After releasing his own cut of Justice League, director Zack Snyder, returns with a long-gestating project (yes, even longer than his own vision of Justice League). Called Army of the Dead, the idea started in 2007 and languished in development hell until Netflix picked up distribution rights in 2019.
Described as a zombie heist film, Army of the Dead follows Dave Bautista’s character, Scott Ward, who puts together a team to retrieve USD200 million from a casino vault. The snag? That casino sits in the middle of a closed-off Las Vegas that’s now inhabited by zombies. The other snag? They have to race against the clock in stealing the money before the military destroys the city with a nuclear strike.
We spoke to Snyder and Bautista about their time on Army of the Dead.
Making Army of the Dead
ZACK SNYDER: [With Army] I was trying to reconnect with the joy of making movies. Even in the process of making as the director, DP (director of photography) and camera operator, it felt like a complete cinematic immersion for me. Not to mention that even a sort of deep dive into the genre—whether it be the tropes—it’s a sort of a love letter to movies in general. That’s kinda the ‘why’ I made it.
DAVE BAUTISTA: I feel like right now Army of the Dead is the perfect movie at the perfect time. [Personally,] it establishes me as a very solid lead because there are so many layers to Scott Ward. There are not many opportunities where an actor, especially an actor like myself, who not only get to play a badass but also gets to play a father who just wants to redeem himself and reconnect with his daughter. I feel like I’ve really accomplished a lot in this film.
I hope people embrace this film as much as I love it. I've watched it numerous times and every time I watch it I come away feeling better and better about it. The first time I watched a film I always dissect my performance and I’d go down that rabbit hole where I'm thinking about all this stuff and thinking about the choices I would have made. But the second time I watch it, it’s more as a fan. I’m more open-minded and I don't just critique my performance.
Ex-Trump White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer
ZACK: I needed pundits for the film and, I think, Donna Brazile [a political analyst who appeared in Army of the Dead] goes, Oh you should get Sean to do the other part. I wasn’t sure but we contacted him and he was up for appearing in the film.
You don’t realise it but there’s a whole culture of pundits who know each other outside of what they do. Right? Like after they argue on a talk show, when the cameras stopped filming, they'll be like hey, that was crazy, we should go get a coffee.
Working with Dave Bautista
ZACK: I went for Dave because he has this incredible sort of vulnerability. He’s huge. Clearly, you get that, he could be formidable but, in the end, he's kind of a broken dude who just wants to fix this relationship with his daughter. He’s fucked up and he wants redemption. I saw that sort of sadness and vulnerability [in Dave] that I knew he could pull off. And he did, without sacrificing his believability as a leader of a gang of zombie killers.
Working with Zack Snyder
DAVE: I knew it would be amazing working with him. He first caught my attention with 300 and then when I watched Watchmen, I started appreciating him as an artist and what he sees visually. That was what made me want to work with Zack initially.
But when I first met him, we talked about different projects and there was Army of the Dead but I wasn't actually interested at all because I thought it was just going to be another action film. All I knew was that it was a zombie heist film. It was until I read the script and I thought, this is really great. I had a conversation with Zack about what he wanted to do, how he saw the film visually, how he saw Scott Ward and what freedom he was willing to give me to play him.
The emotional scenes
DAVE: That's always the challenge for me but it's also why I love acting. The action stuff, for me, that’s predictable. You’d expect me to do something like that… but you wouldn't expect me to be an emotional guy who's trying to redeem himself with his daughter. That's the great thing about this film is that it has layers because if you only have all action, it's exhausting. If you have too much drama then it becomes depressing. This film keeps track in the middle.
Same with wrestling. During a match, you take people on a roller coaster ride—peaks and valleys, peaks and valleys—so that's what this film does.
Creating the set
ZACK: We couldn't get into an actual casino in Vegas so what we did was we went to Atlantic City and we got these abandoned casinos that no longer have their gaming licenses. We brought in all of our own slot machines and recreated the casino from scratch. But it was fun shooting in Atlantic City because it's like a miniature Vegas anyway.
The film’s ending
DAVE: It’s such a great ending because, in a very short time, it sets up a story going forward. I love how the ending is portrayed and the performance and it’s an ending that leaves you wanting more. It’s such good storytelling that just made me want to see more about this universe and that's not easily accomplished. If they had gone with the finish of my character’s story, that would have been a good ending but it wouldn’t have been a great ending.
Even the beginning of that whole opening title sequence is laid out beautifully. It's something that you're not expecting to happen. I thought the music choice was just perfect and it left me in such an emotional place.
The opening credits
ZACK: That’s a nod to Annie Liebowitz style of portraiture. It’s an abstraction of them from their normal lives that have nothing to do with the military or anything. They're just normal people who happened to pick up guns during a zombie apocalypse and started shooting. [During that opening credits, there’s a focus on] Danielle Burgio's character, Soccer Mom The whole idea about her is if you anticipate liking and growing attached to a character… yeah, don't do that. That's a mistake in being attached to a character because you don't know what's going to happen. Just in the design of the whole title sequence is that it’s meant to feel like a lark. This is gonna be just fun. I don't have to care that much. Oh, this cool soccer mom kicking ass. This is hilarious. Then, when you get to the end of that open, you realised that it’s kind of a metaphor as to what the movie is all about. It might feel fun, killing zombies but, before you know it, you're getting kicked in the nuts emotionally.
The rules of the zombie genre
ZACK: In remaking Dawn of the Dead, the only thing we changed was that zombies can kind of move quickly. That was the only really real change we've made to the rules about zombies. Otherwise, it’s pretty standard: you get bit and depending on how bad the bite is it might take a while to turn but eventually you will be a zombie. And the only way to kill a zombie is to shoot it in the head. Those rules we kept when we did Army of the Dead. But we added slight subtleties: if you get bitten by Zeus [the head zombie], you turn into an Alpha, if you’re bitten by an Alpha, you turn into a Shambler [commonplace zombie].
I saw the Alphas with the same social habits of a wolf pack: they can interact with one another but you're not going to be able to reason with them or gain sympathy from them. One of my main goals was getting you to be sympathetic for the zombies. I thought that would be a fun trick if I could pull it off. The best monster movies are the ones where you show compassion for the monster. Your conventional zombie movie makes that difficult because they’re not meant to represent an individual point of view.
Army of the Dead is now available on Netflix.