Zombie Road Trip! | 8 Bloody Good Reasons to Binge-Watch
By KARL R. De MESA
For every Romero zombie masterpiece there’s 10 or so trying-hard wannabes that just don’t make the cut. Fewer still are the genre’s comic obras like Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, or the uniquely hilarious and succinctly Japanese Tokyo Zombie, that successfully lampoons the genre while retaining all the good values thereof, while also becoming uniquely transcendent enough to stand on its own. Never mind the Zombie Strippers, the Cockneys vs Zombies, and the abominable Warm Bodies.
I came to Syfy’s (and Netflix’s) Z Nation completely without expectation. I came away a fan.
Previous to this I’d quit The Walking Dead, a.k.a that other zombie apocalypse show, TV series for its already overwrought and completely, almost zero risk penchant to let fave characters survive, but handling said scene completely without the subtlety or pathos of the comic book original. I mean, c’mon, it’s a zombie soap so I get how the artistic feed to viewer brains sometimes needs to be done “here comes the airplane!” style; but, still. STFU, Kirkman!
So why, Z Nation? Three main things: it’s relentlessly low-fi funny (you can tell exactly where the budget went per episode), it’s got an almost rabid obsession with throwing at least two major plot twists into every episode (kind of like putting cliffhangers and ending chapter every 500 words for a short story), and the care it takes to balance absurdity and character development without sacrificing the uniquely tweaked world it’s built on—a world where the characters and the people they encounter know exactly what a zombie is and how to kill it (and see the humor in their post-apocalypse predicament).
By now, I’ve finished the first season, and I hear the second (and the recently released third!) seasons are just as entirely excellent and binge-worthy.
Here are 8 more entirely SPOILER-FREE reasons you should get on the zompocalypse train, get refreshed by the fun, and show your zombie-exhausted brain some mercy.
8. It Steers Clear of “The Walking Dead” Melodrama
Plenty of critics have pointed out that this series is totally not trying to replace the The Walking Dead, and it doesn’t even want to compete with it.
Here’s the caveat: it’s an Asylum Studios production, which (especially if you’re a genre insider and fan) is a haven for really bad B-movie horror flicks. Which is why ZNation becoming a good cult hit, and then transforming into something with crossover potential, is akin to our own Seiko Films birthing something worthy of artistic merit and laurels and still eminently watchable.
TWD often gets all wrapped up and emo about its own melodrama, the fact that very few humorous scenes are in it and that there’s no jester character that survives for comic relief paints everything in shades of grey. Hey, I like listening to black metal and all its attendant glooms but damn if the perennial, hopeless pall that hangs over the TWD crew doesn’t get me down.
Not so with ZNation. Refreshingly the actors know when to ham up their performances and it really imbues the show with high entertainment value. I’m glad that it’s ridiculous. I’m glad that the humans in this world aren’t too hung up on their hang-ups, even if they have (as Tom Everett Scot’s character confesses) “stopped planning two minutes ahead” ever since the dead came back.
7. A Simple, Sustainable Premise
Z Nation is set three years after the zombie apocalypse and humanity has been beaten down by the unknown virus (the whys and hows and the general state of things surrounding the apocalypse are intentionally left vague), leaving the world overrun by the dead.
What’s left of the U.S. government has been working on a vaccine to stop the zombie virus. And in Season One, we follow Harold Perrineau’s military man Mark Hammond go into a facility where one of the experiments is about to come to fruition. Said government hasn’t been too lucky with volunteer test subjects though, so they’ve taken to forcing the cure on prison inmates in hopes that something works.
Problem: the savages are literally at the door. So, the science team abandons their test subjects to be eaten alive. The first plot twist is this: the cure works and one of the test subjects, former convict and confidence man, Murphy (Keith Allan) walks out chewed and bearing zombie hickeys but otherwise hale.
From there on we follow Hammond (who goes by the call sign Delta X-Ray Delta), who’s been tasked to escort “the package” (Murphy) across the country to another CDC science facility in California. That package? The only man to ever survive being bit by a zombie thanks to an experimental vaccine.
Hammond and Murphy, now the only human known to have survived a zombie bite, eventually encounter a ragtag group of survivors who must help them get to the West Coast in the hopes that the vaccine in his blood can yield something to stem the tide of the dead.
Aided by a mysterious voice on the radio called Citizen Z the quest is on, and the group that protects Murphy may diminish and change but the mission of Operation Bitemark never does: get the package to California. It’s the ultimate zombie road trip!
6. Humor, Fun and Absurdity Abound
Imagine this: a U.S. soldier chases a zombie baby around a garage, an historic bell bounces around buildings clanging and destroying zombies, zombie bears, your garden variety cannibal cult, killer dentists, radioactive zombies, a religious cult centered on the undead, evil scientists, and an episode in Roswell with (yep) aliens.
And, of course, a zombie tornado called a zunami (this is the same studio that made Sharknado, after all). Somewhere down the line the complete surprise of a huge rolling cheese wheel will become your “zombie kill of the week” fodder. Yeah, this thing is awesome.
5. The Writing Gets Stronger Every Season
By the time you finish Season One, it’s pretty clear that the ZNation writing team—mostly just producer/ writer/director John Hyams (who’s done the underrated Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning) has pretty much maxed out the absurdity factor. Everything’s in there except the kitchen sink.
The good, non-absurd things in the soup of Season One all get a level up in Season Two: including, but not limited to, insightful dialogue, excellent camera work, dramatic stakes, and plenty of reasons to care about the motley gang of characters (a few of which who may or may not be dead after the first 13 episodes).
This is already a far cry from The Asylum’s usual fare of Mega Shark Vs. Crocosaurus and 2-Headed Shark Attack, but it’s even an evolutionary leap in storytelling species quality when you consider how this studio has its bread and butter in mockbusters: films that are blatantly odious ripoffs of Hollywood blockbusters. The Asylum’s Atlantic Rim, for example, went up for sale shortly after the release of Pacific Rim. The giant robots there are, trust me, not up to par with Guillermo Del Toro’s work.
4. Low-Fi Doesn’t Mean Low Quality
You can clearly see the production choices they’ve made in every episode, whether they spent it on better zombie make-up or better CGI (or just better color grading). But that’s not the point, the scope and wherewithal of this series is swallowed up by how fun it is to watch. How it laughs at itself and wants you to laugh along with it. Again, we must thank writer-director John Hyams for giving a damn about the creative direction of the series.
3. The Characters Are Diverse
Two of my favorite characters here are Citizen Z (DJ Qualls of The Office and Road Trip) and Murphy (Keith Allan). The former is a picture perfect modern day intelligence operative and drone operator who’s what’s left of the NSA, slowly going crazy alone in an abandoned Arctic base, guiding the motley team protecting “the package” to California through what’s left of civilized technology (good thing those satellites are still up). The latter is, of course, humanity’s last hope for a cure; but see, Murphy isn’t exactly a likeable guy, he’s a big, whiny, condescending, foul-mouthed asshat at the best of times, and a coward at the worst—so, yeah, he’s extremely unlikeable (and props to Keith Allan for playing Murphy with streaks of appealing humanity), but the team needs to get him to a CDC lab to get processed and possibly get a cure to the zompocalypse.
There’s a stereotype/archetype here for everybody to dig and they all get their due time to shine under the zombie sun: a subdued and quiet but utterly deadly sniper kid; an old doctor who likes prescribing drugs and taking them, too; a very curvy black woman that’s Michonne with katana; the white dude leader type with a military background. And then there’s the femme fatale redhead Addy (Anastasia Baranova), who carries one of the best signature zombie-killing weapons of all time: a baseball club with steel spikes edging the top striking end.
2. Anybody Can Die
One of the best things about having so many plot twists per episode is that you genuinely don’t know what’s going to happen next. There’s almost zero story predictability about this show and it doesn’t really care for narrative symmetry as much as entertainment. Remember that moment Ned Stark died in HBO’s Game of Thrones (but I read the book so I wasn’t surprised, haha)? The very first major death in the very first episode here will have you doing the same jump-and-point, all aghast routine.
1. Zombie Post-Apocalypse Culture is Well-Defined
Characters here refer to killing zombies as “giving mercy” (it’s even referenced in the OBB song) and joke about the levels of zombie deadness from their speed (recently turned dead are fast runners). The dead here are also fast at turning: there’s an average gap of half a second between being bitten and turning. Watch episode six of Season One and you’ll get what I mean. That the world-building has been crafted with care and sympathy shows, and with homages to so many zombie tropes, shows that the producers not only have cred but also the kind of chops that can take this series to heretofore unknown depths of undeadness. Get bitten now and add another excellent piece of TV to your fandom.
“Z Nation” airs on the SyFy Channel and streams on Netflix.
All photos courtesy of Netflix.
Do you think “Z Nation” is better than “The Walking Dead”? Tell us in the comments below!