Once upon a time, being a zombie meant something. The films of George Romero—Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and more—were biting comments about a culture that was all stomach and rot and no heart or soul. Zombie pop like Danny Boyle’s film 28 Days, Max Brooks’ novel World War Z, or Robert Kirkman’s comic book The Walking Dead use the genre to express the anxiety and pessimism of a catastrophe-rocked, terror-plagued world stuck in dispiriting, degrading survival mode. Other hard zombie stories (like BBC America’s In The Flesh) cleverly work zombie tropes to create allegories about class and prejudice, while kinda-sorta zombie stories (like the deluge of return-from-the-dead pop like The Returned and Resurrection) explore more metaphysical themes. The zombie worldview has become so infectious, it taints stories that aren’t technically even zombie stories: While researching my recent essay on post-antihero heroism, I was struck by the recurring motifs of ”the city of the dead” or ”dead inside” people—philosophical zombies—in True Detective, The Killing, and The Leftovers. All the world’s a metaphorical necropolis, and we are but ”the walking dead”…if not witless reanimated corpses starved for brains.
There’s something else that being a zombie used to be: inspired, unpretentious fun. Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake, Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland, and Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead—while not without their subtext—rank among the genre’s best expressions because their directors aspired to entertain with humor, heart, inventive storytelling, and an unabashed love for cartoonish, cathartic ultra-violence. Zombies offer the spectacle of human destruction, without any of the guilt. Headshot! Splatter! YES!
But let’s face it: The zombie thing has been so squeezed for all of its vitality that the genre is as dry and husked as a dusty revenant itself. If I were in a better mood, I might say Syfy’s Z Nation (Fridays, 10 p.m.) is all about slyly prosecuting the zombie-pop apocalypse on the charges of emptiness and inanity. It comes to us from The Asylum, makers of knowingly awful mockbuster shlock like Sharknado, and who have specialized in chewing up zeitgeist pop like Transformers and crapping it back out in cheap, greasy forms like Transmorphers. Pop culture eats itself, and nobody eats it and spits it out more quickly and queasily than The Asylum. Z Nation, the studio’s first TV series, is more of the same, only more of it, and spread over time.
My biggest problem with the show is that it’s bad by The Asylum’s own low standards: Z Nation suffers from not knowing how cheeky it wants to be or should be. This cheap stab as Big Saga TV tracks a band of hardened plague survivors trekking cross-country with a man whose blood might cure the infected. Harold Perrineau of Lost finds the sweet spot of self-seriousness and self-deprecation in a role that is basically a big wink at one of Lost‘s what-coulda-beens, i.e., the producers’ original pilot plan for Jack. (If I spell it out more than this, I spoil.) DJ Qualls brings some energy to the role of Citizen Z, a nerd soldier-turned-Pump Up The Volume pirate radio DJ, or something like that. Didn’t quite get him, but amusing enough. The makeup and special effects are unapologetically bad, yet the action and acting actually aspires toward ”good.” Which is a mistake. We laugh at a too-grave Tom Everett Scott, not with him, as he goes slo-mo berserk on a zombie horde. We resent the storytelling for not maximizing the sublime ridiculousness of a rabid zombie baby hunting the adult heroes. Dear Z Nation: You are not The Walking Dead. You’re a joke! Act like it, already. D+