If AMC’s The Walking Dead is the miserabilist emo-goth teen of the televisual zombie apocalypse, then Syfy’s Z Nation is its swaggering, devil-may-care little cousin, who’s having too much fun smoking weed, gorging on pop-culture tropes and generally dicking around to waste its time indulging in any gravely serious, existential, pseudo-political clap-trap. Therein lies the secret to Z Nation‘s appeal: it’s fun. It laughs at itself, and wants you to laugh along, too.
Comparisons with The Walking Dead are inevitable, and not just because the two shows share the zombie apocalypse as a backdrop. Z Nation is made by The Asylum, a production company that’s become synonymous with jumping on a bandwagon, copying the schematics for that bandwagon, and then producing their own bandwagon that is kind of the same but different (certainly different enough to avoid litigation), and available at a fraction of the price of the original.
That’s the company’s time-honored business model: to churn out low-budget, straight-to-video versions of the year’s most lucrative movies and franchises, and make money bottom-feeding from the fanbases of the originals. Some in the industry routinely accuse The Asylum of not merely standing on the shoulders of giants, but standing on those shoulders with the express intention of pissing directly into the eyes of the giants. I, for one, find it hard to peruse The Asylum’s back-catalogue of “mock-busters” – Transmorphers, Paranormal Event, Hunter vs Alien, to name but a few – without wearing an especially large grin. You’ve got to admire the size of those moxie-scented balls.
It’s a win/win model: If The Asylum produces a good movie, people will be more effusive in their praise precisely because their expectations were lower than the Earth’s core going in; if it produces a truly terrible movie, then they’ll still garner a huge cult following from the legions of bad-movie connoisseurs out there: “Oh my God, Crack-odile: The Jaws Of Meth is shit, it’s so shit, it’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen, I love it! Pass me the avocado dip and celery sticks once you’re done with that joint, Geoffrey, and we’ll shove on the sequel.”
Z Nation, The Asylum’s first foray into television, could have been abominable, and recorded in TV history as nothing more than a soulless corporate rehash of a critically-acclaimed cash-cow. Mercifully, Z Nation is much more than the sum of its parts: the people behind and in-front of the camera clearly give a damn about the creative direction of the series, and it shows in every blood-splattered shot.
Z Nation is set three years after the zombie apocalypse, and follows the exploits of a band of survivors as they attempt to escort the only human known to have survived a zombie bite to a research facility in California in the hope that his un-turned blood will yield a cure.
As the survivors fight through hordes of undead and breathing bad-guys alike – from sea to shining sea – they’re guided by a squirrelly little NSA man, watching over them from a bank of monitors in an abandoned arctic base (Citizen Z, played by DJ Qualls, who you may remember as the undercover copper who busted Badger in Breaking Bad. You may also recognise him as Gareth from The Office, even though he’s not).
The one hitch in their plan – other than the millions of zombies – is that their precious cargo, Murphy, is a cowardly, venal, self-indulgent, self-serving little sneak who doesn’t like people in general, and has no desire to become humanity’s poster boy. Much like his Cuckoo’s Nest namesake, Murphy just wants to drink, bunk off, screw around and be left in peace to watch whatever passes for the Superbowl post-civilization. Worse still, Murphy’s constantly-evolving hybrid physiology means that he’s often unsure on which side of the species-divide his loyalties lie. Before long he isn’t just Murphy. He’s THE Murphy: a half-man, half-zombie, quasi-messiah, and father to a new breed of zom-baby.
There are few shows on television today that are as uproariously silly, stupendously crazy or defiantly daft as Z Nation. The apocalypse is merely the jumping off point for a multitude of delicious and ridiculous what-if vignettes, and genuinely screw-ball plot developments, incorporating every conceivable combination of sci-fi, fantasy, horror and action trope along the way: flying saucers, zombie bears, murderous dentists, a travelling gun show, radioactive zombies, evil scientists, a zombie tornado (The Asylum made Sharknado, after all) and an entire episode that’s a Desperado-inspired bazooka-and-automatic-weapon fight through the zombie-infested streets. In short, it’s a bloody riot.
Murphy (or Smurphy as I like to call him, owing to the scaly blue skin that comes to adorn his body) is a firm fan favourite, and with his prickly personality, sarcastic one-liners and zombie mind-control tricks, it’s easy to see why. Anyone who gets drunk and makes a zombie pole-dance until its arm falls off is alright by my book.
Murphy’s a potent combination of Willy from Bad Santa, Quark from Deep Space 9 and Rimmer from Red Dwarf: you would never mistake him for a good guy, but he possesses just enough in the way of redemptive qualities to keep him erring on the side of right. Most of the time. Well, he did trigger nuclear armageddon through an act of cowardice… but… well, you know. Like I said. Most of the time.
Keith Allan deserves a lot of credit for his work as Murphy, turning a character that could’ve been a two-note jerk into a man dripping with vulnerability, sadness, hunger and humanity. He’s also incredibly funny. The episode in which he’s saddled with a little lost zombie who won’t leave him alone following a tragic helicopter accident is a real joy to behold.
Some of the plucky souls protecting Murphy as he undertakes his reluctant journey to California are: 10K (Nat Zang), a shy young sharpshooter who sucks at ladykilling but kills it at actual killing – incidentally, he’s called 10K because that’s how many zombies he hopes to kill, not because he’s making a wry meta-comment on the show’s budget; Warren (Kellita Smith), a no-nonsense, blade-wielding bad-ass who’s referred to on Z Nation fan-sites as “Michonne with a machete”; Addy (Anastasia Baranova), a very pretty lady with a very spiky club; some guy who used to be in Twilight; and Doc (Russell Hodgkinson), an ageing, scraggy-haired hippie who isn’t actually a doctor, but loves prescribing himself drugs anyway. I call him Kris Kristoffer-stoned.
I’ll confess I wasn’t an instant convert to Z Nation. I had to watch the first three episodes twice (with a gap of months in between) before I found myself in tune with its feel and flavour, and ready to overlook some of the limitations of its budget. Some of the dialogue and performances, in the early episodes at least, are a little ropey, and the camera-work is so frenetic that it can make you feel nauseous. What brought me back for more – what convinced me not to turn my back on the show – was the climax of the pilot episode in which – spoiler alert – the show’s most famous and experienced actor, Harold Perrineau (of Lost Fame), buys the farm at the business end of a maniacal zombie baby. With a mission statement like that, I knew there had to be a pot of dismembered heads with gold teeth in them at the end of this particular blood-colored rainbow. I was right.
One of the many, many great things about Z Nation is that you genuinely don’t know what’s around the corner. Anything could happen, and anything usually does, whether it’s a doomed man trapped in a ventilation duct sharing his last joint with a hanging zombie, or the Liberty Bell running amok and smashing zombies into the ground like tent pegs. It’s perhaps no coincidence that one of the men behind the show, Karl Schaeffer, was an executive producer and writer on the short-lived and much-loved Eerie Indiana.
Because Z Nation is (broadly) a horror-comedy, things never get too bleak or heavy, despite the apocalyptic setting. People aren’t moping around forests, crying and burning themselves with cigarettes. They’re cracking wise, and helping each other flatten zombies with a gigantic round of cheese they’ve found that’s the size of a flying saucer.
Between the laughs can be moments of genuine pathos, particularly surrounding Murphy and his struggles against loneliness and lost humanity. In season two, Murphy finds himself imprisoned in a zombie museum by a lunatic calling himself The Collector (a nice nod to The Next Gen), and is left to consider what true, life-long solitude would feel like. His reaction is rather poignant.
There are also moments of gruesomely effective horror, helped along by Z Nation‘s decision to use some of those new-fangled fast zombies in its apocalypse. Z Nation‘s zombies aren’t just fast on their feet a la Dawn Of The Dead 2004 or 28 Days/Weeks Later: they’re also fast at coming into being, with an average gap of half a second between bite and turn. There’s a scene in episode six of season one – “Resurrection Z” – that uses this double-whammy to chilling effect. Our heroes are trying to escape through a barricaded door at the end of a corridor in a military barracks, with a squash of screaming humans pushing at their backs. A zombie chomps the neck of someone at the far end of the corridor, which sends a Mexican wave of super-angry zombies speeding down the line. The sequence was superbly handled, and I’m not ashamed to admit that it sent a fair few toboggans of adrenalin thundering through my bloodstream.
You can accuse Z Nation of many things, but never of being dull or turgid. The kinetic quest at the show’s heart – Mission Murphy – allows the show to send a postcard from a different town in America each week. It also provides a backbone to the narrative that’s often sorely lacking in The Walking Dead. At any given moment, each and every character on Z Nation knows exactly what they should be doing, and what the team is working towards. There are no farm-based debating societies or tomato-growing competitions to pass the time. Nobody’s trying to win “Best in Show” for their pigs. And if they are, they’re probably radioactive mutant space pigs or something.
The Walking Dead‘s many grand sub-missions and set-pieces – the assault on Woodbury, the long trek to Terminus, the herding of the quarry walkers – are undoubtedly thrilling and engaging, but in many ways they’re giant distractions from the all-roads-lead-to-nothing nihilism at the series’ core. Z Nation may be silly and absolutely bat-shit crazy, but at least it’s taking us somewhere.
Z Nation is not The Walking Dead, but neither does it try to be nor want to be. Besides, there’s surely room enough on earth to accommodate two zombie apocalypses (or should that be apocalypsi?). There’s no need for the two shows to go toe-to-toe.
Z Nation is an insane, hi-octane gorefest that’ll go to town on your funny bone via your adrenal gland, and whisk your brain away on holiday to the outer reaches of imagination; The Walking Dead is a big-budget tour de force that’s filled to the brim with melancholy, menace, thrills, shocks, and moments of great haunting beauty, not to mention character deaths that will stun you and stab you in the memory-bone for weeks on end. They cater for vastly different appetites, and I love them both dearly, despite their flaws.
But if you’re adamant about choosing a winner, and looking for a clincher that’ll set one above the other – once and for all – then I give you this: Z Nation has zombie George RR Martin.
Eat THAT, Robert Kirkman.
May the world stay unceremoniously screwed for another few years, Z Nation. I genuinely can’t wait to see what you’ll do next.