Hear the words ‘zombie drama’ and what springs to mind? Chugging chainsaws, gore-splattered camera lenses, and a righteous amount of undead carnage quite probably. The zombies’ opponents may be hapless “you’ve got red on you” types, or locked-and-loaded badasses in the vein of The Walking Dead’s Shane. Either way, a climactic macho circus of undead limbs and exploding heads is often on the menu, usually accompanied by a ‘fuck yeah’ rock soundtrack.
A slender teen sat quietly on the edge of his bed contemplating his place in a new, crueller world as despair balladeer Keaton Henson’s Charon plays then, is not your typical zombie fare. That’s the first point to make about In The Flesh, the BBC’s new three-parter from writer Dominic Mitchell and director Johnny Campbell: it’s not your typical zombie fare.
In many ways, the BBC’s In The Flesh is an antidote to the overtly violent, muscular tales of the undead apocalypse. It’s a zombie story, yes, but a sensitive one with a touch of kitchen sink teenage angst. It’s a zombie story, wearing a cardigan knitted by Morrissey.
That’s not to say it isn’t funny (anyone who thinks Morrissey doesn’t have a sense of humour either hasn’t listened to his early lyrics or has listened to him speak in public during the last thirty years). No, In The Flesh is wryly funny, with moments of characteristically Northern Alan Bennett-meets-Wallace and Gromit bathos. A health visitor to former zombie/ Post-Deceased Syndrome sufferer Kieren refers to the “spot of bother” caused by the undead uprising one year earlier, while upbeat slogans and grinning corpses beam cheerily out of the NHS posters decorating the walls of the PDS rehabilitation centre.
The show’s family drama fabric is shot through with a thread of sardonic social observation. Political spin about reintegrating PDS sufferers into the community has failed to convince the remote village of Roarton, in which a group of extremist vigilantes still operates. Extremism has leaked in to fill the leadership gap, and the wounds on both sides of the fight are still raw. It’s into this rural locale that young Kieren (played affectingly by Luke Newberry) returns, painted with cover-up mousse and wearing iris-always contact lenses to help him fit in to a community that doesn’t want him.
Episode one’s soapier elements (including an Afghanistan-related storyline) in which a number of characters exclaim their capital F Feelings through sobbing tears, are its weakest link at this early stage, but there’s plenty that’s decent besides, not least a chillingly brutal confrontation in the hour’s final minutes.
In The Flesh is at its most emotionally truthful in its quieter moments (when Kieren’s parents are reunited with the son they’d buried, his teenage sister alone, drinking cider at the village’s deserted train station) than its doof-doof-doof heightened exchanges. Being Human fans should enjoy the Toby Whithouse-ish references to Monster Munch and dusty eighties board games too.
Style-wise, director Johnny Campbell gives Kieren’s story a reflective feel. There are no manic, neon, freeze-frame shots edited to punky guitar riffs of the type usually thought to bring the teen demographic flocking. It’s subdued and realist in tone, Campbell’s camera quietly panning across desolated Northern landscapes and through desaturated housing estates. Fittingly, the direction frames In The Flesh more like a Paul Abbott drama than a yoof-aimed violence-based caper, the latter of which is exactly what it isn’t, at least in episode one.
As Den of Geek’s resident evil specialist – lack of capitalisation intended – Sarah Dobbs tells me, In The Flesh isn’t the first time we’ve seen stories told from the zombie perspective. 2007 US comedy Wasting Away and forgettable low-budget Brit flick Colin both went for the same trick, as does In The Flesh’s contemporary cinematic release, Warm Bodies. What distinguishes this modest-budget drama then, is that comedy (or, in the case of Warm Bodies, comedy and schmaltzy allegories for the redemptive power of love) isn’t its end goal. It’s a story about families, guilt, otherness, and prejudice told with uniquely British relish. It’s original, imaginative UK genre drama, and as such, we warmly welcome it to our screens.
Just don’t expect chainsaws. Well, maybe a little one…
In The Flesh starts on BBC Three at 10pm on Sunday the 17th of March. Watch the first trailer, here, and take a look at the first government-issue animated promo below.
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