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Justice Con: Zack Snyder & crew talk tweaking horror tropes and a Carole Baskin-inspired zombie tiger

By Benjamin Bullard

Maybe it’s a good thing that Zack Snyder didn’t get around to making Army of the Dead until this past year. After all, letting the long-gestating zombie followup to Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead (2004) marinate for well over a decade has turned out to be serendipitous in more ways than one.

Sunday’s day-long slate of Justice Con panels were just the occasion to explore the new Netflix movie with the very people who made it, as AoD creatives including Snyder, star Dave Bautista, and producers Deborah Snyder and Wesley Coller all sat in for a series of virtual chats that delved deep into the reasons why the movie’s 2021 arrival is coming at just the right time.

New evolutions in zombie movie tropes, real-world pandemic connections that no one saw coming, a creative partner at Netflix eager to embrace Snyder’s vision for a larger Army of the Dead universe —  there are lots of fun features that simply wouldn’t have been ready to go if the movie had been made 10 years ago, back when Snyder had the makings of an early script.

But for our money, the zaniest 2021 bonus of all comes with undead claws. Valentine (that’s the nom de bite of Army of the Dead’s zombie tiger — and yes, we said friggin’ zombie tiger) rampages into the ruins of the Las Vegas strip with a pedigree that couldn’t be more rooted in the meme-tastic present day.

Snyder said it was a no-brainer to tweak current zombie movie tropes by putting an adorably-named feral feline in the former Las Vegas street haunts of Sigfried & Roy. “It’s incredibly obvious until it is obvious,” he explained, noting that the new movie gets a ton of mileage from doing the expected in unexpected ways. “Nobody would think of a zombie tiger until you see a zombie tiger…and then it’s like, ‘Of course!’”

Hmm, tigers on Netflix — does that sound familiar to anyone? If so, there’s a purr-fectly good reason. “Valentine is based on a real tiger, and our visual effects people called a lot of animal sanctuaries to see if they could video a tiger as reference — and can you guess whose tiger Valentine [is based on?]” teased Deborah Snyder.

Yep, she’s talking about Big Cat Rescue and its co-founder, Carol Baskin, the docu-star and tiger sanctuary owner who polarized Netflix viewers in last year’s Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness. “…[I]t was before Tiger King came out, so it was kind of wild,” Snyder recalled.

“I remember Marcus [Taormina], our visual effects supervisor, spent a week down there. And we were like, ‘Well, at least you got out alive!’ We didn’t even know at the time, and I remember watching it. It wasn’t until later and Marcus goes, ‘You know where Valentine came from, right?’”

Army of the Dead Zombie tiger and Carole Baskin

As you can tell from the trailer, Valentine and select other zombies in Army of the Dead are a cut above your typical shambling, zombie-movie chainsaw fodder. Snyder said that’s by design, because one of his goals with AoD was to make a horror movie that both obeys the “rules” of what fans expect from their zombies and humans — while also finding new ways to toy with those expectations.

“It’s a fun game that you can play with yourself, as far as the ‘language’ of cinema and how we perceive it. What are the rules? what are the tropes? what are, sort of, the conditions?” he explained of AoD’s “alphas,” the named zombies who can think, feel, organize, and (most importantly) stay upright after taking a couple of bullets. “…All the other things you would have done to fight a zombie [in previous movies] no longer work…Right away, you realize, like, ‘Okay — everyone’s in trouble.’”

Bautista stars as Scott Ward, a short-order cook who agrees to a sort of zombie-infested, Ocean's Eleven-style Las Vegas heist of a lifetime. During his panel, Bautista said fans will be blown away by the movie’s ending — though he wouldn’t say whether it sets up for a potential sequel, or even dovetails with upcoming Netflix spinoffs Army of Thieves and the planned anime series Army of the Dead: Lost Vegas.

“I’ve seen it like five times and…there’s something about the end of this film that I’m just absolutely obsessed with,” he teased. “When you see it, you’ll see what I mean.”

Working alongside Snyder means working with DC movie royalty, and Bautista left no doubt about where he’d like to end up if Warner Bros. and DC ever come knocking with a comic book casting offer. “Oh, it would be Bane all day long,” he said, recounting his actual attempt to play the Batman villain by just randomly hitting up the studio and saying “‘I wanna play Bane!’ — I’m not kidding!”

That’s fine by Snyder. “‘We’ve really just gotta figure out how to get Dave Bautista to be Bane,” Snyder joked to his panel hosts. “Let’s just all accept the fact that he’s gotta be Bane, and there’s no two ways about it!”

It’s a heist movie, it’s a romantic comedy, and it’s a zombie film that pulls the rug out from under decades of monster-movie tropes — but perhaps best of all, it’s a film that features an intelligent undead tiger named Valentine...with a wild real-world backstory that could only have unfolded in 2021. Army of the Dead premieres in select theaters beginning May 14, launching on Netflix a week later on May 21.

SYFY WIRE's Josh Weiss contributed to this report.