It’s a little surreal to think back to visiting the Army of the Dead set. It was 2019, just a handful of months before the COVID-19 pandemic would strike. Nerdist joined multiple outlets on set. Ironically, the film deals with its own outbreak, of the zombie variety. Going over notes all this time later, it’s almost spooky how suddenly relevant the movie seems. Especially as it lingered in development hell for more than a decade.
But now, Army of the Dead is just a month shy of release on Netflix. And soon, others will see for themselves how timely the film is. It’s also an important movie for zombie fans and Zack Snyder fans, as it marks the director’s return to the genre that helped him burst on the scene years ago. The film puts a new spin on the traditional zombie film. If it lives up to the exciting things we saw on set, we’re all in for a delightful treat this May.
Here are 17 things we learned about Army of the Dead on set.
Army of the Dead is Zack Snyder’s big return to the zombie genre.
Like I said up top, Army of the Dead sees Zack Snyder’s return to zombie films following his feature film debut with Dawn of the Dead back in 2004. That film was a remake of George Romero’s film of the same name, itself a sequel to Night of the Living Dead. Army of the Dead isn’t a sequel, but he developed the idea for it back in 2007.
“We are such fans of the genre, Zack obviously loves the genre, and he was inspired after doing Dawn [of the Dead] to kind of come up with this,” Army of the Dead producer Deborah Snyder (Zack’s wife) told us on set. That version of the film never came to fruition. But a few years ago, Zack got the idea to return to the script and make it his own.
“I said to Zack the other day, it feels super timely that we’re making it now because I think a lot of the concepts are more relevant today,” Deborah explained. “And I think with the popularity of the zombie genre—and we’ve had so much with The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead—-to up the ante and to mash it with a heist movie is super cool.”
Zack Snyder is also director of photography on the film.
In addition to serving as director, producer, and screenwriter on Army of the Dead, Zack Snyder is also the cinematographer.
“He was a director of photography for many years in commercials, and he loves to operate,” Deborah said. “But as the movies got bigger, he was like, ‘I miss the intimacy.’ So he decided on this one, he was like, ‘I’m gonna be the DP too and go back to my roots.'”
“It’s the greatest thing ever,” actor Theo Rossi explained of how this helped with performances, too. “He’s right here. He’s like right there […] It feels like family because everything’s so intimate. Even on these giant set pieces, he’s right there.”
“I think this, for me, is [a] 100% organic experience where I can take hold of it as a filmmaking process, as a writing process, photographically, directing, all the things,” Zack explained. “It’s a joy to get up and work on. There’s no real politics, there’s no real anything other than just make the movie as cool as you can, that’s it. In that way, it’s super refreshing and inspiring.”
The title is an homage to Romero.
Zack confirmed the title is an homage to Romero, who ignited the modern zombie genre.
“It has to be ‘of the dead,'” he explained. “People have asked me, like, ‘Oh is it a sequel?” And I’m like, ‘No, it’s a zombie movie.’ And they’re, like, ‘Well, what does that mean?’ It’s ‘of the dead, it’s something of the dead.’ It happens to be an army in this case.”
The film is a “deconstruction” of the zombie genre.
Army of the Dead follows a group of mercenaries who carry out a heist in a Las Vegas casino in the aftermath of a zombie outbreak. That sounds like a fun mash-up of genres on its own, but it’s more than that.
“Zack, as you guys all know, [is] a fan of genre,” producer Wesley Coller told us. “He’s a fan of heist genres, and he’s a fan of zombie genres. But he’s also he’s fearless in his willingness to find all the tropes, lean into the tropes, unpack the tropes, deconstruct them, turn them all around.”
Zack also referred to the film as a “deconstruction” of genre, citing films like Escape from New York, Aliens, and Robocop as major inspirations. “In that way I think the movie has been slightly complicated in the rendering of that sort of tone, that idea of it,” he said. “But it’s really fun and rewarding.”
The zombie outbreak started in Area 51.
When we first got to set, Deborah and Coller walked us through the plot of the movie. Deborah explained that Army of the Dead picks up six years after a zombie outbreak, which originated in Area 51. (“Read into that what you may,” Coller joked.) Does that mean aliens are involved, or was it something else? They didn’t say, and my guess is the movie won’t really specify either.
The outbreak has been contained in Las Vegas.
In the world of the film, the government was able to contain the zombie outbreak to nearby Las Vegas. How did they do so? By building a wall. Deborah explained that the wall concept was part of the original script back in 2007.
The government decides to nuke the city and stop the outbreak once and for all. This coincides with the heist storyline, where a group of mercenaries led by Dave Bautista‘s Scott Ward, plan to enter the city and secure money from a casino at the behest of its owner, Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada). That lends Army of the Dead a time-crunch element; our “heroes” have to get in, get the money, and get out, all before the bomb goes off, and all while fighting off zombies.
The Vegas element also gives the movie a super fun setting. We’ll get to see zombie Elvises and zombie Cirque de Soleil performers and zombie tourists. We even get to see a zombie tiger.
The zombie tiger is one of Siegfried & Roy’s.
The recent trailer for Army of the Dead ends with the team running into a zombie tiger. Deborah explained to us on set that the tiger is actually one of Siegfried & Roy’s prized cats. “One our characters has a demise with the tiger and it’s a really fun action sequence that we just shot the other day,” she said.
There are two types of zombies: Alphas and Shamblers.
Speaking of zombies and Army of the Dead’s intent on deconstructing the genre, one of the cooler elements we learned about is the concept of Alpha zombies. The Alphas, led by a character named Zeus, started the outbreak. And they’re not your average zombies; they’re intelligent and also more conscious than Shamblers, which the film will also feature. Shamblers are the more generic zombies we’re all used to—the bumbling, brain dead sort.
“When [Zeus] bites you, we get other Alphas,” Deborah explained. “If they bite you, it gets kind of gets weaker and weaker, and we get Shamblers.”
“I thought it’d be cool if there was a way to have a little bit of sympathy for the bad guy,” Zack told us. “They don’t talk or anything. But they can organize. Zeus […] rides a horse. He has, like, a staff. And he’s probably the smartest of all of them. Whether he has hopes and dreams I’m not sure.”
Deborah also explained that the Alphas are considered at a myth. “At the time of the war [six years ago at the beginning of the zombie outbreak], there were only a few [Alphas], obviously. And then once they contain it, we realize that they’re building an army of these Alphas.” Hence the Army of the Dead of the title.
Army of the Dead was filmed in New Mexico and Atlantic City.
Though the film takes place mostly in Las Vegas and the surrounding area, it was filmed in New Mexico and Atlantic City. We visited the Atlantic City set, where filming took place in a show room that was converted into a casino. As Deborah told us, the slot machines on set were imported and would eventually go back into circulation. They were also under the safeguard of the New Jersey Gaming Association, who were on set to keep an eye on the machines.
Dave Bautista plays a father estranged from his daughter.
Dave Bautista anchors the film as Scott Ward, a military man who helped fight in the original zombie war. He had his own food truck and family, but lost both during the initial outbreak. This puts him at odds with his estranged daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell), who works in a refugee camp outside the city.
“There are so many different layers to this film,” Bautista told us during our chat. “There [are] a lot of relationship things going on. There’s a lot of heartbreak in this film.”
Ana de la Reguera plays Scott’s love interest.
Ana de la Reguera plays a character named Cruz, who is a “war veteran,” as she explained. She’s also a love interest for Scott.
“We’re kind of the original team,” she said of their relationship. “And then we put together this new team, because we already fought zombies before. So we’re the experienced ones. And yeah, we have a long history. Me and Kate, too. I’ve known her since she was a baby. I have a body shop and I have cars, so I’m also the driver in some of the scenes. My character… what she loves the most is the adrenaline.”
Theo Rossi plays a bad guy.
We also had a long chat with Theo Rossi, who spoke highly of working with Zack Snyder and Dave Bautista. He also explained that his character—Burt Cummings, a border patrol officer—is a bad guy. (“I mean, really the name says everything you need to know about this guy,” he joked.)
“He’s a character that thinks he has more responsibility than he does,” Rossi told us. “And that spotlights every bit of emotion that’s in him. His fear of who he is. His insecurities.” He also told us that he gets up close and personal with zombies in the film. “I am pretty well versed in the Alphas and the Shamblers in every way. And they are a sight to see.”
Raúl Castillo plays a YouTuber.
Army of the Dead intends to weave real-world commentary into the film. That means having some fun with the characters on the heist team. One unique member is Mikey Guzman, played by Raúl Castillo. Guzman is a YouTuber and influencer who’s made a name for himself online with his videos featuring impressive zombie kills. He’s also a Las Vegas native, unlike the other characters in the film.
“I feel like in some ways I’ve been rehearsing for this film since I was a boy,” Castillo told us. “So much of what we get to do in the film is stuff I was infatuated with as a kid. Getting to do the action stuff… a lot of it was new for me, so that was fun. I learned a whole new skill set.”
Samantha Win, who started in stunts in Zack Snyder films, has a role.
Another character associated with Guzman in the film is Chambers, played by Samantha Win. Win has actually worked with Zack on all of his films since Sucker Punch, where she was a stunt double for Jena Malone. The Canadian actress and martial artist used to perform in international wushu tournaments before her roles in films like Man of Steel. She also appeared as Euboea, an Amazon, in Wonder Woman and Justice League.
“I’ve always thought that he was so visually talented with his work,” Win told us of her work with Zack Snyder. “But it’s amazing the way that he understands choreography and body movements. I feel like Zack particularly has such a good eye for posturing and for strength of the body and he can showcase that in a really beautiful way. You can see that all the way back to 300. He has such an appreciation for the human body.”
Nora Arnezeder plays the Coyote.
French actress Nora Arnezeder also has a unique role in Army of the Dead. She plays Lily, also known as the Coyote. Like Kate, she works in the refugee camps, and escorts people into Las Vegas, a place she knows very well. She has something of a serious disposition. But though she appears badass, Arnezeder corrected us on that.
“She’s not a badass, she’s a survivor, which is way more interesting,” she said. “She’s very human and she does everything for others.”
The cast is incredibly diverse.
As you can tell from the notes about the cast, Netflix and Zack assembled a really fantastic international team for the film.
“It made sense to me to have it be an international, diverse cast sort of around that centerpiece of the movie,” Zack told us. “And that this group that goes in are a mish-mash… they’re mutts. They’re trying to figure out where they all fit in. They’re all outcasts in a weird way. They’re all rogue samurai.”
It was something that meant a great deal to the cast, as well.
“I have two little boys and I give them action figures,” Rossi told us. “They call them their humans, their friends. They just love action figures. I love when I see action figures now and it’s not like when I was younger. Everything’s represented. People don’t realize—this is such a huge effect. Cause when you start representing in Hollywood, it translates into everything.”
The film is more political than you might think.
It isn’t exactly new for zombie movies to act as social commentaries. In talking with the cast and crew, it was clear that Army of the Dead is no exception.
“This film is a lot more political than people realize,” Bautista told us. “I think most people will see it as a zombie heist film, because that’s what it is. But some people will pick it apart and see the political relevance to it as well.”
Zack explained that a lot of that comes from the refugee camp aspect. When the zombie outbreak started, it was a place to test the potentially infected and quarantine them. But six years later, the camp still exists, and has become a place to throw anyone with a contradictory political view. “A lot of the people in the refugee camp are the disenfranchised,” Zack said, hinting it may be a commentary on immigration and the real refugee camps that exist around the globe.
Fresh on the heels of a real-life global pandemic, I have a feeling Army of the Dead will pack even more of a punch than originally intended. We’ll find out together when the film hits Netflix on May 21.