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From chainsaws to exploding zombie heads, Zack Snyder's Army of the Dead has 'the cojones to go all the way'

By Josh Weiss

What does Las Vegas have in common with a horde of the undead? "There's an addiction to gambling in a way that makes us zombies," Nora Arnezeder, one of the stars of Zack Snyder's Army of the Dead, tells SYFY WIRE. "I like the parallel between the world of Vegas and the zombie apocalypse. I think it's interesting."

It's a rather perfect comparison that adds another thematic dimension to a film about a group of ragtag mercenaries trying to pull off an Ocean's 11-style heist several years after Sin City became ground zero for a zombie outbreak. With the government planning to nuke Vegas off the map in just a few hours' time, the aforementioned group of opportunity seekers (led by Dave Bautista's Scott Ward) need to get into a high security vault, nab $200 million, and get their butts out — all while trying not to get bitten by the flesh-hungry showgirls, pit bosses, buffet chefs, Elvis impersonators, and a friggin' zombie tiger. The prototypical Shamblers aren't much of an issue, it's the Alphas you have to worry about. They're smarter than the average zombie!

Visual effects house Crafty Apes was brought in to imagine what Nevada's famous city of casinos and hotels might look like if they were overrun by hundreds of raging ghouls. "What does Vegas look like when all the lights are out?" senior VFX supervisor Mark LeDoux asks. "Well, you still have to make it look like Las Vegas. It's kind of a weird thing because most people have only seen Vegas with all the neon lights if they haven't been there. That was really the challenge."

"I think it's great to have all these elements," co-star Matthias Schweighöfer, who plays the team's safe expert, Dieter, says of all the colliding genres contained within the project. "It's so entertaining — you have this blockbuster feeling of action, horror, thriller, heist, and dramatic moments. I love that. You have a bit of everything, especially in these times, it's amazing to have that platform."

This eclectic mash-up of horror and heist (coming to Netflix on May 21 after a limited theatrical run) hails from the highly stylistic brain of Snyder, who co-wrote Army's screenplay with Joby Harold and Shay Hatten. As the director has said in the past, this movie is 100 percent his vision, from start to finish, with no studio alterations along the way. He was so committed, in fact, that he even took on the role of director of photography (foregoing another collaboration with his usual cinematographer, Larry Fong).

"Once you get a Zack [role], you forever feel like you're marked as, 'You're pretty good at what you do,'" Omari Hardwick — who plays Vanderhoe, Ward's chainsaw-wielding brother in arms — explains. "That, for me, was a great thing because I had so many years of journey and work prior. And then, all the sudden, I'm sort of marked. And it's the Mark not of the Beast, but it's the mark of a very angelic human being who happens to carry a beast of a talent... He was in the trenches with us, camera on his shoulder in between two actors, telling us what he needed. Never separated, never over at video village unless he sprinted over real quick to look, but he came right back to us and he was a dream come true as a director and as a partner."

"It's one of the best experiences I've had on set with a director," Arnezeder (Lilly, aka The Coyote, a mysterious woman who helps the mercenaries get past a barrier of shipping containers and into the Vegas quarantine zone) agrees. "He gives a lot of freedom to the actor, handheld camera, no marks on the ground, lets us improvise. I just brought a little bit of my Frenchness to the character and he really let me be free with it. He actually embraced it. And yeah, I'd love to work with him again if he wants to work with me."

Snyder's philosophy of unfettered creative expression also extended to the VFX crew. "They didn't really micromanage our creativity," LeDoux says. "There weren't any notes [that said] 'This isn't it!' The notes were just like, 'This looks cool, let's go bigger!' It's most of what we got. When the client's pushing you to just do cool stuff all the time, that's awesome because you're like, 'Oh, I don't have handcuffs in this. They're just letting me do cool stuff.' And that was really awesome. This project, no BS, was a lot of fun to work on. You could tell everyone was really cool."

"One of the first projects I worked on as a VFX producer was Zombieland 2 and it's just such a different vibe," Crafty Apes VFX producer Bobby Tucker adds. "Because that one is more character and comedy-driven, where this one was about the action and it was very visceral. So, any blood that we did in this was big and cool and well-designed. It was a different vibe than any zombie movie I'd worked on before because they wanted the gore. They wanted you to feel everything."

Nora Arnezeder Army of the Dead

In true heist fashion, each member of Ward's crew is recruited for their unique set of skills. Aside from being Scott's longtime friend, Vanderhoe also has a souped-up chainsaw/buzzsaw weapon that can tear through flesh in a violent display of blood-soaked artistry that would make Leatherface green with envy.

According to Hardwick, the props department created three different versions of the chainsaw. "There was a rubber version that was pretty heavy; then there was the heavier version that did not have the blade on it; and then there was the actual chainsaw," he recalls. "So, depending on how my back felt on particular days or how hot it was outside — typically it was between 100 and 110-degree weather in New Mexico doubling as Vegas — then that determined which one of those three chainsaws I got down with."

Working closely with Snyder, Hardwick helped turn Vanderhoe's weapon of choice into an iconic member of the team. "He allowed me to insert my own thoughts about this ... I said, 'Zack, where did he find it?' He goes, 'Where do you think, Omari? Where did he find this chainsaw? Was it the side of the road?' ... I remembered a moment when our photographer asked me on a photo shoot day, 'Hold the chainsaw. Put your foot up on it.' And I realized, it's a part of the call sheet. It definitely is a character on the call sheet. I kind of felt like, 'OK, this chainsaw will stand out.'"

Army of the Dead

Never one to shy away from excess, Snyder wanted his flick to be as graphic and violent as humanly (or in this case, inhumanly) possible. In addition to Vanderhoe's powerful saw, Ward's squad is armed to the teeth with military-grade rifles, hand guns, grenades, and knives. It's enough firepower to rip through gangs of the undead as if they were made of tissue paper. "Blood is dope," LeDoux says with a chuckle, adding that he almost always gravitates toward the "movies that have heavy blood work in them." This one, however, was unique, in that he didn't have to worry about trivial matters like state of composition or post-mortem coagulation.

"Without naming other projects, some clients get really into the, 'Oh, well, they've been dead this long. Blood should look like this. It should move like this.' Army of the Dead is... just like they got it," he says. "They didn't care about that stuff. They were just like, 'Make it look cool.' The only notes we really got were, 'More! More! More!'"

Splattering blood and viscera is all well and good, but it doesn't amount to anything if the viewer doesn't feel like they're a part of the action. "When they're watching it, they should actually feel like a zombie's head is being blown off and they should never think about it," LeDoux explains. "Yeah, obviously the blood's fake. Obviously, it's zombies. Everyone knows that going into it, but we have to get them to immerse themselves in a world where a zombie having his head explode... is f***ing normal. That's kind of it. It's finding a balance to when they watch it onscreen, they feel comfortable with it."

The VFX supervisor credits Snyder for having "the cojones to go all the way" and bravely tread where other movies might be a little more hesitant to go. "And that's why this project was so much fun because they let us go big. They said, 'Hey, let's keep the realism. Let's keep the coolness, but let's really go big and hope the audience [buys into] the movie.'"

Despite playing a master of tumblers and locks, Schweighöfer admits he knew "zero, nada, nothing" about cracking safes prior to joining Army. "But after a long chat with Zack, I tried to prep with all these guys who [operate in that world]," he continues. "I didn't know that there were championship games. There's a champion safe-cracker who is the fastest one in the world. So, I started with that and yeah, at the end of the film, to be honest, I think people, especially my family, told me, 'Matthias, please do not go into a bank where they have a safe now.' The safe-cracking world is really interesting... It's about senses. You have to feel it in your fingers, you have to hear it, you have to be fast, you have to make a connection to the safe. I never knew that before."

Arnezeder, who describes Lilly as the group's "spiritual leader," leaned into the idea of accepting one's flaws for her performance. "There's no such thing as badass. You have strong objectives that make you more assertive," she explains. "The stronger the objective is, the more assertive you are. Because the objective is stronger than your own self... All great leaders can have doubts [and] vulnerability. What I think is the most important thing is to own your vulnerability. I've [listened to] a lot of podcasts about amazing leaders and they were talking about their insecurities and it actually really fed me. The more you own who you are and your vulnerability, the stronger you are, actually."

Army of the Dead

While he's most famous for his depiction of DC superheroes these days, Snyder's directorial roots run deep into the earth of a freshly-dug grave (from which a reanimated corpse will soon emerge). His feature film career began in 2004 with a remake of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, whose script was written by none other than a pre-Guardians of the Galaxy James Gunn.

"Everything started for me with Dawn of the Dead," Schweighöfer says. "And, of course, Walking Dead. But then I focused on the South Korean, especially Asian market, and I'm a huge fan of Train to Busan and I Am a Hero. Even Kingdom, the Netflix show — it's amazing. I love the zombie genre, even on PlayStation. To play Days Gone or The Last of Us, it's great. The atmosphere, it's great to jump into a whole other world and I love that."

"I watched Dawn of the Dead and I was really impressed," Arnezeder continues. "I think Zack reinvented the zombie genre with Dawn of the Dead and he's actually re-re-inventing it with Army of the Dead."

During a recent appearance at Justice Con, Snyder voiced his hope to kick off a wide theatrical run for his massive, 4-hour cut of Justice League later in the year. That's still a ways off, but the director will get to test the efficacy of a post-COVID marketplace this Friday (May 14) when Army of the Dead shambles onto silver screens across the country for an exclusive, one-week engagement before the movie claws its way onto Netflix the following week on May 21.

"I think it's great that Netflix does this big step and is releasing it in theaters and down on the platform," Schweighöfer concludes. "This experience that a whole crowd can sit together in a big room and they can laugh and they can have the same feelings at the same time. It's priceless, but it's the same on the platform. They're doing a great job and I'm so proud to be part of that."