It sounds like that old ad for Reese’s peanut butter cups: “You put a heist movie in my zombie film!” “You put a zombie thriller in my heist flick!” Yet “Army of the Dead” is more than the sum of its basted-together parts — barely. Exuberantly violent, clocking in at nearly 2½ hours, and available on Netflix, the movie’s the latest action megillah from director Zack Snyder, who’s still doing a victory lap after the recent release of his four-hour “Justice League” cut. The man does like them big.
Here he not only envisions an outbreak of the undead that consumes an entire American city — although Las Vegas might more properly be called a mugging with civic ordinances and a floorshow — but an attempt to steal $200 million from a safe in the basement of a hotel in the center of a ravening horde of flesh-eaters. Easy Peasy, in the words of the mysterious Mr. Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada), who says it’s his money and who has hired Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) to put together a crew for the heist. They have four days before the army drops a tactical nuke on the city.
Ward was a hero of the battle for Las Vegas, which ended with the few remaining humans evacuated and the city walled off with cargo containers. That conflict and the initial desert highway catastrophe that precedes it take up the long pre-title scenes of “Army of the Dead,” a sequence from which the movie never really recovers. The sight of zombie strippers, undead Elvis impersonators, and decaying casino gamblers dispatched in gruesome slo-mo style by Scott and other civilian warriors makes a statement on the American way of entertainment that may be only partially intended. Snyder can do shock humor, but he can’t really do irony, at least not the kind that stings.
Scott assembles the team in classic genre fashion: tough-but-tender Maria (Ana de la Reguera), who fought alongside him in the wars; Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), whose weapon of choice is a circular saw; ace zombie killer Guzman (Raúl Castillo); prissy German safecracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer); and so on. Stand-up comic Tig Notaro is refreshingly caustic as the pilot who’ll be steering the escape chopper, and Garret Dillahunt plays Tanaka’s inside man on the team, meaning he’s probably not to be trusted. For family conflict, Ward’s estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) is along for the ride. There are others, but they might as well be wearing Starfleet red shirts.
So “Army of the Dead” is overloaded from the get-go, with enough characters and clashes for a long-form TV series like Spain’s “Money Heist.” The script, by Snyder, Shay Hatten, and Joby Harold, structures the film as a series of action or suspense set-pieces periodically interrupted by dramatic moments that, time and again, let the air out of the film’s tires. Give us the heroes playing limbo through a ballroom crammed with hibernating zombies, and the movie is great pulpy fun. Whenever Scott and Kate start hashing out their issues in dialogue from a subpar family therapy session, you may want to check your watch.
Do you know one reason zombie movies are so popular, by the way? They let audiences indulge their blood lust on humans who aren’t really human. When Maria uses a rotary cannon in one scene to reduce an oncoming zombie to gobbets of flesh, it doesn’t really matter — it’s just a zombie! Curiously, “Army of the Dead” messes with the formula by positing two kinds of zombies: the usual proletarian shamblers and a higher race of “Alphas” led by a Manson-esque zombie king (Richard Cetrone) and his zombie showgirl queen (stuntwoman-actress Athena Perample). Are we meant to feel sympathy for these devils? Perhaps. As one character notes, “You don’t see the zombies [expletive]-ing each other over.”
Some films wear their length like an epic and some just wear you out; “Army of the Dead” tends increasingly toward the latter. But this is the first project to convince me that Bautista can hold down a movie and that he’s more than a chip off The Rock, and the film’s vision of a city built on sand and suckers but reduced to rotting cannibalism has a dark poetic pull. Why stop at a heist? Why not a zombie Vegas musical? You can call it “Ghouls and Dolls.”
ARMY OF THE DEAD
Directed by Zack Snyder. Written by Snyder, Shay Hatten, and Joby Harold. Starring Dave Bautista, Omari Hardwick, Ella Purnell, Tig Notaro. Available on Netflix. 148 minutes. R (strong bloody violence, gore and language throughout, some sexual content and brief nudity/graphic nudity).