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Army of the Dead: Why Zack Snyder Is Finally Returning to the Zombie Genre

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2021 seems to be the year Zack Snyder’s directing career comes full circle. This year has already seen the long-awaited release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the once mythical version of 2017’s Justice League no one was sure actually existed. And in May, Snyder goes back to where it all began when his latest project, Army of the Dead, debuts on Netflix.Army of the Dead is both Snyder’s first zombie movie since 2004’s Dawn of the Dead remake and his first film to be distributed by Netflix. But if there was one takeaway from IGN’s visit to the set of Army of the Dead in Atlantic City, NJ, it’s that the film is very unlike its predecessor.

“When we did Dawn, it was [a] slightly genre-busty movie in that I was a fan of the original,” Snyder told a group of reporters. “And so I didn’t want to remake the movie exactly, but certainly wanted the tropes and all the different aspects of a zombie movie that make it fun and or scary and… whatever you want to say about the genre.”Snyder continued, “With this movie, it’s a full genre exploration. The movie really was inspired by movies like Escape From New York or Aliens, [James] Cameron’s Aliens, RoboCop. That world. It’s very much a genre deconstruction in the sense that I love all the tropes and so I’m constantly trying to subvert the tropes by having them not finish as you would [expect].”

Snyder was clear that Army of the Dead is not a sequel to Dawn of the Dead, despite the similar titles and the fact that the idea has been percolating in his mind since Dawn of the Dead’s release. Putting aside rights issues, that clean slate is one borne of necessity, as Army of the Dead is set in a world with its own specific rules as to how zombies behave, and where the undead outbreak is confined to a specific area. In this world, zombie-ravaged Las Vegas has been walled off from the rest of the US, with millions of displaced refugees living in squalid conditions outside the city.

Along with 2002’s 28 Days Later, Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead was notable for helping to popularize the notion of ferocious, fast-moving zombies, a far cry from the shambling, mindless undead of George Romero’s zombie films. That much carries over to Army of the Dead. But the new movie further embellishes its brand of zombie. There’s a dash of Resident Evil to the film with the way it presents multiple types of zombies with different abilities, such as the ordinary Shamblers and the more ruthless, domineering Alphas, and even different species like the instantly iconic zombie tiger featured in the trailer. With the way these undead rally around their cape-clad leader Zeus, it seems there’s a heightened, almost superhero movie quality to this action-horror flick. All of that plays into Snyder’s goal of crafting a zombie movie where the undead are as human and sympathetic as the humans hired to gun them down.

“A normal zombie is not really… it’s hard to have sympathy,” Snyder said. “In a weird way, even the guys who kill them, they seem like they’re doing them a favor a little bit. And so I felt that we were able to create this other class of zombie that was semi-conscious. We treat them like wolves or… like a dog, not necessarily fully realized [or able to] talk or anything, but they can organize. And with Zeus… he has a horse. He rides a horse. He has a staff. And he’s probably the smartest of all of them. Whether he has hopes and dreams, I’m not sure.”

Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead: Behind-the-Scenes Photos

Army of the Dead revolves around a team of mercenaries led by Dave Bautista’s Scott Ward and Ana de la Reguera’s Cruz. The team is hired by casino mogul Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) to infiltrate a zombie-infested casino and retrieve the hundreds of millions of dollars locked inside. That mission is made all the more urgent by the fact that Las Vegas is set to be nuked off the map by a government eager to put its zombie problem behind it. So this action/horror/superhero mash-up also happens to be a heist movie.

The stakes are certainly high in this conflict, but Snyder is also taking great pains to anchor Army of the Dead in human drama. Much of that centers on Ward, who has to deal both with romantic tension with Cruz and the fact that his own daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) has signed on with the team.

“At its heart it’s a relationship movie – Dave and his daughter. They’re trying to mend their relationship during the course of the movie,” Snyder said. “She shouldn’t have been on the mission, but she tricks him into it. There is this really small relationship movie inside of it about a father who abandoned his child and [is] trying to make it right. And then on top of that, it’s just like pure genre mayhem and insanity.”

Army of the Dead is significant in that it’s Snyder’s first new project since the behind-the-scenes chaos of Justice League and the family tragedy that led to his departure from that project. But none of that seemed to be weighing on the director as he reflected on the production process and what he described as an “amazing relationship” with Netflix.

If anything, Snyder seems to view Army of the Dead as a refreshing change from the studio blockbuster approach of his DC movies. Snyder acted as his own cinematographer, taking a very hands-on approach to staging scenes and hearkening back to his days as a director of photography on commercial shoots. Snyder even described the film as a valuable learning experience for shooting digitally, noting the format has major advantages in terms of building large crowd shots and working in the dimly lit casino environment.

The set visit took place in October 2019, nearly a year before WarnerMedia announced the Snyder Cut would be coming to HBO Max. But even at that point, Snyder seemed at peace with the premature end of his DC saga and genuinely moved by the outpouring of fan support in the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement.

“I think a lot of people in fandom have sacrificed a lot… to maintain their interests in that movie,” Snyder said. “And I think that I don’t want to not honor the commitment that people have to that and the interest they have in that, because I find it, just personally as a filmmaker and as an artist… incredibly cool. And it makes me happy that there’s that much caring about a thing that they don’t even know what it is. That to me is… I find that really awesome.”If Snyder himself had any hope of being allowed to complete his version of Justice League at that point, he didn’t let on. His hope was simpler. He wants the fans who campaigned for The Snyder Cut to bring that enthusiasm and support to Army of the Dead, a film he sees as being another chapter in a singular filmmaking journey.

Army of the Dead will be released in theaters and on Netflix on May 21, 2021. Check back with IGN soon for more details from the set visit, including how the cast and crew brought a zombie-infested Las Vegas to life.

Jesse is a mild-mannered staff writer for IGN. Allow him to lend a machete to your intellectual thicket by following @jschedeen on Twitter.

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