In the world of Army of the Dead, shambling horrors rip and tear at flesh, devouring any unfortunate soul foolish enough to journey into their newly minted undead kingdom of Las Vegas. With millions of dollars trapped in a high-tech casino vault, the score of a lifetime is too tantalizing to pass up for a group of mercenaries led by burger-flipping dad with a tortured past Scott Ward (played to perfection by Dave Bautista). Directed and co-written by Zack Snyder, the premise of Dawn of the Dead-meets-Ocean’s Eleven is too delectable to pass up. Even for the most jaded of zombie movie fans who likely feel numb to the genre after The Walking Dead‘s dominance over the last decade plus. Snyder’s hyper-stylized action, eye for spectacle, and an incredibly charismatic cast make Army of the Dead one of the first great blockbusters of the summer… even if you’ll most likely be watching it at home on your couch on Netflix.
Much like the undead murder monsters that try to turn our heroes into gyros, the journey of Army of the Dead from script to screen almost defies the imagination. First announced back in 2007, capitalizing on the success of Dawn of the Dead, Snyder’s directorial debut, Army of the Dead found itself trapped in development hell, lying dormant for over a decade before lurching back to life. Although the project completed filming before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down most of the world’s productions and soundstages, the beleaguered monster movie had another problem: in June 2020, one of its stars, Chris D’Elia, faced multiple allegations of sexual misconduct.
A month later, Snyder and company announced they would digitally erase D’Elia from the film and recast his role with Tig Notaro, leading to the deadpan comedian and Star Trek: Discovery actor becoming the most elaborate visual effect in the entire film. As detailed by Vulture, Snyder and his visual effects team recreated all of the shots and scenes with Notaro on a green-screened soundstage in Simi Valley, California, matching dialogue and physical blocking beat-for-beat so as to synchronize with the other characters’ dialogue and responses. The results are stunning in that Notaro feels like a seamless part of the production and if you hadn’t read the headlines, you would likely be none the wiser.
Now, with Army of the Dead officially streaming on Netflix, the film’s journey to the screen has come to an end and finally, audiences can relish Zack Snyder’s return to the genre where he first made a name for himself. Catching up over Zoom, Nerdist sat down with Snyder to talk about the complicated process of bringing this story to the big screen, keeping the zombie genre fresh in a marketplace teeming with zombie stories, sequels, and tater tots (naturally).
Army of the Dead spoilers ahead
Nerdist: Army of the Dead has been in the works for quite some time. How has this project changed from the original concept to completion?
Zack Snyder: There’s little differences like Scott lived in LA. So most of the team was being assembled in LA, not really out in Barstow. I think that how they got into the city was different. There was a slightly different version of the height of the alphas, but they’re pretty much the same. I can’t really… I’ll be honest, I haven’t read [original Army of the Dead co-writer Joby Harold]’s script in a while. The way that [Army of the Dead screenwriter Shay Hatten] and I did it was like I said, “Shay, I’m just going to tell you the story and we’re going to write it from scratch.”
I mean, I love Joby and he did a great job, but I think if I’m going to direct it now I need to just make it my own.
Nerdist: This was obviously a long-anticipated return for you into the world of the undead. How did your first day on Dawn of the Dead compare to your first day on Army of the Dead?
Zack Snyder: I’m trying to think about what my first day on Dawn was… I think we shot in the hospital. I think it was that first scene with Sarah [Polley] where she’s the doctor. So it went pretty good I think. I mean, it was pretty low-key. I was nervous, really super nervous, and slightly sketched out. And I think our first day on Army was a little small day, like a quarter of a day with Tanaka up at his house where he gets the call from Scott. We did that because we had to drive up to Flagstaff to shoot it. So we did that first. But then the next day was going to be… The first real full day was Scott flipping patties in the Lucky Boy. That was a great day because those two actors were amazing. It was fun.
Nerdist: In the time since Dawn of the Dead came out, the zombie genre kind of exploded, but then people pulled back a little bit because there was this sense of fatigue. How do you combat that sense of genre fatigue with a movie like Army of the Dead? How do you try to reinvigorate your approach to something like zombie fiction, which has so many entries?
Zack Snyder: I love Walking Dead, I’ve seen the [zombie] movies. Clearly, zombies hit the zeitgeist correctly because people want to see zombies and they’re into it. I was analyzing and, of course, I think it’s because it’s a monster movie, but the monster is us so that feels relatable. Us without our humanity… What kind of a horrible monster is that? I was just trying to make the movie exciting for me. Because I had seen all those other zombie movies and because I was where I was with the genre, I needed to think of something or make myself feel something. It was a cool experience. It was an uptown problem, frankly, to say like, “Okay, how are you going to make the zombie movie cooler?” I was like, “Okay, I get the assignment. It’s fine.”
Nerdist: In movies like this, especially, you want those “Oh shit” moments for lack of a better term, and there were quite a few in this for me. Obviously, the zombie tiger comes to mind, as does when the lead alpha zombie puts on the helmet. It didn’t quite click what its purpose was beyond looking badass until I saw it in action.
Zack Snyder: Yeah. I love that. For me, a zombie putting on a ballistic helmet is kind of a worst-case scenario for everybody because his only vulnerability is getting shot in the head. And right now you can’t shoot him in the head. So what are you going to do? I thought that was a cool little wrinkle that we had. For me, it was always about… when you make a movie like this, there are all these tropes that you, the audience, will take. The old trick of the tropes is how you deal them out. And at what point are you going to give them “the nukes moved up 24 hours?” At what point are you going to give them “The zombie has a ballistic helmet?” At what point are you going to pull the head out of the bag and it’s still alive? And it’s cool. And that’s fun.
The great thing about genre that I was sort of exploring was that these are not only accepted by the audience, they’re expected by the audience. The audience is not challenging those moments; they’re encouraging those moments. It’s an interesting relationship to say a movie where you’re like, “I didn’t buy it.” And then you’re like, “Well, what didn’t you buy?” “I didn’t buy that he made it home for the wedding. It just didn’t make sense to me.” And you’re like, “Okay, you’re right.” “That took me out of the movie.” And I’m like, “Okay, but what about Army of the Dead?” “No, that all seemed normal to me. That was fine.” That notion that “I’m not at all concerned with pulling a head out of a bag and it’s still biting.” You’re like, “Yeah, it’s a zombie. You didn’t shoot the head so of course it’s still alive.”
That intrigues me a lot as a filmmaker, the conversation that’s happening between the filmmaker and the audience in moments like that when they just let that happen.
And by the way, we graphed all of those things. We were constantly modulating the time between them. I had all these tropes designed: nuking the city, the actual nuke coming, the threat. I said, “Okay, if we’re going to threaten to nuke Vegas, we have to nuke it.”
Nerdist: You can’t dangle Chekhov’s warhead and not pay it off.
Zack Snyder: You can’t have it get averted at the last second. If you want to get mad, that’s what you would get mad about.
Nerdist: One of the things that I was really struck by seeing behind-the-scenes photos is that in addition to directing you were also the director of photography. You’re right in there in the mix. There was this shot I saw of you standing over Dave Bautista when he’s fending off a bunch of zombies in the casino. How does that draw you further into the process as a filmmaker?
Zack Snyder: Well, and also I operated a camera in the movie. Almost every setup I was operating too. Not every one, but 90%. That one was one camera so John [Clothier] was getting… John’s the A camera operator and he’s amazing. I’ve worked with him since Watchmen. He’s one of my best buddies and amazing camera operator. But yeah, it does. The whole process becomes a single thing. For me, making a movie is an entirely singular activity from camera, to acting, to the makeup, to where we’re shooting to the lighting and all of that. Performance, keeping an eye on the storyboards, the edit, will that cut? All that stuff. It makes me more aware of everything. I’m not distracted by it; I’m encouraged by it. I have a great crew and I’m incredibly well supported by everybody.
Nerdist: Now shifting gears slightly, we know Scott’s plan for his ideal future food truck, but what would the Zack Snyder’s Snack Rider food truck serve and why?
Zack Snyder: Well, let’s not forget I wrote that script. So all the things… Lobster rolls, huge fan. Artisan grilled cheese sandwich, huge fan. Dave ad-libbed tofu, which I thought was appropriate for him because you know he’s a veggie. So those would be two winners… Tater tots might see an appearance. Big tot fan. What else? Because that’s got to be just like straight comfort food. Right?
Nerdist: You can even put them together, make a lobster grilled cheese and you have the best of both worlds right there.
Zack Snyder: And then just sprinkle some tots on the top. That sounds like that just feels like you just won some Gordon Ramsay shit with that.
Nerdist: I think probably lie face down and then take a nap afterward, but it will be worthwhile.
Zack Snyder: Still cool.
Nerdist: Last question for you. Obviously, we have a prequel and an anime series in the works, but you folks leave the door open for more. What other aspects of this universe would you like to explore?
Zack Snyder: Let me just say, tip of the iceberg on this universe. There’s a lot of insanity that we have up our sleeves. Shay and I have known from the moment I wrote that last line where we were going to go. It’s pretty fun. I think you learn a lot about it in the animated series. You will learn the origin of the zombie outbreak and you will learn how insane it is. Christian Slater is hilarious in our animated series. It’d be great to see him in live-action doing that role. And Joe Manganiello, he’s the main guy. So that’s cool too. It’s cool to put him and Bautista together, even in an animated movie, because they are in the series.
Army of the Dead is now streaming on Netflix.
Editor’s note: Parts of this interview have been condensed and edited for clarity.