Werewolves and vampires are great monsters, but aside from switching their settings, giving them different love interests, mashing them up, or making the Presidents, you can’t do as much with them as you can with zombies. They’re too constrained by their rules, and more often than not, their stories are straightforward.
Zombies, on the other hand, are remarkably versatile, and I’m ever impressed with the way television and film can find new ways to use them. They’re great for horror comedies (Shawn of the Dead, Zombieland), you can mash them up with Nazis (Dead Snow) or strippers (Zombie Strippers!), you can domesticate them (Fido) you can extract a love story out of their plight (Warm Bodies), you can do a straight-up action zombie flick (World War Z, Dawn of the Dead), or you can utlize them to tell a sprawling apocalyptic story that may spans ten seasons (“The Walking Dead”).
The latest, “In the Flesh” is another surprisingly brilliant twist, and like genre popularizing film, Night of the Living Dead (a subversive critique of1960;s American society, international Cold War politics and domestic racism), the BBC drama uses zombies to make a political statement, in this case the immigration issue in the United Kingdom.
It’s a wildly interesting premise, too. Four years after a zombie uprising, in which dead bodies sprang forth from their graves, the government has found a cure of sorts for the “partially dead.” They still have the appearance of a zombie (although, the characters wear contacts and make-up in order to mask their undead appearance), and they don’t eat, but they have feelings and emotions and brain activity. Once the cure is found, the difficult part comes in reintegrating the partially undead back into a society that isn’t very welcoming, mostly on account of the fact that — as zombies — they murdered and ate the brains of their friends and families.
“In the Flesh” centers on a teenager, Kieren Walker (Luke Newberry), who has two burdens to bear. Not only is he only partially dead, but in his previous life, he committed suicide, something he’s going to have to answer for now that he’s been reintegrated into his family. The family itself is anxious to move into a more remote location, because of the citizenry of their rural community, Lancashire, is prejudice against zombies. Kieren’s father, nevertheless, attempts to act like nothing ever happened, and return to the board games and movie marathons they once shared together in Kieren’s previous life. The mother, meanwhile, seems constantly on the verge of tears, both happy to have her son back and unsure of who he is now.
The sister is the wildcard here. She’s part of the volunteer militia in Lancashire, devoted to keeping the town safe from “rotters,” killing the partially dead because they believe, at their core, they are still undead murderers. She’s also untrusting of her brother, unsure if he’s the same person, and also upset with him for taking his own life and abandoning her. She’s trapped between brotherly love and her friends and colleagues in the militia.
“In the Flesh” is not a fast-paced zombie-action series, and it’s as distinct from “The Walking Dead” as it could possibly be, given that both concern the undead (or the partially dead). It’s a slow-burning drama, largely interested in exploring the prejudices of rural Britain — and tying it into the immigration debate — and the emotional toll reintegration takes on the families, as well as the perspective of the partially dead, who understand that they are pariahs, but who also have to deal with the guilt of killing countless numbers of people while they were zombies.
It’s a riveting show, and yet another brilliant use of the ever-versatile zombie. It’s a three-hour miniseries, currently airing on BBC America, though it has already been picked up for a second season. It’s much more, however, than just another decent summer TV show to pass the time; it is great television for any time of the year.