Zack’s Zombie Survival Guide:
Ch. 4 – Emergent Species
14 May 2021
This is Part Four of a five part series anticipating the premiere of Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead on Netflix.
IV.A. Compromising Factors
The corporate investment factor of the zombie film surely spells likelier financial success for its creator but it also spawns external factors which compromise the story. We re-draw the alien to make the action figure cheaper to manufacture. We lever a larger “universe” across multiple platforms. We sign on larger actors which condition the characters, call upon enterprising writing teams to increase the pacing, revise resolutions to make more space for sequels, prequels, and spin-offs. Not satisfied with a Marvel Universe, we expand to multiverse; control of the Star Wars/Star Trek/Friday the 13th/Supernatural/Buffy/Sailor Moon/GoT/Lord of the Rings canon becomes political as much as financial. When the bottomless pockets of Netflix roll out a multi-year franchising package for Zack Snyder’s idea even before it premieres, how can story survive?
I spoke with movie creators The Pierce Brothers (Deadheads, The Wretched) whose success is both opening doors for more productions but who also find themselves moving into streaming platforms, joining the big-money “battle for your eyeballs.” While it’s true that Snyder has been granted a larger, freer role in producing Army of the Dead than he has been allowed in previous films, we can’t forget that this very freedom is being marketed to us; Snyder is still caught up in this $90 million budget. For Brett Pierce, this is a warning sign. Movies that work with small budgets have to rely on story, he explains, citing Night of the Living Dead and their own work, Deadheads. But for Snyder, there would be “so many stipulations on what must be in the movie. It’s no longer a single voice.” Brother Drew agrees: “There’s an arms race for faster and bigger.”
Film creators Drew (l) and Brett Pierce
IV.B. The Promise of Character
With such a budget and expectations from its star power, Brett believes Army of the Dead will be “like a heavy metal rock concert” more than a powerful story. Certainly most everything the trailer reveals promises “faster and bigger,” but creator Zack Snyder says quite pointedly that character is critical to movie:
So you expect pure zombie mayhem, and you get that, 100 percent. But also you get these really amazing characters on a fantastic journey. It’s going to surprise people that there’s a lot of warmth and real emotion with these great characters (Netflix, “Watch”).
Maybe. What he does not say here is that emotions as a checkbox are not enough to make the film work. All of the characters in Peninsula had emotions (well, each had an emotion), but those emotions generally were not tested in any significant way and were irrelevant to the zombie universe in which they were set; they might equally have told the story following a tsunami or financial collapse. If there is room for character development of the type we see in Train to Busan or Shaun of the Dead or I Am Legend, it might instead be for the very reasons that the movie got big: franchising a “universe” also means a lot of narrative space, more than the brief two hours that the movie permits.
“And herein is the Snyder challenge: has he made a film different enough from its predecessors that offers him something new to say without going so far afield as to make it something else? “
IV.C. Literary Economics
Using space, however, is also a matter of literary economics. If the character’s story is used up in the first five episodes of a TV series and the producers call for three seasons (or, in the case of The Walking Dead, 11 seasons), we tend to fill the space with action or jump sharks (the trope made famous by Happy Days when Fonzie literally does so to sustain a show that had long worn itself out). On the other sad extreme, Stephen King “blockbuster” novels are often extraordinary exercises in character development while the horror itself could be related in a decent short story or novella (looking at you, Under the Dome and Sleeping Beauties).
And so I see the questions as separate ones: there is the essential need to tell a complete story inside a stand-alone film project; then there is the separate question of the “universe” storylines. In each, however, my criteria remain. Army of the Dead must fulfill its obligations to the zombie canon alone if it wishes to be noted as an essential component to the genre and its lore. The rest might well be a Walking Behemoth or a cancelled series.
IV.D. Horror or Parody?
The Pierce Brothers seem to concur on this. We can enjoy the action-adventure of the heist movie, but if the zombie canon is broken along the way, the film will be unable to “maintain the horror.” Drew says, “That’s the tricky part of zombie movies: what’s left to say?” The filmmaker quandary is to maintain the integrity of the zombie horror, yet find a new message inside of it. Deadheads, the Brothers’ first breakthrough film, a hybrid zombie-romance-buddy film, bypasses the question through parody and comedy. “After everything zombies have meant–racism, consumerism–we’ve milked it in every direction–it all devolves into parody.” Within the first three minutes of Deadheads, for instance, most every ethical challenge faced by serious characters in 500 other movies is played out: the cabin in the woods, the desperate redneck, the bitten family member, the “Don’t open the door!” warning, the deus ex machina rescue. Once dispensed with for the sake of self-aware comedy, the violation of the canon (talking, semi-reasoning zombies with “lives” to live) doesn’t seem like a violation. It’s aware of the canon, and it deliberately chooses to mock it.
“After … we’ve milked it in every direction–it all devolves into parody. “
IV.E. Or Something Else
Army’s Coyote (Nora Arnezeder) warns the rest of the cast that “They’re not what you think they are!” This is fair warning to all of us. But she and Snyder are serious, and this may be the credo for the film: it’s not the zombie movie we think it is. And herein is the Snyder challenge: has he made a film different enough from its predecessors that offers him something new to say without going so far afield as to make it something else?
Brett notes that one of the secrets to good horror is to meet what is “familiar, but not,” a formula which works well in The Wretched. The zombie is “mindlessness, but us,” and so we meet that difference, that Otherness, and react. This is true of zombies, but also of our expectations of film.
By now, most fans are anticipating a few bits that the film’s trailer teases. A zombie tiger named Valentine is a curiosity or fun effect, but not a significant addition to the lore or storyline. However, that the zombies are led by “Alphas,” some type of wolf-level reasoning undead that organize the others into quasi-military strategies, suggests a major disruption in the zombie genre. This single change carries two questions:
- Is the horror uniquely created by the zombie (its hollowness, its insatiability, its amorality) now lost? If so, why isn’t this an alien movie or a political resistance film? What is left for the zombie to identify itself? Does it still represent a contemporary anxiety?
- Why is such a change necessary to the story of any of the characters?
Snyder’s film, therefore, is likely to be a loud and forgettable entry onto the list of zombie movies, merely a roller coaster. Or it may somehow surprise with a loud and clever re-reading of our own fears, one that portends not an unreasoning horde but something still darker in our psyches we have not yet named. Or it could be loud and “something else” completely, an emergent species in the genre.
DeadHeads. Directed by Brett Pierce and Drew T. Pierce, Splendid Film, 2011.
Netflix. “Watch This Before You See Army of the Dead.” 21 April 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5hoDyE92GKE
Netflix. “Army of the Dead – Official Trailer.” 13 April 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tI1JGPhYBS8
Pierce, Drew and Brett. Personal Interview. 5 May 2021.