Night of the Living Dead went in a different direction. As the movie’s grisly third act is about to begin, Ben (Duane Jones), Barbara (Judith O’Dea), Harry (Karl Hardman), and Helen (Marilyn Eastman) watch as TV reporters and scientists try to make sense of this gruesome national disaster. At one point, the news anchor (Charles Craig) reports on a Venus space probe that returned to Earth just before the dead began to rise from their graves. An expert on “space science and technology” theorizes that high levels of radiation brought back by the Venus probe could be the cause of Earth’s current predicament.
But there’s no way for our ensemble cast of survivors to find out for sure out in rural Pennsylvania. To the people stuck in a desolate cabin trying to fend off the hungry undead, the newscast might as well be the ravings of a delusional sci-fi fan. And Romero gets this bit right about the early days of a pandemic: the mad scramble by experts to find a cause or explanation, and throwing theories at the wall to see what sticks. Romero was a master of evoking mass panic without the kind of grand-scale disaster movie spectacle you often see in today’s CGI-laden blockbusters.
Fast forward to Army of the Dead and the Vanity Fair article, which teases that the virus that hits Las Vegas originates in the infamous Area 51, the source of countless UFO conspiracy theories (and most recently, viral memes). “Aliens may be involved too,” the article reads. Whether we should take this tidbit at face value is anyone’s guess, but Snyder does have a proven track record when it comes to the kind of shock-and-awe storytelling that might not make a lot of sense on the page but does provide plenty of opportunities for explosive action.
A heist thriller set in a zombie-infested Las Vegas casino that’s also about to be invaded by aliens? It’s the kind of third act final battle the Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice director relishes. And if those aliens can blow up a few Vegas strip staples along the way? Even better.
The point is that Snyder’s new zombie universe could be very well be inspired by a vague suggestion in Romero’s own work: that whatever is raising the dead, it’s not from this planet. Romero wasn’t the first storyteller to come up with this idea — cult legend Ed Wood beat him to it with 1959’s Plan 9 from Outer Space. The entire premise of the mythical “worst movie ever made” is an alien scheme to resurrect the dead with “long-distance electrodes shot into the pituitary and pineal glands” of the recently deceased. But if Plan 9 was the scouting party for these ideas on the big-screen, Night of the Living Dead was the full-on invasion, and it’s no secret that Snyder owes a lot of his early success to the house that Romero built. Why not go back to the master’s playbook?