“I am a Partially Deceased Syndrome sufferer, and what I did in my untreated state was not my fault.”
Zombies! They’re everywhere these days, aren’t they? Since Danny Boyle managed to reinvigorate them with 2002’s 28 Days Later, it seems we can’t get enough of the flesh-eating shufflers, and they’re now in danger of rivalling vampires for most over-exposed horror monster.
Speaking of which, about three years ago I wrote a rant bemoaning the current ‘de-fanging’ of the vampire into a tortured plaything for mopey teenage girls. At the end of it, I sarcastically suggested they pick on another monster, and “try going on a date with a flesh eating zombie”.
I guess the joke was on me; little did I know that, even as I wrote that, author Isaac Marion was finishing off the novel Warm Bodies – basically Twilight with zombies. The movie adaptation has just come out, and dubious though I am about the premise, I will watch it at some point to see what I think. And also because I’m always happy just looking at Nicholas Hoult, even if he’s undead.
Still, the trend of ‘humanising’ monsters, for me, tends to remove the power they have to scare. It’s notable that Star Trek’s Borg, as they became increasingly more human, became increasingly less interesting. The power of the zombie apocalypse archetype, as established in George Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead, derives from a clever combination of primal fears – the dead have returned, they’re brainless monsters that want to eat you, and it’s going to cause the end of civilisation. Three very profound terrors that, combined, make a premise that is enjoyably nihilistic. You don’t expect a happy ending in a zombie story.
But even Romero liked to ‘humanise’ his monsters, in line with the vampire villains of his inspiration, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. The fourth entry in Romero’s Dead series proper, Land of the Dead, basically puts the zombies in the role of heroes, as they try dimly to return to their half-remembered lives while the nasty old humans keep shooting them in the head.
All of which is a roundabout way of setting the scene to talk about BBC3’s new bandwagon-hopping zombie drama In the Flesh. Scheduled conveniently in the slot just vacated by the much-loved Being Human, it perhaps suffers from too much similarity to that show. Being Human, you’ll recall, already did a sympathetic zombie in series 3’s episode Type 4. Rotting Welsh party girl Sasha didn’t eat human flesh, but the US Being Human currently has that covered; former ghost Sally has returned from the grave with the inconvenient need to eat flesh in order to avoid decomposing. So far she’s only onto small animals, but at least one of her ex-ghost friends has already taken the plunge with humans.
In the Flesh covers similar territory, with perhaps a dash of True Blood also. The premise is simple; after a narrowly averted zombie apocalypse (the ‘Rising’), the authorities, in tandem with a shady pharmaceutical company, have discovered a way to chemically ‘rehabilitate’ the captured zombies, and re-integrate them back into society as ‘Partially Deceased Syndrome Sufferers’. The trouble is, quite a lot of ‘society’ is understandably less than keen to have the creatures that used to try and eat their brains living alongside them in their communities.
With, plainly, a fairly limited budget, the show set about establishing this world with admirable economy, eking out the exposition over the episode rather than trying to dump it on us all at once. So, we learned that there are ‘Rehabilitation Centres’ for the undead, run by the army; there’s a fanatical force of zombie-hating vigilantes called the ‘Human Volunteer Force’; there’s a mysterious drug called ‘Blue Oblivion’ that turns reluctant rehabilitees back to their former ‘rabid’ state; and the date is fast approaching when the ‘Partially Deceased Syndrome Sufferers’ are to be released back into the care of their formerly grieving relatives.
The hook for all this is our viewpoint ‘hero’, recovering teenage zombie Kieren (Luke Newberry). Kieren’s about to be placed into the care of his parents, back in his hometown of Roarton, somewhere in the generic rural north. Trouble is, Roarton’s a centre for the anti-zombie HVF, and Kieren’s own sister Jem (Harriet Cains) is a member. Plainly, integrating back into society is not going to be smooth sailing.
The community of Roarton was well-drawn, with a welter of good character actors filling it out. Hence, there’s a fire-and-brimstone preacher played by Kenneth Cranham, fanning the anti-zombie movement, and a pillar of the community (Ricky Tomlinson) whose hatred of the zombies is not all it seems. The show subtly established a revival of that ol’ time religion in the aftermath of a near-apocalypse; Kieren’s room at the Rehabilitation Centre has a cross on the wall, the TV is showing documentaries about Jerusalem, and Cranham’s preacher is a far more powerful figure in the community than you’d currently expect.
From Kieren, we got to learn about the kind of ‘zombies’ we’re dealing with here, though I at least still had plenty of questions. Apparently, like the zombies in Return of the Living Dead, they only like to eat brains; and again like those zombies, they retain a certain amount of intelligence even when ‘rabid’ – enough to coordinate hunting in pairs anyway. They have to be dosed daily with ‘Neurotriptyline’ to remain intelligent (through a gruesome looking hole at the base of their necks). They don’t eat, leading to some amusing scenes in which Kieren pretends to chew his family dinner rather than upset his parents. And they have to wear make-up and contact lenses to more closely resemble their formerly-living appearance.
OK fine – but if they don’t eat ‘food’, how do they sustain themselves? Do they age? And what about decomposition – at one point, we establish that they used to eat brains to stave this off, so does the drug now do that for them?
It does seem ironic to be arguing about points of logic for a fictional creature that’s returned from the grave to eat brains, but if we’re tinkering with the myth, it’s a good idea to get in-universe ground rules in place. I like that the show is taking its time over the exposition, but with only three episodes, perhaps it should establish exactly what we’re dealing with early on. Unless writer Dominic Mitchell is intentionally leaving these things ambiguous, which I don’t think will do the show any favours.
However, the show’s basic USP – showing ‘outsiders’ and their struggle to be accepted into ‘normal society’ – is well enough done (if all too reminiscent of True Blood). Kieren is a likeable, sympathetic character, but the motivations of those who hate zombies are sympathetically drawn too. The Human Volunteer Force was formed to deal with the zombie Rising in the face of total inaction from the authorities (represented here by a mealy-mouthed minister who was all too believable, given the current Government). Many of their friends were killed; so it’s understandable that they’re not ready to welcome the former harbingers of the apocalypse back into their living rooms.
There was a lot of imagination on display here, along with some genuinely dramatic character interaction. Kieren’s sister Jem was perhaps too easily swayed back into caring about her brother, given her convictions earlier, but it allowed for a nice conflict of loyalties to be set up as she uncomfortably accompanied her HVF comrades on a raid to find a ‘Rotter’ living among them.
That scene was cleverly set up to make us assume they’d found out about Kieren, leading to the amusing spectacle of his parents tooling themselves up with a nail-studded cricket bat and a chainsaw. Little details like that were a nice visual shorthand to the way society had changed in the aftermath of the Rising.
But it wasn’t Kieren they were after. It turned out to be genial old Ricky Tomlinson’s wife, neatly characterised as a loveable little old lady to make the HVF’s actions seem even more monstrous. They shot her in the head, of course – though here again, do we know that that’s the only way to kill a ‘Rotter’ in this universe?
As an opening episode, this had a lot to set up, and (mostly) did it well, avoiding the infodumps of clumsy exposition in similar shows. Despite some nice visuals in various establishing shots though, it played out rather stagily, with most scenes being tense character interactions in rooms. A sign, perhaps of writer Dominic Mitchell’s theatrical background – or perhaps that this actually started life as a stage play?
I’m not sure what metaphor – if any – Mitchell’s reaching for with the zombies. Vampires are often made blatantly analogous to homosexuals (True Blood) or drug addicts (Being Human). The HVF at least, bear more than a passing similarity to certain Northern Irish paramilitary groups, but if there’s a point being made there, I’m not sure what it is.
Like Being Human, this started life as a non-genre piece, in this case about a mentally ill young man trying to come to terms with the aftermath of a violent attack he’d carried out. I wonder if Mitchell is quite prepared for the level of attention his script will get now it’s under the merciless scrutiny of genre fans?
But dramatic though the show undoubtedly is, it still has room for some wry black humour. The concept of rebranding zombies as the ‘Partially Deceased’ smacks all too accurately of modern media spin, and I also liked the idea of zombies undergoing group therapy to come to terms with the guilt from their former carnivorous activities. It was also interesting to see that some of the Rotters, far from regretting their actions, felt resentful at being forced into passivity – nicely embodied with an all too brief turn from the ever-likeable Alex Arnold (Skins) as Kieren’s rebellious roommate.
In the Flesh was interesting and imaginative – but in a field already occupied by the likes of True Blood and Being Human, it did feel a little redundant. Still, it’s well-written and entertaining enough, and with three episodes, it’s unlikely to outstay its welcome. I’ll be back for more next week.