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Zombie Las Vegas: The method to the madness of ‘Army of the Dead’

Updated May 17, 2021 - 11:00 am

Danny Ocean had it easy.

Like his more dapper predecessor, Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) also is tasked with assembling a team to rob a Las Vegas casino.

Ward, though, doesn’t just have to devise a way inside a sophisticated vault. There’s also the matter of the zombie horde that’s overrun the Strip — including Valentine, one of Siegfried & Roy’s former tigers, who’s been gruesomely zombified.

Then there’s the deadline of the pending nuclear strike on Las Vegas, designed to eliminate the flesh-eating corpses for good, that’s scheduled for sundown on the Fourth of July because the president thought it would be “really cool.”

Welcome to the gory, gonzo thrill ride known as “Army of the Dead.”

Creating a Las Vegas wasteland

Las Vegas has been destroyed in movies big and small over the years, but never quite as precisely as it is in the Netflix spectacle that opened in select theaters Friday before arriving on the streaming service May 21.

“We went to Vegas in prep, and I walked the route that they would go,” director and co-writer Zack Snyder says of the movie’s mercenaries. “I was really drinking it in.”

Aside from a nutso opening credits sequence that depicts the fall of Las Vegas — complete with zombie showgirls, zombie male strippers and a zombie Elvis impersonator — by the time Ward and his crew breach the wall of shipping containers that separates the resort corridor from the McCarran Refugee Camp in the safety zone, the Strip is long past the point of saving.

Given that level of devastation, there was no sense in actually filming here. But, considering how much time “Army of the Dead” spends amid the wreckage of Las Vegas Boulevard, Snyder’s team did the next best thing: A dozen artists used scissor lifts, drones and a helicopter to create a digital map of the Strip. The external scenes were then shot in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with the battered Las Vegas skyline added in post-production. (The casino interiors were filmed at the Showboat in Atlantic City, where the casino floor had been empty since 2014.)

The Strip is faithfully rendered in the finished product, with Swiss-cheesed high-rises and partially collapsed towers. It isn’t just the well-known landmarks that were destroyed, either. Viewers may notice the rubble of what had been Carnaval Court at Harrah’s and the Denny’s at Casino Royale, with the missing faces of John and Ringo on the “Love” wrap atop The Mirage.

A big chunk of the action takes place among the barrels, bodies and burned-out cars at the intersection of Tropicana and the Strip, so that’s where the artists focused much of their attention.

“We have to thank the city of Las Vegas, as well as the film commission,” says Deborah Snyder, the director’s wife and producing partner. “We spent, like, three weeks on the Strip with our team of visual effects people. And they were scanning and doing photo-geometry. They were in the (Tropicana) intersection, and at times they needed to close things down. Everyone was so cooperative.”

“All the icons of Vegas need to be in their place, and that was no small affair,” her husband says of the lengths they went to for accuracy. “It was a big deal to create that intersection at Tropicana.”

Not for the faint of heart

Long before he became synonymous with the recent wave of DC comics movies, most notably this year’s splashy, four-hour “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” Snyder made his bones, so to speak, directing 2004’s “Dawn of the Dead.”

He completed a first draft of what would become “Army of the Dead” more than a decade ago, and at least one element remained constant, Snyder says. “It was always Las Vegas from the start.”

In addition to the iconic landmarks, he was drawn to the city because of its proximity to Area 51.

“If there was a zombie there and it got out,” Snyder says, laughing, “the first place it was gonna go was to Vegas.”

Despite its moments of dark humor, “Army of the Dead” isn’t for the squeamish. The movie leans into its R rating, with so much zombie effluvia in some scenes, the undead end up slipping and sliding in the goo of their fallen comrades.

Still more to come

“Army of the Dead” isn’t the end of Snyder’s vision for Las Vegas.

He and Deborah are in the thick of producing “Army of the Dead: Lost Vegas,” a six-episode, R-rated animated spinoff that will cover the last days of the city in the style of that bonkers opening credits scene.

“It goes double bonkers in the anime series,” Snyder says, “because there’s no rules at all.”

Much of the “Army of the Dead” cast — including Bautista, Ana De La Reguera, Tig Notaro and Omari Hardwick — will lend their voices to the prequel. They’re scheduled to be joined by Joe Manganiello, Christian Slater, Harry Lennix and Vanessa Hudgens.

“Since we come to our movie after the pandemic has happened, it goes into the why of it,” Deborah Snyder says of the animated version. “And we get to see our team when they were actually doing search and rescue, so that’s really fun. But also, where did this come from? What are the origins? All those questions that we didn’t answer in (this) one.”

Snyder will direct two episodes of the series, which isn’t expected to hit Netflix until next year at the earliest.

From the sound of things, it’s still going to be a while before Snyder has any free time, although he already knows how he plans to use it when that day arrives.

“I can’t wait to go back to Vegas, having lived there in my mind for the last two years,” Snyder says of the production process. “Literally every day I was working in (a virtual) Las Vegas for the last two years, so it will be nice to go there for real. I’m excited.”

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.

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