“It’s a mission movie,” Zack Snyder (pictured above) describes of his latest film Army Of The Dead. “So, like in a heist movie, they have to figure out how to shut the alarm off, they’ve got to distract the guards… [but] we had to reinvent those tropes within the confines of this world. That was the way we were blending genre and having fun with it.”
Blending genres is certainly an apt description for Army Of The Dead. When a zombie is unwittingly unleashed on the white-hot sands of Las Vegas, it’s not too long before the vast majority of Sin City also succumbs to the virus residing inside its DNA and pretty soon the entire city has been cut off from the rest of the world to contain the horrors within.
However, when Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) – a Vegas local and zombie war hero who’s now resigned to flipping burgers in a road-side cafe – is offered the chance to go back into Z City and retrieve a whole load of cash (and hopefully repair his relationship with his daughter, played by Ella Purnell), he gets together a gang of badass zombie killers to pull off a daring heist. These include expert driver Maria Cruz (Ana de la Reguera), circular saw-wielding badass Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), safecracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer), post-zombie Vegas expert Lilly ‘The Coyote’ (Nora Arnezeder), helicopter pilot Marianne (Tig Notaro), and Mikey (Raúl Castillo) a YouTube sensation with a good knack of killing zombies.
“I thought Scott Ward was just going to be a straightforward, very predictable, action hero type character,” Bautista says of his character. “But when I saw that he wasn’t, that he had baggage and damage he was carrying around with him, I just felt like they gave the character a lot of soul. I had a conversation with Zack after I read the script and asked if he’d give me even more freedom to play him like I wanted to and give him as much heart as I could because I really wanted to give people a different look at who an action hero could be. Obviously I look the part physically but I think there’s something interesting to giving action heroes some vulnerability. I think it makes people want to root for him more when you put him in somewhat of an underdog situation.”
Underdog is about right. Though Ward, Cruz and Vanderohe were Vegas zombie war heroes when the outbreak first occurred, once the city has been sealed up (with the use of giant storage containers), those who had saved lives on the ground have become forgotten and when we begin the film, not only is Ward an overqualified burger chef but Cruz is a simple mechanic while Vanderohe is working in a care home.
Even though those years in zombie-infested Vegas was clearly a dangerous time for Ward, Cruz and Vanderohe, it was also a time of glory – one they haven’t quite found again. For Cruz, she jumps at the chance to go back into Vegas for the heist and re-live some of those past triumphs: “She goes into this ride because of personal and emotional reasons,” Ana de la Reguera explains who plays Cruz. “She’s a war veteran, she loved what she did with Dave and with Omari’s characters, she had the best time when she was in this Las Vegas group. She just wants to feel the same way, feel the same excitement, and that’s why she goes. She doesn’t care about the money much, she just goes for feeling that she’s doing something for humanity and something relevant in her life. More than being badass and killing zombies she was just there to feel relevant.”
“I think you can always sense that there was a tight bond between my character Scott, Ana’s character Cruz and Omari’s character Vanderohe. You could see the bond between us without us actually ever even really talking about it much,” Bautista says, and it’s not just the bonds of war that bring these three together, especially in regards to Ana and Scott… “We had a romance going that we never played out,” he nods. “I think there was always something there with the chemistry between the two of us. People could see that there was something between us, and we never even spoke about it, until almost the end of the film. But I think you could always tell that there was some past between us… and that was really through Ana being sultry, and flirtatious body language!”
Strong bonds are made during the heist as well, especially a budding love-hate bromance between hardened war hero Vanderohe and the more inexperienced (at least when it comes to war) safe-cracker Dieter.
“It’s a very poetic duo,” Matthias Schweighöfer says, who one plays one half of that duo, Dieter. “I love it, especially in this weird and crazy surrounding of Army of the Dead. To have this duo is so much fun, and it was such a pleasure to have this opportunity to play this couple. Omari and me always say it’s like our little Lethal Weapon in the Army of the Dead universe!”
“I just think movies should also always allow men to express ourselves,” Omari Hardwick who plays Vanderohe says. “I mean, hell, these characters are played by men that are artists. So already we’re a bit different from the normal male walking around on earth so why not use all the things that a man should come with, the new masculinity!”
Indeed, it’s the emotional sides of the characters in Army Of The Dead that drew Bautista to the role and the project in general: “When I first heard about this project, I wasn’t at all interested because it was described to me as a zombie heist film, and I thought ‘that’s great, that’s really interesting’, I’m a fan of both genres, but I’m not looking for action films,” Bautista remembers. “Later down the road, I was told that Zack was interested in me for the lead. I really wanted to work with Zack so I read the script, and saw that it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. Scott Ward wasn’t the character I thought he was going to be. I really looked past everything, past the zombies, past the heist and I really dialled in on the relationship between Scott Ward and Kate Ward. When I read the script I read it like a redemption film. This guy’s just a father who wants to reconnect with his daughter and that is what his mission is. His mission is not even about the money, the money is just another tool to redeem himself with his daughter, he just wants to get his life back on track.”
Bautista’s focus that Army Of The Dead is about family and redemption is something that Snyder agrees with: “Even though he’s strong and scary, Dave [Bautista] has a kind of a softness to him,” Snyder enthuses. “You can imagine that his warmth really is the centre of that family. For me, that was really important. He does a great job and really holds the whole thing together. Without Dave’s kind of range, I don’t think that would be as good. Yeah in the end it’s all about family…”
It was clearly a role that came naturally for Bautista: “I don’t really look for inspiration in characters that much,” he tells us. “I think a lot of times, if you get inside your head too much and try to figure things out, or plan ahead too much, then it’s really hard to be malleable and be directed and be flexible to work with other actors.
“I don’t get in too much of a certain mindset before I start [shooting a movie]. I just have a very much broader sense of the character and what it is that he’s after. So I focus more on that and then kind of let everything else happen organically. In the scenes with Ella or the more emotional scenes, I just let them happen but I always bring some of my real life experiences and I think in every emotional scene that I do, or even every action scene that I do, there’s always something in my background, in my past, that I can bring to a scene. I really try not to get too ahead of myself and form an opinion of who the characters are, I like to let them play out in the moment.”
Bautista’s laid-back attitude on set clearly sat well with the rest of the cast too. “Working with David was a lot of fun,” Nora Arnezeder tells us who plays Coyote. “What I love about him is that he’s not only the muscle guy, he has a lot of sensitivity. He’s a real actor, he can play, he has a lot of layers. He listens. He listens really well, which is something that’s very important for an actor. He’s really lovely and is always trying to help, checking on you and making sure you feel comfortable and that you’re happy with the scene. He’s great.”
It’s not just our core three veterans who have convoluted pasts and questionable motivations. Coyote who, like her namesake, has a definite cunning, wolf-like quality and we never know where her loyalties lie: “She’s very complex,” Arnezeder explains of her character. “She’s not a bad person. She starts off a little bit selfish but there’s a real discovery along the way. She learns she’s an isolated human being and she learns how to connect with people, and team up with them. It was a really interesting character.”
Like many great zombie films that have come before (including George A Romero’s Dead series, one of which, Dawn Of The Dead, Snyder remade back in 2003 as his debut film), Army Of The Dead shines a spotlight on social injustices, an element that Snyder finds pretty interesting: “I like that it’s sort of an accepted trope that zombie movies are where we go to for social commentary,” Snyder says. “I don’t know what that says about us as a species, it’s kind of cool… but I do think that the [reason] these movies have traction or they’ve endured is because it’s a monster movie where the monster is us! It’s a monster [that’s] us without our humanity, so that’s scary.
“Then of course, in the best zombie movies, the worst part of zombie movies is the people, not the zombies. They don’t really have an agenda, they’re kind of like weather, you know, they just move around and if you get in the way, there’s a good chance they’ll kill ya. But in this movie, I wanted to see if we could generate sympathy for the zombies. Whether I could create a scenario in which the zombies themselves were sympathetic and that when the humans crossed them, the zombies’ motivation for attacking was actually justified. That was the sort of conversation I was having with myself and with Shay [Hatten], my writer.
“[It’s] also a comment on us as a species that we can’t leave it alone. We’re always fucking it up in a lot of ways. I mean beyond any of the obvious politics of the time, refugees and temperature guns and any of that stuff, we can do that all day, but I thought the idea that these zombies were here to replace us, not necessarily just eat us. That was kind of a fun place to start to have a conversation.”
One of the film’s main social comments is on immigration. With a giant wall of shipping containers surrounding Las Vegas, the issue of immigration and refugee status certainly comes to the fore, and the imagery around that wall conjures another famous wall that the US has been discussing in recent years.
“The movie has a lot of layers,” de la Reguera says, who grew up in Mexico. “It’s a zombie movie, it’s action, it’s a heist, it’s fun, it’s a comedy but it also has a lot of things that criticise the moment we’re living in. Especially for me, it connected a lot because of the wall, the president, the injustice, especially with Mexicans here in the US.”
Of course, if you’re going to discuss immigration, your cast has to be diverse: “I think Hollywood is making movies more for the world, more than about them,” de la Reguera tells us. “They’re now conscious that movies will do better if they have an international cast, if they have different accents. When [I] moved here, [I] wanted to get rid of [my] accent, and sound American. It’s good that people don’t have such a strong accent that people can understand you but you still have to sound like you look and don’t try to sound like something that you’re not.”
“I really love the diversity of this cast,” Bautista agrees. “It’s such an international cast. I think it’s such a great message, it’s a visual message but I like that it just shows we got to get past superficial things like skin colour and where we’re from, what our backgrounds are because, bring a bunch of people together that are a very eclectic group and it can create magic. You can get anything done.”
“I don’t mean to sound hokey, cheesy in this message but when I look at it, it stands out to me,” Bautista continues. “I love the story of the diversity of people coming together to unify to accomplish something. I think it’s a beautiful message. A lot of people won’t pick up on it but if there was one message that I wanted to say ‘hey take a look at this’, it would be that. I just love the message of diversity because I don’t have any tolerance for bigotry or racism. We’re all just very different and diverse and if we come together we can conquer a zombie apocalypse!”
In fact, Bautista believes that Army Of The Dead isn’t just a zombie film or a heist film, but something different altogether: “I want people to not only watch this and get wrapped up in the zombie heist aspect of the film but also have them wrapped up into the family aspect of this,” Bautista says, “and the emotional beats in this film and the relationship beats of this film, because I think that’s what makes this film really interesting. It’s not just a one-note film.
“I don’t think this film is completely dependent on the zombies,” he insists. “I think they are definitely a threat, and there’s a really cool, interesting way of looking at them when you give them some humanity. It’s unique to set up its own universe. At the end of the day, zombies are people who are just stripped away of all their humanity and they’re feeding off of other people.”
Though Army Of The Dead goes beyond a simple zombie film, one of the zombie tropes that Snyder definitely wanted to make sure he kept in is an ending that audiences will still be talking about long after the credits roll: “[The ending] is very hilarious and obvious but it also is within genre,” Snyder explains, “and certainly within the tropes of a movie like this! I’m not going to lie, I always hope to return. [My co-writer] Shay and I [have] a really interesting story to continue. We know exactly what happens…”
Indeed, with a multi-language anime prequel starring and directed by Dieter himself, Matthias Schweighöfer, already in development, we’ll certainly be seeing a lot more from Snyder’s new zombie universe. “I’m really thankful Zack asked me if I wanted to do this,” Schweighöfer tells us of working on the new series. “Zack is a partner – he always helped me out with everything and we’re talking every day. It’s crazy, what a ride. So, hopefully, the world will say Matthias is a great director too, not only a very handsome actor [haha]!”
We’re sure they will! Until then, Army Of The Dead is now showing on Netflix. Read our review here.