Zombies are soooooo hot right now. Actually they have been for a while. For evidence of this you need look no further than The Walking Dead which has been a ratings juggernaut since it first debuted in 2010 and has infected mainstream consciousness in a big way. Folks can't seem to get enough of the undead gut-munchers. Maybe it's because people readily identify with these monsters that are only a few small steps removed from humanity. Perhaps they appreciate how the fear of something similar-yet-so-very-different is ripe for social commentary. Or, maybe they just like watching guts being munched on. Whatever the reason may be, the horror of a world overrun by the undead carries universal appeal and feels more relevant than ever.
The BBC series, In the Flesh, finds a fresh angle on the zombie genre by presenting its tale from the perspective of one of the recently reanimated. You see, Kieren Walker (Luke Newberry) has no business being alive. He died a few years ago but then through some unexplained phenomenon recently emerged from the grave with an all-consuming hunger for human flesh. He wasn't the only one. There were thousands who returned as part of what was called The Rising. Small militias, like the Human Volunteer Force (HVF), were formed to neutralize the zombie threat when the government couldn't keep up. A number of the zombies were destroyed while others were captured. The surviving zombies (or rotters as the locals call them) were treated with a drug that restored memories of their humanity and labeled Partially Deceased Syndrome (PDS) sufferers. Now, it's time for them to be reintegrated into society…whether society likes it or not.
We meet Kieren as he is getting ready to be taken home by his parents (Marie Critchley and Steve Cooper). When they see him, their initial reaction is to remark how good he looks (government supplied cosmetics and contact lenses certainly help). Awkward small talk follows as Kieren's dad jabbers on about the new AV system he has waiting at home. What mom and dad neglect to mention is how anti-PDS sentiment runs high in their village of Roarton where HVF members still rule the roost; or how Kieren's own sister (Harriet Cains) is dreading his return since she joined the HVF. Dropped into this hostile environment, Kieren quickly becomes a captive in his own house where his parents try to shield him from the violence that awaits him if the villagers were to learn of his return. As you've probably guessed, that plan isn't going to work. Assimilation isn't going to be pretty.
I'm going to resist the urge to reveal much more of the show's plot because, frankly, there isn't a whole lot of it in the first place. With only 3 episodes in this season (although a second one has already been planned), this is a relatively short series. That's not to suggest that the story is hollow or threadbare in any way. This is a well-paced drama with plenty of sharp reveals and reversals metered out over its brief runtime. While the second season is certainly welcome (hopefully with even more episodes), what we get here tells a complete and compelling tale on its own. There is plenty of room to adequately set the backdrop and to hone in on Kieren's place in the ominous foreground.
With that said, some management of expectations seems to be in order. Earlier I mentioned social commentary and gut munching as two characteristics of the zombie genre. Well, In the Flesh favors one of those facets a whole lot more than the other. Hint: it's light on the munching. While there a few zombie attacks on display along with a smattering of gore (all done quite well, I might add), the focus is clearly on the allegorical meaning of being deemed an outsider for reasons that are beyond one's control. Xenophobia, homophobia and a number of other societal ills fall under this umbrella. The show doesn't shy away from making these parallels crystal clear. Some may find the approach a bit too on the nose at times but the bold recontextualisation worked for me.
I haven't really touched on them so far but the performances are also uniformly excellent across the board. Newberry anchors the show quite nicely by projecting Kieren's gentle warmth while reminding us of the guilt and darkness that exists just beneath the surface. Marie Critchley and Steve Cooper find the right mix of concern and comic matter-of-factness as Kieren's parents (check out their scene of emergency preparedness for proof of the latter) while Harriet Cains perfectly conveys the disillusionment of being abandoned by her brother. On the other end of the spectrum is Steve Evets who plays Bill Macy, the leader of the HVF. In a matter of 3 episodes, I grew to hate every fiber of his being (and I mean that as a compliment). Another strong performance comes courtesy of Emily Bevan who plays another PDS sufferer (one with old ties to Kieren). Bevan is a firecracker on screen and she promptly steals every scene she's in.
To be perfectly honest, In the Flesh would be a solid drama even if it dropped all the zombie business. Fortunately for us genre fans, the zombie business is the very thing that elevates it by adding unexpected layers of depth to questions of identity and acceptance. Writer Dominic Mitchell and director Jonny Campbell could have taken the easy way out by throwing a bunch of rotters at the screen and dazzling us with gore effects. They have enough confidence in their material to know that restraint is just as capable of ratcheting up the tension to unbearable levels. When the release comes (and it does at the end of the third episode), it means so much more because we care deeply for these characters.