Do zombies eat the flesh of the dead, or only the living? Given sufficient need, will zombies even feast upon each other? Given the evidence of the pilot episode of SyFy’s Z Nation, there is apparently very little that zombies will not consume and regurgitate wholesale upon the screen given the prompting of a production team boldly aiming to go where many, many have gone before in a cycle of ever decreasing and decomposing returns.
Scripted drama is always preferable to wrestling or reality television, particularly on SyFy, a channel whose rebranding from the Sci-Fi Channel seemed calculated to alienate their own core audience, but equally important is that the drama is original and this is why Z Nation can only shuffle onwards or stumble prematurely on the execution of a premise as faceless as the infected hordes it features.
Created by Karl Schaefer (Eerie, Indiana, Stephen King’s Dead Zone, A Town Called Eureka, Ghost Whisperer) and Craig Engler (Rage of the Yeti, Zombie Apocalypse), if such a term can be applied to a show which could as easily have been named Generic Zombie Apocalypse 101, opening episode Puppies and Kittens is directed by John Hyams, son of Outland, Capricorn One and 2010‘s Peter Hyams, though his own career is notable only for two underperforming Universal Soldier sequels, Regeneration (2009) and Day of Reckoning (2012).
Rather than opening with the initial stages of the outbreak, it has already happened: the date is May 02 After Zombie, and the infection control lab of Portsmouth Naval Prison where panicked doctors are testing experimental antivirals on unwilling inmates is under siege. The president is dead, but not before she signed the order to allow prisoners to be used as guinea pigs in hopes of finding a vaccine, but with the military defences falling and the last chopper leaving, the men strapped to the tables begging not to be infected or left behind, time is running out.
Shifting to one year later in upstate New York, outpost Camp Blue Sky receives unexpected guests in the form of the last survivors from the prison, Lieutenant Mark Hammond (Lost’s Harold Perrineau, soon to be seen in Constantine) and his charge Murphy (Keith Allan, something of a genre player with Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Listening to Fear, Rise of the Zombies and Zombie Night to his name), “the last best chance for humanity.” Hammond requests assistance in transporting Murphy to the medical facilities at Operation Bite Mark in Sleepy Hollow where his blood can be analysed to isolate the antidote for the ZN1 virus, but with resources limited there is understandable reluctance.
With the survivalists including Tom Everett Scott, king of following in someone else’s footsteps with both this and American Werewolf in Paris on his resume, Star Trek: Insurrection’s Michael Welch and The First Family’s Kellita Smith, Z Nation has pace and urgency but little else, and while the cast all do their best with what they are given there is a lot of shouting and posturing but not much character, and with no gloves, no masks, no armour, it is apparent that they have learned nothing despite the ubiquity of zombie culture.
The zombie threat is generic, like a videogame played in flickering light, with none of the individuality or verve of Zombieland or the gnawing dread of The Walking Dead. The transformation and altered shutter speed of the attacks are taken from …28 Days Later, the phrase “I give you mercy” when aiding a loved one through suicide is taken from Justin Cronin’s The Passage, attempts to be transgressive such as the school bus of fresh zombies and the zombaby fall flat, and more than anything it feels like an overwrought justification for America’s gun culture.
While the production values indicate ambition and commitment, with a closing scene delivered by computer expert Citizen Z (D J Qualls playing the same part as in The Core only this time in military uniform) embarrassing in its desperation to make a mission statement for the show and a final shot taken directly from a promotional poster for The Walking Dead, it will have to achieve considerably more in order to be anything other than a one trick pony which has already been very well ridden, a pretender to a well-worn and threadbare throne which wasn’t particularly desirable in the first place.