Ladies and gentlemen, it is my dispiriting task to inform you that we have now reached Peak Zombie.
Yes, much like Peak Oil, where all the oil that can be found, has been found and it’s only downhill from here, zombies have finally reach the summit of pop culture visibility and are now sliding down the other side, clutching the withered, schlock-stained husk of syfy’s Z Nation close to their decaying bosoms.
It is not, as you might expect, a pretty picture but nor is it a completely hopeless one.
Movies like the superlative 28 Days Later and World War Z, both heirs apparent in their own way to the literal biting, savage social satire of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and its successors, and of course the zeitgeist juggernaut that is The Walking Dead, are prevailing reminders that you can still say something fresh and provocative with zombies should the intent seize you.
Even the more comedic members of the genre such as Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead serve as potently humourous examples that it is possible to have some fun with the zombie apocalypse and say something worthwhile too.
And yet somewhere in the midst of all this finely-executed zombie-ness, the producers of Z Nation, the first TV series from The Asylum, the self-aware purveyors of trashy so-bad-it’s-good fare like Sharknado and a thousand other schlocky masterpieces like Bermuda Tentacles, never got the memo.
The result is the first, wretchedly-amateur step down the slippery slope from Peak Zombie where it is, against all odds and expectations, possible to begin to tire of the biting and the chomping, the gritty survivalist dramatics and the satirical barbs levelled at a society fast disappearing up its own social media-obsessed narcissistic backside.
Plainly put, Z Nation, while armed with an intriguing premise, a roguish sense of humour and the requisite larger than life characters, somehow manages to come up wanting, dragging its high concept aspirations down into a finished half-baked product that clearly wants to be the Zombieland of 2014 but isn’t quite sure how to do it.
Part of the problem, rather ironically for a show with decaying tongue planted very firmly in swiss cheese’d cheek, is that it actually takes itself all too seriously.
There is not a hint of irony when at one point a lovely sweet helpless baby boy, who somehow survived the car crash that killed his mother, suddenly turns into a meat-hungry zombie-let with a ridiculously fast crawl rate and murderous intent burning in previously placid eyes.
It’s like Chucky Jr., kicked the baby to one side, jumped into frame and went to town, in this case on temporary hero Delta Force soldier Mark Hammond (Harold Perrineau), with no sense of how ridiculous he must look.
It’s clearly met to be a tense showdown of some sort, since the disparate ragtag members of Hammond’s group like National Guard soldier Charles Garnett (Tom Everett Scott) and Roberta Warren (Kellita Smith) are pacing nervously back and forth outside the door, flinching and staring gravely everytime Hammond so much as knocks a tin can over.
It is patently absurd, manifestly over the top, and quite possibly meant to be insanely silly but there’s far too much faux-gravitas and tension to treat it as some sort of clever wink-wink-nudge-nudge joke.
What you end up with, time and again in the hilariously named “Puppies and Kittens” – points at least for a inventive title, if nothing else – are scenes where our heroes duck and roll in glorious slo-mo, shooting and axe-wielding as they go, dramatic intent writ large upon their humourless faces.
And yes it makes sense that they wouldn’t look like they’re having a day at the picnic.
But Z Nation is never sure if they should be deadly serious survivalists, or quip-heavy, gun-toting men and women who are laughing in the face of very real and present danger, and stuck awkwardly in the middle with low rent, poorly made up zombies melodramatically racing towards you, the show suffers as a result.
It’s not all a complete mess.
The premise, as mentioned, is clever, with Hammond charged with spiriting the only known survivor of a zombie bite, eight of them in fact, Murphy (Keith Allen), a man whose blood is presumably swimming with zombie virus-zapping antibodies all itching to save the rest of the human race, all the way across the U.S. from east to west to the last functioning viral lab in California.
It’s a neat twist on the usual survivors just trying to survive schtick, and gives the show a lot of room to move in terms of creating and dealing with week-to-week threats within the overall narrative arc.
The society that has arisen in the wake of government and all civil authorities collapsing three years after the epidemic began also shows promising signs of being well fleshed out with death rituals, that involve those near to breathing their last being ceremoniously shot in the head before they can turn, and a nascent barter economy and innovative weapons industry that has found alternate uses for no longer needed baseball bats in evidence.
And everyone, for the most part, seems to be doing their best to act their hearts out, especially DJ Squalls as irreverent Good Morning Vietnam-esque ex-NSA radio jockey Citizen Z, although they are hampered by a muddled script, lacklustre dialogue and the aforementioned tonal gap between satirical, over the top silliness and grave drama.
It is entirely possible that Z Nation can fashion a viewing diamond out of this undead decaying rough, given the fact that Zombieland and even the recent Life After Beth have proven it is possible to be funny and zombie-ish all at once, but I would go holding my breath.
There’s a good chance that a real zombie apocalypse come come along before Z Nation gets its necrotic narrative house in order.