Why Zack Snyder Wanted a Clean Slate with Army of the Dead

After a decade toiling with superheroes, Zack Snyder is starting over with zombies.

Zack Snyder filming Army of the Dead skeletons
Photo: Netflix

Zack Snyder has come home. After spending a large portion of the past decade immersed in the DC film universe—even more if you count the development and production of Watchmen, his third film, a few years before that—Snyder has returned to the genre that launched his career as a feature film director.

That genre is horror, more specifically the subgenre of zombie movies, and the film is called Army of the Dead. Premiering on Netflix after a brief theatrical run, Army of the Dead is only the second movie of Snyder’s career not produced and distributed through Warner Bros. Pictures. The other one was his first feature, the 2004 remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, which came out through Universal and was the movie that put Snyder on the map.

Coming back to horror—or in this case, a hybrid of the zombie movie and the heist thriller—was just what Snyder needed to clear his head after his complicated tenure with DC. To do that, he turned to the story for Army of the Dead, which had initially been developed as a direct sequel to the Dawn remake years earlier.

“Just exploring Dawn, in doing that movie and taking it apart [was exciting],” Snyder tells us during a Zoom interview. “When you do a zombie movie, even though it was the first time, I was exploring the genre, the different tropes of the genre and really was starting to get fascinated with the things in it that we all take for granted, whether it be that a zombie bite is infectious, or you shoot it in the head or whatever. These are things that people innately know.”

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He continues, “I think the conversation I was starting to have with myself is: What will people allow in this genre of film? So it really got me thinking about it, and I’ve always been a huge lover of those really insane, big, seminal genre movies, whether it be Planet of the Apes or Soylent Green, or The Omega Man, or Escape from New York, as well as mission movies like The Dirty Dozen, which I love.”

Snyder says that combining the two was the key for him to make another movie based around the well-worn idea of the zombie apocalypse. “That was really was the jumping off point for this exploration, because I’d done the zombie movie, and then I had this basic love for the genre and how it worked. I think that it was the sort of deconstruction of those two ideas in my mind that led me to what is Army.”

Army of the Dead is set in and around Las Vegas, where the accidental release of a zombie with seemingly superhuman strength from a military convoy leads to a massive outbreak of the living dead in the city. The epidemic ends with Sin City emptied of humans and the town quarantined with huge walls around it. Meanwhile the surviving human citizens live in a suspiciously authoritarian “quarantine camp” outside the walls.

A former mercenary named Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) is approached by wealthy casino owner Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) about assembling a team to infiltrate the city, break into the vault in Tanaka’s casino, and remove more than $200 million. But they have to move quickly since the U.S. government has given up all hope of reclaiming Vegas and plans to eradicate the city and the zombies with a tactical nuclear strike.

Ward agrees and puts together his team, which includes, against his wishes, his estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell). But once they get inside, the team discovers that the mission isn’t quite what it was presented as, and the zombies themselves aren’t quite what they expected either.

“Frankly, the simple concept has existed since the beginning,” says Snyder, who conceived the story and co-wrote the screenplay with Shay Hatten and Joby Harold. “The zombie plague, the zombies get to Vegas, they build a wall around it, but they left the money inside. So we’re going to get this veteran team of zombie hunters to go in and get the money out. That’s been the pitch for forever. I happened to say it to the guys at Netflix, and they were like, ‘Yes, let’s do that.’”

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Army of the Dead was mostly shot before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world and film production for the better part of a year, although Snyder did do reshoots during the shutdown to incorporate actress Tig Notaro into the story as Peters, a helicopter pilot originally played by Chris D’Elia.

Snyder digitally removed the latter from the film after allegations surfaced of D’Elia’s sexual misconduct. “It wasn’t [a difficult decision],” says Snyder when asked about the change. “I pretty much immediately was like, ‘We got to fix this, because it’s just the right thing to do.’”

One difference between making Dawn of the Dead and Army of the Dead is that Dawn—while still quite effective and one of Snyder’s best films—came with the baggage of being a remake of a landmark horror film, with fans outraged that Universal Pictures handed the project to an unknown first-time director.

With Army, Snyder not only brings his own personal brand to the project—one well-known now among genre fans—but has established his own mythology without having to stay at least within biting distance of the original Romero film.

“I think that was the cinematic challenge across the board,” Snyder says. “I just finished, whatever it is, almost 10 years of DC films and all of the massive amount of canon and dogma that surrounds those characters, though I love them. I was really excited about venturing into a world where I was setting the rules… That was really appealing and it’s really been fun.”

Snyder’s run in the DC universe kicked off back in 2013 with Man of Steel, the Superman reboot that was meant to launch the DC Extended Universe as a shared, interlocking web of films in the mold of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He also directed Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and Justice League (2017) while serving as a producer or executive producer on Suicide Squad (2016), Wonder Woman (2017), and Aquaman (2018).

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But his darker vision of DC icons like Batman and Superman did not yield the box office or critical results Warner Bros. had hoped for, leading to tensions with the studio. And when his daughter passed away halfway through production of Justice League, Snyder stepped away.

What happened then has been extensively documented, but one gets the sense that Army was a way for Snyder to wipe the slate clean and start on a new path as a filmmaker.

“The experience was exactly that,” he affirms. “100 percent. It’s been an amazing journey. I have a great crew and a great support team, visual effects artists and stuntmen, that it’s just a joy every day to get up and go to work with them.”

By the way, don’t think for a minute that Snyder is done with shared universes; he’s just making his own now. A prequel to Army of the Dead, called Army of Thieves, has already completed filming, an animated series is in the works, and we imagine Netflix will be calling for a sequel should Army put the bite on viewers in a big way.

Snyder is ready: “We know exactly where everything goes. Shay and I have done a deep dive on a much longer storyline, as well as the animated series, which tells basically the exact origin stories of the zombie plague, down to the most minute details. It’s insanity and fun.”

Army of the Dead is streaming now on Netflix.

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