If Zack Snyder’s Justice League was a belated button on the so-called SnyderVerse, the director’s next project – zombie heist Army of the Dead – feels like the first confident steps of a fledgling franchise.
Army of the Dead sees Dave Bautista’s Scott Ward assemble a motley crew of mechanics, mercenaries, and helicopter pilots to gather $200m dollars tucked away in businessman Bly Tanaka’s (Hiroyuki Sanada) zombie-ravaged Las Vegas casino. It marries the shrapnel-filled sensibilities of run-and-gun action movies against the peril of a zombie thriller in a way that is sure to enrapture Snyder fans new and old.
"In this movie, I’m a little more genre self-aware than I was when I made Dawn," Snyder tells GamesRadar+ over Zoom, referring to his debut directorial effort, the 2004 remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. "Dawn was really specifically about what made Dawn of the Dead, the Romero movie, good or interesting. And anytime I push the edges, it was just pushing the edges of that particular movie and that genre."
Snyder calls Army of the Dead a "bigger exploration in genre" – with some interesting touchstones from the annals of movie history. "I’m really referencing these movies like Planet of the Apes, Escape from New York, Aliens, The Thing, Die Hard – these seminal genre films and what makes them work," he says.
Brains and brawn
Bautista, who along with his fellow actors spent a week training with Navy SEALs in preparation for the role, found a form of professional belonging in his role as Scott Ward. The character juggles the sensitive estranged relationship with his daughter, Kate, as well as the machismo of putting a permanent end to legions of the undead. What could have been a caricature is given considerably more depth thanks to the Guardians of the Galaxy actor.
"It’s been quite a chore searching out those roles that would afford me the opportunity to really showcase that side of my performance," Bautista admits. "But I really lucked out. Because in this film, I get a character who did have that kind of A-to-Z emotional range."
Snyder, for his part, is all-in on Bautista as a bonafide leading man. "When I saw him in [Blade Runner 2049], I was like, ‘OK, this guy can do anything,’" Snyder says. "If you look at Dave, if you're with him physically in the same room, that guy is legitimately intimidating in his size and his demeanor and everything. But there is a sort of a vulnerability that he has, and I told him, ‘This character has this profound sadness about him’ and he's like: ‘No problem’…He was excited and completely accepting."
The feeling, for Bautista, is mutual: "I had a director who just gave me so much freedom to dive even deeper into it, and make Scott Ward even more of an emotional, richer character than when he was on page."
It’s that loose, egalitarian approach that resonates most with the entire cast. Army of the Dead, most notably, doesn’t feel made-by-committee and, instead, revels in its ensemble’s ideas and strengths – even mid-production.
"Omari and me talked about what kind of movies we loved and we start with Lethal Weapon and we said this could be our own Mel Gibson/Danny Glover thing," Matthias Schweighöfer, who plays wisecracking safecracker Dieter, says of his on-screen double act with Omari Hardwick’s more stoic Vanderohe. "And we looked at Zack and Zack did a [thumbs up]: ‘That's great. Do that.’ So that was the start and the rest is history."
Not only was there a degree of improvisation to certain scenes that is fairly uncommon in big blockbusters ("There's no such thing as failure in Zack’s world," another member of the ensemble, Nora Arnezeder, notes), but the director refreshingly removes the testosterone-filled emphasis on wide-necked male action stars.
"Shout out to Zack for equally allowing the world to see women in that space," Hardwick, who plays Scott’s old war buddy, Vanderohe, says. "That was a moment for me that I realized we're doing something pretty special here. He's making everybody look like a hero."
Ironically for a film about the undead, Army of the Dead allows Snyder to do what he does best: build a living, breathing world where new and diverse voices find the space to have their stories told. On top of the main attraction, prequels are already planned. Army of Thieves, directed by and starring Schweighöfer and co-starring Game of Thrones alumni Nathalie Emmanuel, has wrapped filming. Alongside that is Lost Vegas, an animated series which fleshes out several of the main cast’s earlier years. Netflix, it seems, is willing to pay out the big bucks to keep Snyder’s franchise rolling.
For Schweighöfer, the live-action prequel presents an exciting opportunity. Following in the footsteps of Zack Snyder, who Schweighöfer calls "one of the biggest directors and visionaries in the world", is no mean feat. But he’s up for the challenge – and is talking up his movie in a big way.
"This will be a heist film and it will be a very, very big one with scenes you’ve never seen before," Schweighöfer says, adding that the project is in the "last days" of editing the project.
Ana De La Reguera, whose character Maria Cruz takes part in the off-screen ‘Zombie Wars’ with Bautista’s Ward and Hardwick’s Vanderohe years prior to the movie, teases that the animated series will give further context to the characters and enrich any future Army of the Dead rewatch.
"You'll see a lot of our backstory, how everything started, what was our relationship, what we used to do before. You’ll get more context of our characters," de la Reguera says. "And I'm excited about that. Because then you see the movie again, you'll understand a lot more – more of the story and more of the relationship between them."
That sort of built-in franchise, with natural spinoffs and side stories sprouting out from the Sin City-set showpiece, feels like something it could only work with the hands-off style of Netflix. Snyder reveals that the streamer bet big where his former studio Warner Bros. – who he worked with on, Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Justice League – wouldn’t.
"Could this movie be made by a studio and released by a studio?" Snyder ponders. "The truth is, Netflix is one of the biggest studios in the world; they push a button and 200 million people have this movie in their living room. That’s a pretty powerful distribution platform."
Yet, the spectre of Snyder’s former paymasters still looms large. Army of the Dead was once floated at Warners, but was ultimately left in limbo until Netflix snapped up the rights. It’s something that clearly still rankles with the director.
"Warner Bros. couldn’t figure out how to make this movie," Snyder laments. "They had it for years, and they couldn’t figure out how to make it. I had one meeting with Netflix and they were like ‘Of course, make it immediately’…It’s not a hard movie to say it’s got possible commercial value."
From Netflix, to the players of the piece who are on the cusp of becoming household names, and even Snyder himself, Army of the Dead feels like the perfect fit at the perfect time. It’s fertile ground where actors can grow without fear of failure, an embattled director can flourish away from studio confines, and Netflix even gets its own money-spinning franchise to play with.
On this evidence, the smart money is on Snyder to cash in on Army of the Dead’s undoubted potential for the next few years and leave the Snyder Cut a bright, burning memory of what once was and what could have been. Our tip to Netflix? Put it all on Zack.