaka's soon-to-be-nuked casino has a vault containing $200 million; if he can put together a team, sneak into Vegas and retrieve it, his team gets $50 million to split between them.

This being a film about Las Vegas, it seems only appropriate that we then get an "Ocean's 11"-type sequence where the team of eccentric experts is assembled. Among them: Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick from "Power") is a cerebral soldier; Maria (Ana de la Reguera, also from "Power") is Scott's tough sometimes-girlfriend; the Coyote (Nora Arnezeder from "Mozart in the Jungle") is a no-nonsense expert in sneaking people into the forbidden city, and Mikey Guzman (Raul Castillo from "Knives Out") is a YouTuber who posts videos of himself dispatching zombies with trickshots. Most memorable, however, is Dieter the safecracker ("Valkyrie" actor Matthias Schweighöfer), an eccentric bereft of weaponry skills, who seems as likely to open the safe as he is to make love to it.

Alpha blockers

Much of the joy in "Army" is something akin to driving past the aftermath of a surreal car crash. Snyder excels at bizarre imagery and the juxtaposition of joy and dread, a skill he's honed in films like "Watchmen," so after watching the film you're less likely to remember specific plot points than you are, say, a Liberace impersonator getting mauled or a celebratory slot machine winner being knocked to the ground and devoured, gold coins spilling out all over him.

But the movie's shortcomings are exposed whenever someone opens their mouth and words, not blood, comes spilling out. Bautista's character is little more than half Liam Neeson's "I have a very particular set of skills" and half Butch Cassidy's "They got horses in Australia, and thousands of miles of countryside that we can hide out in." Mix in a dash of fatherhood (Scott has an estranged daughter, played by Ella Purnell, who he reluctantly allows to tag along), and you have a protagonist Frankensteined together from other, better characters.

Which feels a bit like a metaphor for this film. Some plot points are so blatantly forecast that you wonder if it has to be intentional (Garret Dillahunt's Martin is inserted into the team last-minute by Tanaka, makes cryptic comments and never removes his sunglasses — could he have an ulterior motive?), the film treats its zombie animals (a horse, as well as a tiger left behind by Siegfried & Roy) like it's breaking daring new ground, and gags about elevator music, bad toupees, and deadly booby traps have been done better elsewhere. Other comments — like one about rain bringing back dried-out zombies — are never paid off.

The film wants its big leap forward to be the "alpha" zombies, which it describes as smarter, faster and organized. These are personified in the film by a zombie leader sometimes referred to as "Zeus," and a queen sometimes referred to as "Bride." The duo seem to be in love (they get close enough to sniff each other tenderly), she is pregnant(!), and they move with all the dexterity, skill and lethality of highly-trained ninjas. Zeus can organize and deploy the hordes at will, making him some kind of a zombie Patton.

The Zombiest place on Earth

This all feels a long way from the days when the reporter in 1968's "Night of the Living Dead" asked: "Are they slow-moving, chief?" and the cop replied, matter-of-factly: "Yeah. They're dead."

If a zombie moves, fights, plots and holds grudges like the villain in every other action movie, is it even still a zombie? Their traditional main motivation — the hunger — is so minimally addressed here that you wonder if it even applies. By the end of the movie, some protagonists are escaping in a helicopter — but rather than shrug and go look somewhere else for lunch, a zombie leaps from the roof of a casino, diving into the helicopter and leaving audiences to wonder: why?

This ambiguous motivation also extends to our heroes. Roughly 45 minutes before a nuclear bomb is going to be dropped on Vegas, two characters take a break from escaping to profess their love. Another runs off on her own little side mission. By the end, even the money itself is an afterthought.

In a movie filled with circular saw beheadings, crushed humans and blood-splattering scenes of carnage, the scariest thing in "Army of the Dead" might be Tig Notaro. The comedian replaced Chris D'Elia after the movie wrapped, filming all her scenes during the COVID-19 pandemic on a green screen set. She was then inserted into the film in a manner that feels clunkier than when George Lucas retconned Jabba the Hutt into "A New Hope."

While Notaro's helicopter pilot gets some funny lines, she never seems to be "in" the movie. Whenever she appears in a scene with others, there's a cloudy haze that surrounds her. Notaro's eyelines are sometimes only vaguely in the right direction, and when she converses with someone she seems to be talking "at" them, not with them. It's almost like she's haunting the film, a specter from some other movie with livelier dialogue.

It's a shame, because the film's central gimmick — "Kelly's Heroes" meets Romero — feels like a winner. But zombies have no reason to care that you're stealing money. Zombies have no reason to care that you're escaping. Zombies have no reason to care that you just killed another zombie. The only reason they're interested in you is that you can, momentarily, satiate their all-consuming desire to feast on human flesh. You can see how it would be tough to build a third act around that.

Welcome to zombie Las Vegas. Come for the cool shots of dilapidated casinos and luxury hotels ablaze, leave before the alpha zombie tries to avenge the death of someone who was already dead. It's a shame Zack Snyder couldn't have made a better zombie film, something along the lines of ... 2004's "Dawn of the Dead" remake, still his best movie. This one clocks in at a head-scratching 2 hours and 28 minutes, so one can only hope there isn't a Snyder Cut of "Army of the Dead" that we'll all have to watch four years from now.