Monday, 18 March 2013

There's life in the zombie genre yet

It's been a long time coming, but zombies are finally fashionable. For too long, they've been relegated to the shadows, bumbling around idiotically like contestants in the Take Me Out green room, while their more dynamic contemporaries hogged the spotlight. In the world of cinematic monsters, the living dead are seldom little more than props - barely animated piles of meat, occasionally shuffling into shot so that they can be crudely dismembered. They lack the raw sexuality of the vampire, the inner turmoil of the werewolf, or the unfinished business that keeps ghosts hanging about on this mortal plane. Horror writers have long since realised that there's not much you can do with a brain-dead protagonist who's in charity shop rags, unless you fancy dramatising the Jeremy Kyle Show.

Instead, film-makers have exploited the potential of the undead in exploring the darker side of humanity. The living dead may take every opportunity to chew messily on people's internal organs, but they're rarely presented as true villains. Even in his seminal black and white shocker, that inadvertently established the rules the modern gut-muncher, George Romero felt sympathy for his lolloping hordes. He was far more intrigued by the darkness in the hearts of his living protagonists, opting to focus on man's inhumanity to man, albeit with a few head-shots for good measure.

In recent years we've had Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead and Romero's patchy second trilogy, followed by remarkable cable drama The Walking Dead and last month's teen drama Warm Bodies. And now, with a supernatural hole in its schedule left by the dearly departed Being Human, BBC Three is offering up its own contribution to the sub-genre.

In The Flesh opens boldly, with a gruesome attack in a deserted supermarket, as a young woman in combats gathers supplies. For a moment, it seems as though she might be the lead character, until she stumbles across two zombies making short work of someone's scalp, who turn their attention to her and smash her head into a shelf. All in all, it's not too similar to my local ASDA.

Turns out, this was all a flashback – except the twist here, is that it's the male zombie who's reliving it. Meet Kieran Walker, presumably named in tribute to the show's transatlantic counterpart. Kieran is a reformed zombie, who's been sensitively rebadged as a sufferer of Partially Deceased Syndrome. As a consequence, he's been extensively rehabilitated, medicated and is now preparing to return to society, complete with a ready supply of NHS-provided contact lenses to mask his milky gaze.

Our pallid protagonist still feels guilt over his time as an undead killing machine, a fact that isn't made any easier given his regular nightmares of that scene in the supermarket. He even attends a therapy group to work through his anxieties about reintegration, where other PDS sufferers clash over whether they should be re-assimilating at all. One inpatient taunts another with an Orville impression that feels somewhat anachronistic for a show that’s presumably set in the near future. But we can forgive writer Dominic Mitchell for the occasional self-indulgent pop culture reference, since this is a show that could do with the occasional moment of levity.

Back in the real world, Kieran’s parents are trying to sell their house in order to move somewhere more remote, which is a little odd given that the village where they currently live makes Ambridge seem like a bustling metropolis. Complicating matters further is their antagonistic daughter, who wears camouflage, listens to the Ramones and has signed up with the Human Volunteer Force. The HVF is a militia group formed with the self-imposed authority to eradicate the ‘rotters’, who spend most of their time angrily regurgitating their own propaganda, like UKIP with sawn-off shotguns. In a clever commentary on reactionary right wing politics, the HVF are struggling with obsolescence, now that the rehabilitated undead are being steadily reintroduced into society. Previously hailed as heroes, they’re now in danger of losing their veterans’ benefits, like free pints in the village boozer.

Meanwhile, Kieran finally comes face to face with his family, who are shocked and disturbed by the synthetic complexion he’s painted on in order to smooth his reintegration. It doesn’t help matters that the local vicar is doing his best to mobilise the villagers in an angry demonstration against the government’s Domiciled Care Initiative. The voices of the crowd, led by Ricky Tomlinson, articulate every argument we’ve ever heard levelled at immigrants, asylum seekers, mental health patients, parolees and registered sex offenders. The problem here, is that the multiple allusions to real world issues threaten to undermine the allegorical purity of the concept.

But that’s not all - there’s another social issue that will presumably be addressed in the next two episodes, as it’s revealed that Kieran committed suicide over the death of his friend Rick. Something happened between these two that drove Rick into the army, where he was promptly dispatched by an IED in Afghanistan. We’ve already had a RomZomCom in the form of Shaun of the Dead – is the BBC preparing us for the world’s first GayZomRom?

Either way, some of the most interesting moments come in the subtle beats as Kieran attempts to fit back into family life. His sister bursts in to find her newly reunited family enjoying Sunday lunch, and refuses to sit down while “that thing” is at the table. It’s unclear which she’s most upset about – her undead brother, or their choice of roast: “You know I hate lamb.” Kieran’s got his own problems, as he goes through the motions of eating, moving his cutlery back and forth several inches above his plate. We’re not clear on what the PDS sufferers eat, but chances are, they don’t slather it in Bisto first. Later on, there’s another lovely moment as Kieran and his dad desultorily attempt to play The Game of Life, offering a stark commentary on this synthesis of an ordinary existence.

The shows final few minutes kept the shocks coming, as a fake-out tip-off made viewers think that the Walkers had been rumbled, when in fact it was Ricky Tomlinson’s wife who was dragged out into the street and shot. Similarly, it was revealed that Kieran’s friend Rick is coming back home, causing consternation for his father; founding member of the HVF.

Credit must go to the show’s designers for giving the show an impressively bleached look, giving it the same cold, washed out appearance as its undead cast. Likewise, the moments of dark humour prevent the tone from getting too despairing early on. Standout moments include a shot of Kieran’s mum standing on the landing brandishing a chainsaw, and the community nurse lamenting the extensiveness of her three weeks’ training on administering PDS medication. It’s still no barrel of laughs, but then, it is a show about death, grieving and intolerance. Finally, here’s a show that gives zombies the starring role they deserve. After fifty years of playing second fiddle, it seems that the walking dead are finally de rigueur-mortis.

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