The best part of Zack Snyder’s uneven but largely enjoyable undead epic is the mini-movie rolled into its opening credits, and it’s worth a mini-review of its own. “Army of the Dead” opens as a brawny reanimated corpse bursts out of military captivity and infects the entire city of Las Vegas. Ever the maximalist ringmaster, Snyder unleashes a rollicking slo-mo montage of zombified revelers enacting a bloody takedown of Sin City as not one but two covers of “Viva Las Vegas” follow the action in an operatic swell of chaos that shifts from dark comedy to wartime pandemonium. Self-serious mythologizing made Snyder’s four-hour “Justice League” cut a slog; here, he gives way to a zanier style in tune with the material at hand.
Mercenaries stream into the deadly streets, guns a-blazing, as the ghoulish creatures multiply and tear into their attackers. Without a single introductory line, Snyder establishes a half-dozen warriors tasked with corralling the zombies into the center of the city, just in time for a wall of crates to keep them in. Tragedy strikes a few members of the team as the camera pans up to reveal a sea of ghouls pressing through every inch of their dusty, hellish habitat. The monstrous being who started it all parades about his apocalyptic kingdom as the shocked survivors confront the trauma that followed them out the door. Now that’s entertainment!
Macabre, funny, and even a touch sad, this concise prelude is Snyder’s most satisfying piece of filmmaking in the 17 years since he made his directorial debut with a remake of “Dawn of the Dead.” Alas, nothing in the ensuing two-plus-hours rises to that same level of payoff — but Snyder sure goes for it, and “Army of the Dead” makes it fun to watch him chase that goofball energy.
Zombie tropes serve as a springboard for a pulpy B-movie writ large, one that merges the gun-wielding machismo of “The Expendables” with a plot lifted from the “Ocean’s” EU. At its center is disgraced mercenary Scott (Dave Bautista, who excels at sensitive meatheads). In the aftermath of the so-called “zombie wars,” Scott’s a short-order cook who wonders what he got out of risking his neck for the world other than a dead wife and estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell).
Enter Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada), a billionaire casino magnate who tasks Scott with a risky payday that might make up for everything: Sneak into the zombie-ridden city to snag $200 million hidden in a vault beneath the strip in the 32 hours before the U.S. drops a nuke on the whole town. It’s 2021 and the latest “Fast and Furious” movie goes to space, so this premise is practically naturalistic.
Cue the montages! Scott rounds up his team starting with his original gang, romantic interest Ana (Maria Cruz), and heady badass Vanderhoe (Omari Hardwick). Also aboard are a kooky German locksmith (Matthias Schweighofer), the no-bullshit helicopter pilot tasked with getting them out (Tig Notaro, the key comic relief who somehow has no memorable lines), and sharpshooter Mikey (Raúl Castillo, whose Latino zombie-killing marksman deserves a spinoff). There are also the obligatory “slimy bad guys” in the form of an violent police officer (Burt Cummings) and an enigmatic security agent (Garrett Dillahunt) who seems to have a different agenda than the extraction mission at hand. And in the midst of all this, Scott’s daughter insists she come along for the ride to rescue some friends, ensuring some treacly father-daughter talks shoehorned into the drama along the way.
Lily (Nora Arnezeder) serves as the coyote who knows her way around getting smugglers in and out of the city, and she exists to explain key aspects of the plot as the stakes grow scarier: Once inside the city, the group learns that a whole bunch of these zombies can think, communicate, and even outfox human interlopers because, hey, we’ve seen slow-moving stumbling corpses in enough movies, right?
There’s also a zombie tiger inspired by Carole Baskin’s big cats and a zombie couple with an apparent sex life, though Snyder leaves some of those curious details off-camera. Stop and think too hard and “Army of the Dead” risks falling apart, but Snyder keeps a pace in which logic often feels like a lost cause.
And so does purpose. George Romero envisioned his own walled city for “Land of the Dead;” that one kept the zombies out, resulting in a wry metaphor for class warfare. Snyder’s zombies might think and run to shake things up, but they aren’t placeholders for anything other than the scary-fun of watching their mangled corpses wreak gory havoc. It becomes clear that even the most charismatic heroes might not make it to the end of the journey — the cast is too big to leave much in the way of survivors — and this simple point gives each undead encounter its eerie, visceral thrill.
Snyder’s internal rules leave a lot of lingering questions (which the planned prequel series and feature could address) about how these zombies operate within their hierarchy. Terrifying overlord Zeus (Richard Cetrone, who growls and hisses his way through a demonic non-performance) seems like he wandered out of “Army of Darkness,” which may hint at a homage in this movie’s title — but we never learn much about him beyond “kill people and build zombie army.”
That works for a self-aware movie all too eager to poke fun at its own boundaries, as when Scott interrupts a planning session to explain the usual “shoot the head, kill the ghoul” lesson to his peers. But “Army of the Dead” tries to have things both ways: We all know we’re here to see militant crazies go toe-to-toe with the walking dead, so occasional flashes of more complex details are never fully realized.
Whatever: It’s a wild rush to watch these carefree fighters careen through an open casino firing bullets galore, and there’s a devilish glee in all those heads twisted and crushed with cartoonish vigor, not to mention various other inventive set pieces. (Did you know that zombies sleep standing up? Now imagine sneaking through them.) “Army of the Dead” leads to a climactic image that blends vast destruction with profound personal loss, and it’s powerful enough to show how much substance was missing in the breezy ride leading up to it.
Still, it’s hard not to credit Snyder — who served as his own cinematographer and co-wrote the screenplay — with pushing this genre in ambitious directions. Following the overextended swings of his “Justice League” cut, there’s no other director pushing the crassest pop-culture tropes to new directions at scale. Even with constant dissonance between the density of the storytelling and the silliness of the material, “Army of the Dead” doesn’t lose touch with the elements that make it go down easy.
Discerning viewers may have more than a few questions as the movie heads toward a cliffhanger that promises the franchise around the corner, but the bulk of “Army of the Dead” is self-explanatory. It’s a blockbuster that funnels the appeal of big-budget action and horror with an almost sacred reverence for the material. That’s absurd, but Snyder’s a true believer in go-for-broke escapism and at its best, the mayhem in “Army of the Dead” is an infectious zombie bite of its own.
Netflix will release “Army of the Dead” in theaters and on its streaming platform on Friday, May 21.