Zack Snyder and Dave Bautista on resurrecting the SnyderVerse through ‘Army of the Dead’

Ahead of the launch of the Netflix feature film, director Zack Snyder and actor Dave Bautista chat about taking his ‘of the Dead’ zombie films to the next level and the global support for the SnyderVerse

It’s not every day you see Zack Snyder relaxed in his office in a hoodie. Someone rushes into the room and hands him a drink. Even over a video call with The Hindu Weekend, the filmmaker who delighted millions of fans with ‘Justice League: The Snyder Cut’ is fine to comment on a bit on “anti-Snyder Warner Brothers”. After all, many fans still blame the latter not just for the decline of the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) but also for snubbing the initial production of Army of the Dead (AOTD), which Netflix later adopted and is releasing on May 21.

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“Netflix said, ‘you want to make a crazy zombie movie, go do it!’” recalls Snyder, “The only downside was that I wanted to do more storylines and other things with this, and [laughs] it really had me thinking, ‘I have to get my shit together.’ I had been wallowing with Warner Brothers and the whole DCEU is just crazy.” Army of the Dead is also the symbolic launch film of Snyder’s rebranding of his production company, Stone Quarry Productions, with wife Deborah Snyder.

A two-and-a-half hour zombie heist movie, AOTD — a prequel to Snyder’s 2004 Dawn of the Dead — pulls together an odd rag-tag team of characters including strong and silent war veteran Scott Ward played by Dave Bautista, also present for the interview. In the film, Ward is commissioned by a Japanese billionaire to extract hundreds of millions of dollars from an underground safe underneath a zombie-raging Las Vegas. Now who would turn that down?

For those wondering if it would be riddled with clichés, Snyder points out, “We were not afraid of the clichés because we were going to play with them anyway; the film is not truly a parody.”

Action with emotion

A big supporter of Snyder’s vision in filmmaking, Bautista says he put his complete trust in the filmmaker. “It was not the easiest decision for me to make,” he recalls, “One of the concerns was it is a big ensemble cast — where you’re always together and geared up, and it takes time to reset when you take breaks — so you never know what you’re going to get; like people who may not get along with one another which is a nightmare. But we were lucky and I have to give credit to Zack.”

Humming for Huma

  • While Snyder considers Huma Qureshi, who plays Geeta in the film, “the best” and a hard-worker, Bautista is regretful he did not share as many scenes with the Leila actor. “She’s one of my favourite people in the film…we are constantly in touch for me to do a Bollywood film. A lot of people wouldn’t expect this but I love to dance – can’t sing – and drama. Huma is also really funny and, from what I hear, one hell of a cook.”

With a wealthy background in wrestling, Bautista — who says Hulk would probably be the best ally in a zombie heist — points out Marvel did not truly show how battle-ready he, as an actor, is. “I used to look around the set of the Marvel films and I thought ‘I’m the guy who looks most like an action hero’,” he laughs, “But at the end of the day Drax gets his ass kicked more than any other Marvel character I’ve ever seen.”

With AOTD, the film’s stunt choreographer Damon Caro ensured Bautista harnessed his martial arts skills. Bautista recalls the scene where Ward has to put his wife down when she turns into a zombie. “It was choreographed to be very matter-of-fact and very violent, and I stopped the whole stunt team and said, ‘this is wrong, put yourself in this guy’s place.’ The world stops for Scott here, so it needed to be more emotional. So the film let me have that freedom.”

Bautista is a living testament that grandfathers, too, are up for some zombie action (he became a grandfather even before he turned 40). At this, he laughs and responds, “I started kind of late in life but I’ve always needed to train and I rely on it. If I’m not training or venting that way, I’m not the happiest person.”

Up close and personal

Snyder’s role as AOTD’s cinematographer, in addition to director, made for an immersive experience. Talking about how he reached out to Red Digital Cinema — the holy grail of film tech — to get custom-made cameras just for this project, he says, “The lensing was really particular and we did a lot of testing to achieve this specific look in the film.”

Bautista says he has never worked with a director who also had a camera on his shoulder. Through the film there are tight shots of Ward’s struggles, which placed Snyder and Bautista in an intimate space of collaboration. “I took this role in the hopes of getting to show a different side of myself as a full-range actor and of an action hero. Zack got excited about these moments of emotion that weren’t written on the page [of guilt, fear, shame, anger], and I just levelled up in my respect for him.”

The Vegas effect

The film, taking place in Las Vegas — a city of sin and excess — serves as a remarkable metaphor for both Snyder and Bautista, with the latter observing that if you take the story out of Vegas, it would not work as well. He elaborates, “If you are to live in excess of any form, there’s not a bright future — history has shown that.”

One for the console

  • We ask Snyder — a fan of video games but not zombie ones, funnily enough — about the Watchmen video games he produced but were never released. He shares an item on his bucket list: “Co-development of an intellectual property so that you have a day-and-date release of this massive video game on the scale of Halo and a Halo-scale movie. The stories and characters would be linked, so the marketing and everything goes off the wall. I can go watch the film and go home and play the game. We’ve seen films react to video games and vice versa, but I’ve never seen a braiding of the two.”

Bautista, who fell in love with the set design, shares he feels guilty about not taking home a souvenir — a rite of passage for many actors. “There are things I wish I’d taken [laughs]. But Zack made me the first-ever Army of the Dead watch-box which is proudly displayed in my collection.”

Snyder’s take on Vegas is a little more dynamic, naturally. “Vegas is a weirdo adult amusement park and haunted house where the scale of investment is so high and it does draw the entire world to it. The city becomes singular, where other gambling meccas around the world have to do something else — they just can’t compete. It was fun to explore the iconology. When you take it apart in its elements, it really shouldn’t exist in the way and size it does; it’s got that ‘ghosts of the past’ feel to it.”

Probably one of the biggest surprises for audiences is the appearance of Valentine, a zombified tiger. With the film taking place in Vegas, one has to wonder if Valentine is an Easter Egg from The Hangover. “It certainly could be,” laughs Snyder, joking, “I just called Todd Phillips and asked him for a character to borrow!” Clearly, the other Zach (Galifiniakis) was too busy.

Meanwhile, Bautista is not done with the ‘Of the Dead’ universe; he is confirmed to appear in Army of the Dead’s prequel, Army of Thieves, which details Ward’s story, and he is looking forward to more bonding time with Snyder.

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