Aaron Yap checks the pulse of In The Flesh‘s peculiarly English zombies. //
If there’s still an abundance of forgettable, interchangeable zombie movies around to convince seasoned horror fans that the genre’s practically played out, Dominic Mitchell’s BBC 3 mini-series In the Flesh can be considered the counterargument.
For those who appreciate a little ambition and thoughtfulness to accompany all the brain-munching, the three-part first season of this terrific show should be commended for its willingness to consider the genre beyond base aim-for-the-head thrills. The show embraces resonant socio-political issues in a style not dissimilar to George Romero’s seminal masterpiece Dawn of the Dead critique of ‘70s mall culture’s rampant consumerism.
A much more subdued affair than the splatter-happy The Walking Dead, In the Flesh bears a spiritual resemblance to the French series Les Revenants and Jonathan Levine’s zom-rom-com Warm Bodies, both of which feature largely sympathetic portrayals of the undead, inasmuch as they possess recognisably human traits: feelings, memories, a conscience.
It’s sensitive, well-acted, cleverly executed and droll when it needs to be. The narrative is intimate in scope, grounding the fantastique in drab, rural kitchen sink surroundings that occasionally give the viewer the impression that they’ve staggered into a Ken Loach film. But it also allows sufficient room for its themes of discrimination, assimilation and depression to breathe and ultimately develop into suspenseful, engrossing, deeply touching TV.
The first episode is an incisive, imaginative piece of world-building. Taking place years after a zombie outbreak known as The Rising, the story follows 19-year-old Kieren Walker (Luke Newberry), one of thousands of “Partially Deceased Syndrome Sufferers” whom the government are treating and preparing to send back into society. They’re held in a medical facility where rehabilitation involves daily booster shots to the back of the neck and group therapy sessions. Once ready, they’re given contact lenses and pastelly skin-toned foundation to ensure smooth integration into the outside living world, which, we soon find out, aren’t quite ready for them yet.
While Kieren’s parents, Steve (Steve Cooper) and Sue (Marie Critchley), can’t wait to have their son back (Steve’s already jabbering on about movie marathon nights on the drive home), a sizeable portion of their village of Roarton continue to fear and distrust the presence of “rotters” among them. Despite their diminishing authority, the show’s antagonists, a group of camo-clad, rifle-packing vigilantes calling themselves the Human Volunteer Force (HVF), remain as watchful as ever.
This element sets up a number of crucial conflicts that fuel the story with simmering tension over the next three hours. Kieren’s parents are faced with the possibility that he’ll be discovered and killed at any moment. Complicating matters is angsty sister Jem (Harriet Cains), a HVF member who’s refusing to accept her brother’s return (“What are you? A monster sent from Hell?”).
Meanwhile, their leader, Bill Macy (Steve Evets), gets dealt a cruelly ironic hand. As the staunchest, most unwavering anti-PDS guy around, Bill could have been demonised. For a while seems like he is, but he’s afforded some empathy when he discovers that his son Rick (David Walmsley), a soldier who died in Afghanistan, has been found and will be coming home – as a dreaded rotter.
Between the mounting familial unrest, Mitchell slips in deft, welcome touches of levity and sweetness. The dialogue rings with distinctly British understatement and wit. In her description of The Rising, Shirley Wilson (Sandra Huggett), a chirpy PDS community care officer, remembers, “I mean I know they went rabid for a while and caused a spot of bother, but you know, the past is the past”.
The second episode sees Kieren paired up with co-PDS sufferer Amy (Emily Bevan), a comic foil who’s a little more comfortable in her own skin (“au naturale”) and provides In the Flesh with its obligatory zombie-shagging gag. And there’s the backstory between Kieren and Rick, a close relationship that’s ambiguously written but sincere and moving all the same.
There are dangling threads here that’ll obviously be picked up in the second season, such as the shadowy Undead Liberation Army; with all its talk of a Second Rising, they’re certainly in a prime position to act as an insidious, sequel-sized threat. More screentime for some of the minor characters, like the Vicar – who’s simply a raving, intolerant fundamentalist in this season – would be great to see too.
Curiously, In the Flesh plays coy with something the genre usually lays out quite clearly: the rules of infection. But whether it’s an intentionally withheld piece of information that’ll be divulged later on isn’t a massive problem for me at this point – I’m already emotionally invested.
The show is one of the most poignant examples of the genre yet, characterised by a keen sense of humanity that’s reinforced by its satisfyingly tender conclusion. Rather than stunning us with a plotty cliffhanger, it’s concerned with granting closure for both the living and the undead in equal measure.
In The Flesh is currently playing on THE ZONE, Tuesdays at 8.30pm
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.