Cold, dead flesh. So hot right now. With the runaway success of AMC’s The Walking Dead, it’s hard not to notice the accompanying uptick in zombie stories. They’re the new vampires. Before you know it, they’ll be practically sparkling. In fact, lest you forget, True Blood ended this season with a shambling horde of half-naked zombie vampires. No, seriously.
So we have that to look forward to next year. What’s so fascinating about a zombie story? Well there are two takes. There’s the side of the equation that examines the human reaction to a zombie outbreak. Is it mere, instinctual terror? Or, in the case of The Walking Dead, is it an examination of the worn down experience and tedium of the every day apocalypse. The other side of the equation has only emerged more recently. That’s the zombie P.O.V. And it’s fascinating. Two of the best, most overlooked TV series of the year were told, partially, from the point of view of the undead. Once they stop chanting for brains, something more interesting takes shape.
But even on either side of the equation, the zombie plot is not wholly dissimilar from the vampire plot in the way it holds up a warped and and haunting mirror to our concepts of morality. Fighting monsters is one thing, but fighting monsters who wear the faces of your loved ones? That’s a whole different nightmare. Here, ranked, are six TV shows and movies that tried to take a closer, more human look at the zombocalypse this year.
6. American Horror Story: Coven: What a waste of a great opportunity. Evan Peters has shown himself to be one of the more talented members of Ryan Murphy’s stable of actors but casting him in this thankless part was a huge mistake. As reassembled frat boy (and sexual assault victim!) Kyle, Peters’ zombie mostly gets played for laughs or nude temper tantrums. He’s only now just begun to speak. And I’m not impressed. I much prefer Marie Laveau’s voodoo zombies.
5. World War-Z: Told from the perspective of the human survivors (chiefly Brad Pitt) this was one of the weaker entries into the zombie genre this year. Where the film succeeds in excess, spectacle and thrilling action, it fails in the emotional wallop that made the book so engaging. The film was too big, too global. It needed to pull the focus back in on the smaller stories.
4. Warm Bodies: A much better stab at a big-screen zombie experience, this zom-com (their words not mine) was told from the perspective of Nicholas Hoult’s “R,” a zombie with a heart of gold. (Don’t embarrass yourself like I did and fail to notice that this love story between zombie R and human Julie is a re-telling of Romeo And Juliet. Don’t you dare.) Ultimately, this was a feather-light romance that didn’t even come close to capturing the magic of Zombieland, but they did some great work using the undead as a metaphor for an isolated existence.
3. The Walking Dead: I actually really liked the disease plot of this season’s The Walking Dead. I liked the way it brought death inside the prison and threatened to devour our favorite characters from the inside. In fact, I was deeply on board until someone sent me this (spoiler-tastic) take on the mid-season finale. Now I’m irritated again. Oh well, we’ll always have Daryl.
2. In The Flesh: This BBC show was one of my favorites of the year. Dark and spare, it tells the story of what happens after a zombie apocalypse settles down and science has found a “cure.” The show focuses on our young, sympathetic protagonist, Kieren Walker, who tries to integrate back into his old life but confronts resistance from both his family and the town as a whole. He wears make-up and contacts to try to blend, but he nonetheless meets resistance at every turn. The show is bursting with heartbreak. (And, okay, a little comedy.) Kieren’s parents and his sister have to process their anger and Kieren his despair and the zombie thing turns out to be one big fat “REDACTED FOR SPOILERS* metaphor. It works.
1. The Returned (Les Revenants): One of the best shows of the year, this French drama is beautiful and cinematic while maintaining an intimate level of storytelling. The premise centers around a handful of residents of a small French lake town who come back to life with no memory of their death. Some have been dead for a year, others much longer. There are no shambling corpses, the returned might as well be ghosts. But they’re corporeal and, it would appear, immortal. Someone compared this show to Lost and I will agree. But only in the best sense. The mysterious rules of this world, the surprising connections between characters and the absorbing flashbacks are everything Lost should have been. Did I mention it’s beautiful?
There’s also a very interesting subplot involving the local lake that is straight out of Stephen King or the popular Welcome To Nightvale podcast. The show also employs some fun horror tropes (creepy kids and unexplained wounds!). But it’s the performances, the human anguish of both the returned and their loved ones that make this show so great. You can catch a marathon of the show either this Sunday or the next on The Sundance Channel or you can order a season pass on iTunes. Check it out. You won’t regret it.