'Army of the Dead': How Zack Snyder Made a Sympathetic Zombie Movie (Exclusive)
By John Boone
Army of the Dead is, in its own way, undead. Fanboy auteur Zack Snyder came up with the premise for an original zombie movie more than a decade ago -- years after breaking out with his Dawn of the Dead remake and before entering the DC superhero machine -- and passed the idea off to another writer to pen for a different director. That version was never brought to life, though it eventually made its way to Netflix, who approached Snyder about the prospect of making it.
"When the movie came back around, I literally said, 'I'm not even going to read the draft. I know the story,'" he tells ET's Ash Crossan. Working from memory, he speedily "banged out" his own version of the screenplay with co-writer Shay Hatten (John Wick: Chapter 3). "So, I made it fresh again for myself."
The logline is a stroke of high concept genius: A team plans to steal millions of dollars from a Las Vegas casino following the zombie apocalypse. It has all the thrills of a heist flick, with the stakes ratcheted up with the threat of a zombie attack. "I'm pretty clear on the zombie rules," Snyder grins. Working with his own original IP, however, he wanted to make sure the undead were Snyder-fied.
"One of the things I wanted to have happen was the audience to generate and to have some sympathy for the zombies, if it was possible," he explains. So, he made them smarter, capable of organizing, with individual backstories. And then he started butchering them. "That's how I was trying to get the audience to momentarily at least go, like,'Oh, that's not cool!' That was part of what was motivating how we evolve them."
Lest you mistake this for some overly cerebral character study, as actor Matthias Schweighöfer puts it, "It's action-driven, thriller-driven, horror-driven, comedy-driven, drama-driven, and you have very intelligent zombies and a zombie freaking tiger."
To fill out his elite team of zombie hunters, Snyder recruited the likes of Omari Hardwick, Ana de la Reguera, Raúl Castillo and Ella Purnell, to be led by Dave Bautista. There was only one problem: Signing on to Army of the Dead meant Bautista wouldn't be able to join his Guardians of the Galaxy director, James Gunn, on The Suicide Squad.
"The decision was heartbreaking. The conversation with James Gunn was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do in my career, because this is a man who is not only a friend but who had faith in me and he not only changed the trajectory of my career, but he also changed the trajectory of my life, because he had faith in me. To go to him and tell him that I can't do this film and I can't do the role that he wrote for me? It hurts my heart even thinking about," the actor says.
The chance to lead Army of the Dead proved too enticing to pass up, however, and Gunn agreed. (Bautista refuses to reveal which Squad member was written for him out of respect for the actor who replaced him. "He earned that role and I'm sure he's going to crush it.")
Army of the Dead had to contend with its own replacement, when Snyder un-cast comedian Chris D'Elia amid allegations of sexual misconduct and tapped Tig Notaro to replace him. The reshoot process required filming all of Notaro's footage with green screens and then digitally inserting her into the finished film, not just in sequences in which her character has dialogue but any moment she would appear even peripherally in group shots. "At the end of my shoot, he presented me with a fake Oscar for Best Out of Focus Background Actor," Notaro recalls.
She was also rewarded by trending on Twitter upon the trailer's launch, based on a shot of her pouring gasoline into a helicopter while smoking a cigarillo and wearing aviator sunglasses. "It went away as quickly as it arrived and things are back to normal," she shrugs. "I'm feeding kids and reminding my wife from time to time that I am #HotTig. But she said she's known that for years."
The rest of the ensemble, meanwhile, enrolled in a zombie bootcamp, where they were trained by actual Navy Seals to master the skills required to survive an outbreak. Those skills are tested and then some over the course of the movie's two-and-a-half-hour runtime, as our team shoots, stabs, splatters and otherwise slays their way through the hordes of undead. All to get to the vault containing hundreds of millions of dollars -- and the Snyder Cut.
Yes, inside the vault inside Army of the Dead is an Easter egg, of sorts, with film canisters containing the director's previously unreleased cut of Justice League. "It was my idea to do, of course, because I'm crazy," Snyder explains. This was well before HBO Max would commission and release Zack Snyder's Justice League. "At that point, that's exactly where the movie was: Locked in a vault."
This movie, meanwhile, is Snyder's undiluted vision, and the only footage left on the cutting room floor is what he himself decided to cut. Like, an outtake from the film's title sequence -- which documents the fall of Vegas in gore-filled glee -- that showed a male stripper with a bite taken out of his penis. "I really wanted to go The Full Monty of Vegas, if you will," Snyder teases. But in the first 15 minutes, he realized, "'Maybe it's early in the movie for this for your average viewer.' But it was fun to shoot anyway!" God forbid we start another Snyder Cut campaign, but we need to see that. Snyder smiles.
"I can probably arrange that."
Army of the Dead is in select theaters and streaming on Netflix on May 21.