Zombies. They were flipping everywhere last year. The popularity of The Walking Dead fuelled a slew of cheap Romero zombie B-movies like Cockneys vs Zombies, experience companies started running apocalyptic survival events, the rather fantastic book ‘Warm Bodies‘ was made into a lukewarm film and even fitness apps like ‘Zombies, run!’ got in on the act. Yes, it felt like we had reached zombie saturation. What could possibly be done to make the old rotters fresh again?
Then, in March 2013, BBC3 screened their kitchen-sink zombie drama ‘In the Flesh’. Set in the fictional northern British village of Roarton, it charted the resurrection of Kieran Walker, a young man who it emerged had committed suicide, and the process of his reintegration in to his family when a ‘cure’ for the rabid stage of zombification was discovered. Zombies are not known as zombies, but rather ‘Partially Diseased Syndrome sufferers’ (or rabids when untreated). Without getting into spoiler territory, the mini-series, a succinct 3 one-hour episodes, felt somewhat more akin to 1960’s kitchen-sink dramas and gritty British realism than the all-out gore of many of it’s counterparts. What was interesting was that despite it’s ratings hovering around the half a million mark (not bad for BBC3 but not a stellar performance) it received a warm critical reception and was renewed for a second series, which started broadcast two weeks ago (episodes one and two are currently on iplayer)
Zombies (and all cinematic and literary monsters) have long been used to represent the big fears of contemporary society. Zombie master George A. Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead’ is famously said to be an allegory about both racism and also communism, while the plethora of vampire movies in the 80s and 90s are reflective of contemporary concerns around AIDS and other diseases. The monsters in our films always reflect our “others” in society, the Them to the majority’s Us.
‘In the Flesh’ is carrying on in this tradition of zombies as socio-political commentary, but in some interesting and, I think, quite audacious ways. The first series was very much character-driven, with much of the drama centering on Kieran, his friend Amy, their demise and attempts at living again. Some interesting themes of sexuality cropped up, but it was more or less what you might expect from something which could be lumped into the Young Adult canon.
Season Two is pulling off something quite different. The zombies are now representative of one of current British society’s real demons, the feckless poor; ‘dole-scroungers’, immigrants, the disabled, all of whom have been recently been demonised by the British media. The ‘rotters’ (as is the series equivalent of the ‘n word’- highly offensive to all concerned) are seen as a massive drain on society, with a far-right UKIP/BNP style political party called ‘Victus’ rearing it’s head whose sole purpose is to bring the country back into the hands of the living. Despite being about zombies it is already clear the politicians who are the real monsters of the piece.
Alongside the sinister national-socialist echoes with ‘Victus’ we are given the other side, a hardcore group of disenfranchised PDS sufferers who call themselves the “Undead Liberation Army”. They have carried out a series of terrorist attacks on the living, trying to win rights for those with PDS, but in the process further cementing the far-right wing view that the undead should go back to where they came from. Tackling Islamophobia, immigration and demonisation of those on benefits is a pretty tall order for a BBC3 horror-drama, but it is has been done with real thought so far.
Aside from the interesting themes and canny writing, In the Flesh also boasts some great acting performances. Luke Newberry is both innocent and other-worldly as artist Kieran, Amy Bevan provides the zombie-equivalent of a rounded manic-pixie-dream-girl and two understated performances from Marie Critchley and Steve Cooper as Kieran’s conflicted parents.
Series creator Dominic Mitchell says in this interview with Hittfix that he concentrated on fear of otherness, and that immigration is one of the hot topics of our time. It will be interesting to see where the rest of this series takes us with that idea, and indeed if series 3 (which may be moved to BBC 2 with the demise of BBC3) takes things even further.