'Army of the Dead' a successful return to zombie world for Zack Snyder

'DEAD' MEAT: From left, Raúl Castillo, Omari Harwick and Ana de la Reguera in "Army of the Dead." Clay Enos/Netflix

For the past decade, director Zack Snyder has been on an odyssey through the DC Comics cinematic universe, culminating with his final (for now?) "Snyderverse" installment, "Zack Snyder's Justice League." Now, he returns to his roots with the Vegas-set zombie heist movie "Army of the Dead." It's a homecoming for Snyder, as his feature directorial debut, 2004's "Dawn of the Dead," a remake of the George Romero classic, is hailed by many as his best work. The film is an evolution of and homage to his first feature, with direct references and a return to its snarky and cynical tone. Much like "Dawn," "Army of the Dead" is sarcastic, funny, shockingly bloody and almost unbearably bleak.

It's been awhile since Snyder was unencumbered by the mythologies of others: Sparta, Alan Moore, Gotham City, even Romero. With audiences not only familiar with, but downright fatigued by zombie tropes, Snyder, who co-wrote the film with Shay Hatten and Joby Harold, not only has permission to, but must play with the genre. He makes it a heist movie mashup, with zombies that are far more dangerous than the shambling, brain-eating undead. These zombies are apex predators; a tribe of fast, lethal beings ruled by a king and queen.

How Las Vegas ended up a walled city inhabited by zombies will be explored in Snyder's forthcoming anime series "Army of the Dead: Lost Vegas," but it's also perfectly laid out in an opening prologue and credits sequence that could be a film unto itself, introducing and killing off characters, illustrating the situation that finds Vegas four days away from a nuclear bomb, with scattered survivors and refugees confined to quarantine camps and ghost towns on the outskirts of the city.

Our hero, Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), former zombie killer now flipping burgers, is made an offer he can't refuse by Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada), a wealthy casino owner: breach the Vegas walls and retrieve the $200 million languishing in a casino vault and $50 million of it is his. Scott sets to assembling his team, a motley crew of specialists and hard-knock zombie survivalists.

"Army" follows "Dawn's" blueprint with its chatty, irreverent group of oddballs learning to work together to survive within a fixed location. (The entire cast is unbelievably compelling; each one of them a star.) The impending nuke adds a ticking clock factor to the increased danger, plus Snyder leans into the kitsch and camp of the Vegas setting, with zombified showgirls, Elvis impersonators, bachelor, bachelorette and bridal parties, a Siegfried & Roy tiger and lots of classic Vegas tunes.

The group is already well-versed in zombie mechanics, so Snyder can spend time placing them in clever scenarios (traversing a group of hibernating zombies is truly chilling) and experimenting with the rules of zombie lore as they work their way to the vault.

Beautifully photographed with naturalistic lighting, golden hour shots galore and lots of lens flare, "Army of the Dead" is a long way from the saturated, sickly green fluorescent-lit filter of "Dawn," but in the same way that "Dawn" feels incredibly of its post-9/11 era, "Army" feels of this moment too, and not just in the quarantine camps where temperature checks are frequent.

The zombie genre has always been a Trojan horse for talking about the ills that plague our society. While Snyder's "Dawn of the Dead" espouses an "us vs. them" mentality that was part of our cultural fabric and collective fear at the time, "Army of the Dead" is a film largely about the trauma that's left behind after the zombie invasion (or any mass death event), as the survivors reckon with what they've done and whether or not they've processed their grief and personal loss. Bautista allows that burden to weigh heavily on his frame and face, and despite the insane odds of his mission, which becomes more and more absurdly meaningless as it progresses, Scott still manages a sliver of hope.

In the realm of the mere mortal (and the undead), Snyder thrives. His zombie films are incredibly violent and desperately bleak, but there's something rather hopeful to be found in the sheer survival instincts of these flawed human beings who just want to stay alive in a terrible, terrible world for some reason. We can all relate.

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