How Zack Snyder Created 'Army of the Dead's Las Vegas Hellscape (With the Help of Carole Baskin)

·5-min read
Photo credit: Clay Enos
Photo credit: Clay Enos

It’s probably far from the first time that the slot-pullers in Las Vegas have been called zombies, but Zack Snyder’s newest film, Army Of The Dead, takes that analogy to a whole new level.

Dystopian visions of a crumbling Sin City! What’s left of the casinos overrun by a tribe of flesh-eating undead! A heist to recover $200 million left in an impenetrable safe before Vegas is nuked! A zombie tiger - wait... yes, that’s right, there’s an actual zombie tiger called Valentine who leaps out from whatever tomb he’s been festering in to terrify Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) and co. “That’s god-damn crossing the line,” one of the gang mutters in the film. True, but it’s also mightily impressive - so how on earth were these special effects created?

First announced back in 2007, the almost three-hour long film is a visual treat that takes us deep into Snyder’s psyche - it’s also the director’s first outing as a feature-length cinematographer - and he’s really flexing his muscles in the fantasy optics department.

Photo credit: CLAY ENOS/NETFLIX
Photo credit: CLAY ENOS/NETFLIX

The film is full of bombastic action scenes that were a labour of love for Snyder. The opening scene - where the soldiers come face to face with Zeus - took five weeks to film. Snyder said of the groundhog day shoot: “I really wanted to shoot it at dusk in natural light, so we shot it everyday at dusk for five weeks to get it right. There were elements of explosions and gunfire so everyone had to be on their game and then we’d just get as many shots as we could in that little window”.

Anyone who’s visited the gambling city knows that the roulette wheels and dice stop for no man (or film crew) as the action keeps rolling 24/7, which is why so much of the film relies on CGI. As for bringing the city of Vegas crumbling down, Snyder said: “We deconstructed it and turned it into something like a giant haunted mansion. It’s a charred, weathered husk of a broken world”.

Production designer, Julie Berghoff, stuck to one rule in creating this terror-world: anything the actors walked on or touched must be real, and everything else - like the tops of buildings and the skyline - could all be created by the SFX team. The skyline had to be mapped over 12 days using scissor lifts, drones and a helicopter with a lidar scanner. The film wasn’t just shot in Vegas, but was also filmed in Albuquerque and Atlantic City, with The Showboat Atlantic City doubling up for the interior of Bly’s Las Vegas casino.

Visual Effects Supervisor Marcus Taormina had his work cut out from day one. “Aside from being tasked with creating Las Vegas,” he told press at the launch, “the other big, big challenge was creating a photo-realistic zombie tiger.” The prowling, snarling beast they named Valentine.

Taormina and his team decided that they needed to work with a real-life tiger to base the CGI big cat on, so started cold-calling tiger rescue sanctuaries across the US. Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of them returned the call to Hollywood. That was, until one place in Tampa, Florida, sent word that, given that they confirmed they were only planning to use special effects rather than the inhumane practices of real live animals on screen, they’d be happy to help in the design process.

Photo credit: Clay Enos
Photo credit: Clay Enos

That place was The Big Cat Rescue, and if that rings a bell, it should do, as it formed half of the bizarre documentary series that had us all hooked at the beginning of the lockdown: Tiger King. All you cool cats and kittens will remember that this particular park was run by the maligned nemesis to Joe Exotic, Carole Baskin. What are the chances?

Taormina explained: “When we flew out there, we were introduced to Carole. She was a very sweet lady and she gave us the rundown of everything, and then some of our crew came to join. One of the keepers came over and started to kind of ask us questions here and there... In passing, Carole mentioned: 'Oh yeah, I know cameras. We just finished some little docu-series over here.'"

Photo credit: CLAY ENOS/NETFLIX
Photo credit: CLAY ENOS/NETFLIX

It was decided that Valentine the fictional tiger was an alpha zombie, which means he was bitten directly by Zeus himself, so he needed to look both like a ferocious wild beast, and a festering half-dead corpse at the same time. Taormina took the proportions of a real-life white tiger at the sanctuary called Sapphire, then the post-production trickery could begin. After several conversations about what a big cat stuck in a dry, desolate desert with very little to eat would look like, they decreased muscle mass, made the fur all manky, and most terrifyingly of all, threw in a few exposed bones to really give the audience the shits. As an easter egg to fans, Valentine’s origins can be seen in one of the fly-over city shots.

After the shoot finished, Taormina said: “Later on, I guess it was probably four or five months in, my wife was watching something and from the other room, I heard this familiar voice. And there's Carole on the TV.” It was Tiger King in all its glory - sadly for Carole, the fall-out from the documentary arguably might have been worse than an actual zombie apocalypse.

Army Of The Dead is streaming on Netflix now.

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