"In the Flesh": A suicidal, gay, post-zombie story

The great new series makes zombies original again

By Willa Paskin

Published June 6, 2013 7:11PM (EDT)

 (BBC/Des Willie)
(BBC/Des Willie)

I don’t know how close you are to zombie-saturation point, but I have pretty much had my fill of staggering, mindless monsters trying to get their fill of braaaiiins. So it was with some reluctance I started watching “In the Flesh,” a three-episode series about zombies that begins airing on BBC America tonight. After the first scene -- the undead pasting a girl's brain into their mouths in the aisle of a supermarket -- I was feeling pretty smug about my zombie dismissal. Then came the second scene. Kieren Walker (Luke Newberry), pale as actual death and with freaky zombie eyes, talks to a doctor about his horrible flashbacks -- of pasting a girl’s brain into his mouth in a supermarket. Kieren is a zombie who has been cured.

“In the Flesh,” which starts strong and gets even stronger, is set in England after the zombie apocalypse. In its particular mythology, everyone who died in the year 2008 rose from the dead one day. They terrorized and ate people but could not multiply: Their bite had no bite. A cure was eventually found, and thanks to everyday shots, the former brain eaters have their brains back. They are “Partially Deceased Syndrome” sufferers, still in their janky bodies, but otherwise coherent, and they are slowly returning to the families and communities they once terrorized.

Kieren comes from a small town called Roartan, which was a particular hotbed of zombie -- also called rotter -- hatred. It’s the home of the Human Volunteer Force, a militia that rose up while the British army had its hands full in London, and its residents keep gathering to proclaim they won't accept anyone with PDS in their town. Kieren’s mother and father pick up Kieren, a sensitive, guilt-ridden 18-year-old, from the rehab facility, his skin covered in makeup, his brown contacts in, and have to hide him in the house; it’s not safe outside. It's not much better inside, where Kieren's little sister Jem, a member of the HVF, walks around with a gun hating him, and his parents ask that he pretend to eat dinner -- zombies don’t need to eat -- rather than talk about how he has changed.

It's a great premise: zombies as a metaphor for immigrants or any other despised, ostracized and endangered minority. The first episode explores it fully, ending with a brutal and upsetting sequence that has Holocaust valences as well. (Later, at a bar, the ex-zombies are told they have to drink -- which they can't do; "My insides are particularly decrepit," one particularly lively PDS sufferer proclaims -- in a segregated area.) But it was the second episode that really blew my mind. If you hate spoilers, you should stop reading here and just go watch the rest of it for yourself.

“In the Flesh” explores an aspect of zombie lore that doesn't much matter at the height of a zombie apocalypse. Zombies, the first ones anyway, are people who died, and not necessarily from other zombie bites. All the people with Partially Deceased Syndrome died from something -- cancer, heart attacks, car accidents -- and are now getting a second chance at life. They may be disfigured and damaged, but they are also in some strange way resurrected: The most cursed suddenly become the most saved. Kieren, however, killed himself. He is alive again, even though he really wanted to be dead. His return home is complicated not just by the fact that he was once a zombie, but by the fact that he was once a suicide. His family is angry at him not only for chomping on brains, but for leaving them. It’s a psychodrama that could be a show unto itself, only this one is zombiefied.

Making things even more complicated: Kieren killed himself because his closeted boyfriend, the son of the most outspoken, bigoted rotter hater in Roarton, went off to Afghanistan and got himself killed. The town’s unwillingness to accept Kieren as someone with PDS mirrors their inability to accept him as a homosexual. The zombie metaphor becomes literal: Zombies are not just like ostracized minorities, this particular zombie already was an ostracized minority. It's only now that he’s undead, that he's going to learn how to keep on living. Instead of just another zombie story, “In the Flesh,” is suicidal, gay, post-zombie story. Go watch.

Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.

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