It won't take you long to warm to Zack Snyder's "Army of the Dead." All it took for me was the sight of a zombie Elvis impersonator.
Equal parts hysterical and deadly, the bloody-mouthed, jumpsuit-wearing King in the opening credits is the perfect touch to a joyously violent film that takes a vanilla heist flick and sets it inside a Las Vegas that has suffered a zombie apocalypse. The song playing over those credits is, of course, "Viva Las Vegas."
Snyder is in many ways returning to his undead roots — before "Justice League" and "300" he remade "Dawn of the Dead" — but this time he's added to zombie lore while adding some social commentary along with his trademark gleefully over-the-top violence.
The plot stitches old and new ideas yet somehow feels fresh: In the near-future, Las Vegas is a walled-off zone given over to the undead, which really isn't too far off from what it is. The government plans to use a tactical nuclear weapon to wipe them out, once and for all.
But a group of former military heroes are persuaded to get into the city and steal $200 million from a casino vault before the city is vaporized. "Try not to get nuked or murdered by the undead," they are warned.
The group is led by a mountain of man named Scott Ward, played by "Guardians of the Galaxy's" Dave Bautista. Despite being a war hero, he's flipping burgers for a living and needs little coaxing. He then assembles a team of oddballs that includes Tig Notaro as a helicopter pilot and Matthias Schweighöfer as a safecracker, both providing comic relief.
"We'll probably die," Ward says. "Some of us at least."
The group needs to sneak into the city and that's when the script by Snyder, Shay Hatten and Joby Harold gets sly. They rely on a smuggling coyote to skulk into a walled-off American city, one of several moments that lift the material. Sean Spicer and Donna Brazile debating immigration on TV is another. And the use of temperature guns to check if zombie-fication is happening is a prescient nod to the pandemic Snyder could not have known was coming.
The Vegas that the group enters is a freaky funhouse that the filmmakers have filled with 2,500 plastic skeletons. The zombies wear an alarming amount of rhinestones and ripped clothing. But they're awfully fun to mow down (remember, kids, always aim for the head). Here the film makes lively nods to "Escape from New York," "The Matrix," "Aliens" and "Planet of the Apes."
In addition to the zombie Elvis impersonator, there's a zombie bride still wearing her veil and a zombie horse, but the Zack Snyder Hall of Fame Cool Deal is a zombie tiger. And it is glorious. (The filmmakers even visited Carole Baskin's Big Cat Rescue of then-future "Tiger King" fame to make their computer critter more believable.)
To this world, Snyder has added a kind of zombie hierarchy. There are mindless Shamblers — think the target-practice "Walking Dead" zombies — and there are Alphas, led by a king and queen, who can think, love, hunt, mourn and presumably whip up organic recipes for human flesh. These are the ones you want to avoid. (Snyder in the film's prologue indicates the top Alpha was a creation of Area 51.) And there seem to be hints of robotic zombies. Sleep well, kids!
There is a perverse joy to watching growling zombies on a casino floor, doing parkour on the roulette tables, and then watching bullets whizz through their brains with a burst of blood. They die in so many ways beyond head-kills: knife through skull, being burst between two armored doors, decapitated with a garrote.
Snyder, who also shot the film, is in a winking mood here — The Cranberries' "Zombie" is featured and Culture Club's "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me" plays in an elevator after a huge bloody scene. Also look for playful references to Medusa, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, "Apocalypse Now," Sodom and Gomorrah, Joseph Campbell and Richard Wagner. Zombie flicks have never felt more intellectual.
Expertly paced and with top-notch special effects, "Army of the Dead" is a popcorn zombie movie for our time. Long live the undead.
"Army of the Dead," a Netflix release, is rated R for some sexual content, gore, language throughout, graphic nudity and strong bloody violence. Running time: 148 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.