How Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead Could Nod to Night of the Living Dead’s Greatest Mystery

I'm not saying it was aliens but it was aliens. At least as far as Zack Snyder's Army of the Dead is concerned.

Dave Bautista and the rest of the Army of the Dead cast
Photo: Netflix

Zack Snyder‘s career comes full circle with the upcoming Netflix zombie extravaganza Army of the Dead, a film almost two decades in the making. The filmmaker best known for Justice League and Watchmen first cut his teeth on a feature-length project with Dawn of the Dead, Universal Picture’s high-octane remake of the George A. Romero horror classic. A much more action-packed and grim take on Romero’s mall-set zombie shenanigans, the 2004 re-imagining remains Snyder’s best flick.

Originally conceived as an even darker follow-up to the Dawn remake before ending up in development hell, Army of the Dead is now the first chapter in a new zombie shared universe for Netflix, which is also producing a prequel film and an anime series that explore other aspects of Snyder’s latest undead creation. No, it doesn’t seem to be directly connected to Romero’s own series of films, which concluded with the unfortunate Survival of the Dead in 2009, but that doesn’t mean Snyder isn’t taking a few more pages from the zombie master’s book. And I’m not just talking about the use of “Of the Dead” in the movie’s title.

If a tidbit from Vanity Fair’s recent expose on the new Snyder Cut of Justice League is any indication, Army of the Dead may even nod to one of the most mysterious unsolved plot threads of Romero’s original zombie masterpiece that kicked off the subgenre in earnest, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. Just what the hell caused the classic movie’s zombie apocalypse in the first place?

None of Romero’s Dead films have ever definitively answered that question. The great Ken Foree says in both the original Dawn of the Dead and the remake that “when there’s no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth,” suggesting that the end times prophesied in the Bible are behind the undead.

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Night of the Living Dead went in a different direction. As the movie’s grisly third act is about to begin, Ben (Duane Jones), Barbara (Judith O’Dea), Harry (Karl Hardman), and Helen (Marilyn Eastman) watch as TV reporters and scientists try to make sense of this gruesome national disaster. At one point, the news anchor (Charles Craig) reports on a Venus space probe that returned to Earth just before the dead began to rise from their graves. An expert on “space science and technology” theorizes that high levels of radiation brought back by the Venus probe could be the cause of Earth’s current predicament.

But there’s no way for our ensemble cast of survivors to find out for sure out in rural Pennsylvania. To the people stuck in a desolate cabin trying to fend off the hungry undead, the newscast might as well be the ravings of a delusional sci-fi fan. And Romero gets this bit right about the early days of a pandemic: the mad scramble by experts to find a cause or explanation, and throwing theories at the wall to see what sticks. Romero was a master of evoking mass panic without the kind of grand-scale disaster movie spectacle you often see in today’s CGI-laden blockbusters.

Fast forward to Army of the Dead and the Vanity Fair article, which teases that the virus that hits Las Vegas originates in the infamous Area 51, the source of countless UFO conspiracy theories (and most recently, viral memes). “Aliens may be involved too,” the article reads. Whether we should take this tidbit at face value is anyone’s guess, but Snyder does have a proven track record when it comes to the kind of shock-and-awe storytelling that might not make a lot of sense on the page but does provide plenty of opportunities for explosive action.

A heist thriller set in a zombie-infested Las Vegas casino that’s also about to be invaded by aliens? It’s the kind of third act final battle the Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice director relishes. And if those aliens can blow up a few Vegas strip staples along the way? Even better.

The point is that Snyder’s new zombie universe could be very well be inspired by a vague suggestion in Romero’s own work: that whatever is raising the dead, it’s not from this planet. Romero wasn’t the first storyteller to come up with this idea — cult legend Ed Wood beat him to it with 1959’s Plan 9 from Outer Space. The entire premise of the mythical “worst movie ever made” is an alien scheme to resurrect the dead with “long-distance electrodes shot into the pituitary and pineal glands” of the recently deceased. But if Plan 9 was the scouting party for these ideas on the big-screen, Night of the Living Dead was the full-on invasion, and it’s no secret that Snyder owes a lot of his early success to the house that Romero built. Why not go back to the master’s playbook?

If it really is aliens, Army of the Dead won’t be the first fledgling horror franchise to flirt with an extra-terrestrial zombie apocalypse. Robert Kirkman’s original pitch for The Walking Dead comic book was a 1960s-set follow-up to Night of the Living Dead. When this sequel turned into an original work, Kirkman sweetened the pot for Image Comics by promising an explanation for the zombie outbreak that involved an alien biological attack designed as the first step in a larger invasion. Indeed, walkers and Negan would have been the least of Rick Grimes’ worries. But Kirkman has said in recent years that he never actually intended to follow through on his promise to bring out the aliens.

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It was probably for the best, although perhaps Snyder would disagree.

Army of the Dead stars Dave Bautista, Ella Purnell, Ana de la Reguera, Garret Dillahunt, Hiroyuki Sanada, Tig Notaro, Theo Rossi, and Omari Hardwick. The movie will drop on Netlix on May 21.