Though there are no in-universe connections between the worlds of Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead and the director’s Dawn of the Dead from 2004, one of the Netflix zombie movie’s more interesting plot points feels like a purposeful callback to the earlier film’s most disturbing scene.
Soon after Army of the Dead’s hired guns venture into a zombie-infested Las Vegas, the group receives a crash course in how the undead behave in the recently cordoned-off city. While Vegas is teeming with the sorts of mindless, flesh-hungry zombies everyone’s somewhat familiar with (but also a zombified tiger), the real danger lurking in the city is the markedly intelligent zombies like the Alpha Queen (Athena Perample) and her male counterpart Zeus (Richard Cetrone), who are able to make more of and command zombies like them.
By offering up a living (though morally corrupt) human as a sacrifice when they arrive at the zombies’ city, the humans convince the Alpha Queen to let them enter her domain with the understanding that if they overstep their ill-defined boundaries, the zombies won’t hesitate to attack. In theory, this should all work to make the humans’ journey to an abandoned casino that much simpler, but as tends to be the case in zombie movies, it isn’t long before someone does something stupid to mess the plan up.
For the most part, Snyder’s zombies keep their distance from the humans, presumably planning to attack them when the time is right. The humans assume the zombies mean to eat them, and concoct a plan designed to lure the Queen into a vulnerable position making it possible to kill her and, hopefully, scare the rest of the zombies off. But after the humans successfully manage to decapitate her, and one of them bags her still-alert head for safekeeping, things quickly turn south as the infected alert Zeus to what’s happened.
After giving you a few fleeting glances at the zombie society early on, Army of the Dead doesn’t actually tell you all that much about what the zombies have been up to since overtaking Las Vegas, and humanity doesn’t seem to have been particularly concerned. The military’s plan to drop a nuclear bomb on the city makes sense as a means of dealing with the general threat of a larger outbreak, but had more people been paying attention to the zombies’ strange behaviour, they might have had a better understanding of just how potentially dangerous beings like Zeus and the Queen were. When an enraged Zeus finds the Queen’s body, it’s clear that the transgression’s going to set him on a warpath against the humans that he wasn’t necessarily on before. Before the zombies go hunting for their prey, though, Zeus carries the Queen’s body back to the place where he creates smart zombies, and once there he proceeds to deliver an unborn child from his partner’s corpse, whose state of being is one of the more interesting questions Army of the Dead leaves unanswered.
In most zombie movies, a ghoul’s body stops being much of a threat once separated from the head, which remains alert if no damage has been done to the brain. Army of the Dead doesn’t really establish how much time passes between when Zeus first presses his head against the Queen’s lifeless stomach and when he delivers their child. But when he first cradles the baby in his palms, it emanates a bright blue glow that a number of the other intelligent zombies also have. When the baby’s glow fades to black, and Zeus’ screams become mournful, it’s clear that the infant didn’t survive — but the fact that it was still clinging to a spark of life within the Queen is interesting in and of itself, because of what it might imply about how the movie’s zombies function.
There’s a certain degree of thematic mirroring between Zeus’ grief over the loss of his spouse and child and ex-mercenary Scott Ward’s (Dave Baustista) own family issues, but by not explaining how Zeus and the Queen came to be a couple and what their plan for their apparently “alive” child was, the movie makes its zombies’ interior lives that much more interesting.
A grotesque zombie baby is similarly featured in Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead. In that film, a human man is forced to restrain his zombified, pregnant wife to a bedpost and deliver their undead child by himself. Both Dawn of the Dead and Army of the Dead play their family-focused zombie moments for a special kind of horrific tragedy meant to tug at your heartstrings even as it repulses you. While ferocious zombie children aren’t new in the genre, zombie babies haven’t featured largely on the big screen outside of movies like Peter Jackson’s 1992 comedy Braindead and Nick Lyons’ Rise of the Zombies from 2012, both of which treated their monstrous infants as gags. Army of the Dead’s baby doesn’t end up playing an active role in the story, but the way Zeus’ mourning galvanizes his legion to track down the Queen’s killers feels somewhat resonant with M.R. Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts. In both the novel and Colm McCarthy’s cinematic adaptation, children infected with the pathogen responsible for the “zombie” plague play a pivotal role in determining the world’s future, and looked at through a certain lens, there’s a somewhat similar idea present, though unexplored, in Army of the Dead.
Now that Snyder’s tapped into this idea of zombified children in multiple films, it’s easy enough to see how the idea can work to make these stories more emotionally complex. Army of the Dead’s ending leaves open the possibility for plenty more exploration of this world as it teeters on the brink of an all-out zombie apocalypse, and there’s already a prequel film and an anime series in the works. Overexposed as zombies have been for the past decade or so, Snyder’s zombie-verse is going to have to put in the work to make itself stand out from its peers. If these stories lean into more of this kind of ghoulishness, the new franchise might just pull that off.
Army of the Dead is now streaming on Netflix.