‘Like Braveheart but flipped’: Zack Snyder evolves zombies in a big way for ‘Army of the Dead’

As a filmmaker, Zack Snyder’s played in existing sandboxes with “300” Spartan warriors, fantastical guardian owls and the holy superhero trinity of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. He’s also a veteran of crafting his own from scratch in projects like his new Netflix zombie heist movie, “Army of the Dead.”

But Snyder doesn’t feel he thrives in one or the other.

“Once I’m doing it and the script’s in front of me and we’re going to make it, I take it all the same way,” he says. In the case of “Dead,” “I did like creating this world, but other than zombies, it’s a pretty straightforward world.”

He pauses.

“‘Other than zombies’ is a pretty big caveat,” Snyder adds with a laugh.

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Zack Snyder got down and dirty with a camera and corpses making "Army of the Dead." (Photo: CLAY ENOS/NETFLIX, CLAY ENOS/NETFLIX)

Fresh off of premiering “The Snyder Cut” of “Justice League” on HBO Max, Snyder is co-writer, director, producer and cinematographer on “Army of the Dead” (streaming Friday on Netflix). The action thriller centers on a crew of mercenaries (headlined by Dave Bautista) who venture into a quarantined Las Vegas following an undead apocalypse to steal $200 million from an abandoned casino vault.

Well, abandoned in the human sense at least – the denizens of Sin City now include a man-eating horde led by alpha zombies who are fast, smart and organized into a hierarchy.

This undead evolution refreshes the zombie horror subgenre after 10 seasons of TV’s “The Walking Dead.”

“There’s some memorable things they’ve done and that really stick out,” Snyder says. “I wanted to honor the classic shambler, but (also) say, ‘OK, here’s the new news.’”

Like the late George Romero before him, Snyder embraces having social commentary in “Army of the Dead”: He sees zombie films as monster movies “where the monsters are us.” Scenes of Nevada detainment camps and the building of a wall capture the political climate in “Army” and it resembles a home-invasion film “but we’re the invaders,” Snyder says. For his movie’s zombies, “it’s literally like, ‘Stop (expletive) with us. We’re just trying to live our lives in here.’

“I honestly thought it’s like a medieval film, too, in some ways, because these foreigners come in, they make a truce and then they commence to just betray that truce in every possible way,” Snyder says. “This could be like ‘Braveheart,’ but flipped.”

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Athena Perample plays the high-heeled zombie Queen of Zack Snyder's "Army of the Dead." (Photo: CLAY ENOS/NETFLIX)

Instead of putting well-known actors in zombie makeup for significant supporting roles, Snyder wanted to introduce some new talent into the Hollywood mix: He tapped stunt performers Rich Cetrone and Athena Perample to play zombie king Zeus and his alpha queen, respectively.

“To jump from a 6-foot height in high heels, it’s unbelievable that you don’t twist your ankle or do something crazy. And Athena would just land that thing into a crouch” every time, the filmmaker says.

Snyder, who hatched the idea for “Army” after finishing his 2004 remake of Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead,” also expands the zombified world to includean undead tiger. Developing the gnarly, computer-generated beast, Snyder first had his visual-effects supervisor film Carole Baskin’s tigers in Florida, “weirdly” before “Tiger King” became a thing: “Then once we were starting to create the tiger, I was like, ‘Oh, more skin missing, let’s lose that eye.’ That was fun.”

Zack Snyder's "Army of the Dead" has a little bit of everything, including a zombie tiger. (Photo: NETFLIX)

Snyder needed a big dude to deal with escaped zombie wildlife and had to convince Bautista to be his main man: “I was like, ‘You just gotta read it. I know it sounds dumb, but it’s not quite as dumb as it sounds.’” 

His star appreciated Snyder directing him to “give this guy some heart,” Bautista says: “With Zack, I just had tons of freedom.”

That’s something Snyder had with “Army of the Dead” that was missing making “Justice League.” Doing the superhero movie was a tumultuous period in his life: He tussled creatively with Warner Bros., stepped away from production after the death of his daughter and watched as Joss Whedon finished his movie, but then saw a grassroots campaign grow online that ultimately allowed him to complete his vision.

Cyborg (Ray Fisher, far left), Flash (Ezra Miller), Batman (Ben Affleck), Superman (Henry Cavill), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa) is the supergroup of "Zack Snyder's Justice League." (Photo: HBO MAX)

“Certainly, my fan support is much greater now than it’s ever been,” Snyder says, looking back. “Literally, I’m shocked every day by the outpouring of the fan community and the support they’ve given me is unbelievable.”

As a filmmaker, Snyder adds he’s “constantly evolving and changing” and unearthed a newfound confidence he infused in “Army of the Dead”: “It was a joy to make and that joy comes through in the unabashed dive we take into this whole thing.” 

Zeus (left, Rich Cetrone) is the leader of the smart, speedy and very organized Las Vegas zombies in Zack Snyder's action horror film "Army of the Dead." (Photo: CLAY ENOS/NETFLIX)

Snyder’s getting a “big thing” together right now, and while he’s hush-hush about specifics, “it’s pretty epic.” He’s also working on expanding his Netflix “Dead”-verse with “Army of Thieves,” a prequel film directed by and starring Matthias Schweighöfer as an ace safecracker, and the anime spinoff series “Army of the Dead: Lost Vegas,” which tracks the origins of the zombie apocalypse back to Area 51.

“There’s a lot of crazy stuff,” Snyder says. “I haven’t directed an animated thing since (2010’s ‘Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole’) and it’s fun to do a pure adult animated, hardcore, sex-and-violence animated series. There aren’t too many of those around.”

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