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In the Flesh

(BBC; US DVD: 8 Oct 2013)

Count on the BBC to find a way to make zombies interesting again. While the Americans have opted for a more-is-more approach, either through the unending permutations of The Walking Dead and its endless seasons of hey-this-shuffling-zombie-wants-to-eat-your-brain, or the hyperkinetic jetliner-smashing hordes of undead in uber-blockbuster World War Z, the Brits have gone in the other direction entirely: one of quiet reflection and simmering unease rather than an over-the-top splatterfest.


In the Flesh is a spare, haunting drama that wonders what the world—or at least rural England—might look like after the zombie apocalypse, once the hordes have been contained, captured, treated for their condition and, hmm… sent back home again.


Luke Newberry plays Kieran Walker, a young man recently repatriated to his hometown of Roarton. It happens that Roarton is also home to the HVF, or Homeland Volunteer Force, a vigilante group dedicated to wiping out zombies. The HVF doesn’t buy the idea that the zombie threat is over, or that the former monsters are actually blameless victim of what the government calls “Partially Deceased Syndrome”, or PDS. The dedicated men and women of the HVF are not so quick to buy the government’s line that it’s time to let bygones be bygones, to bury the dead—for good this time—and move on. This makes things more than a little difficult for Kieran. Especially since one of those HVF stalwarts is his kid sister, Jemima.


In the Flesh consists of only three hour-long episodes, but it covers plenty of ground and has the feel of something much more substantial than its brief running time would suggest. Performances are uniformly excellent, with Steve Cooper and Marie Critchley playing Kieran’s tentative, troubled parents and Harriet Cains doing a dynamite job as the increasingly conflicted Jemima.


Supporting roles are handled with equal aplomb, including the local reverend (solidly in the “they are monsters” camp), a government nurse, and numerous members of the still-active HVF militia. Special mention must be made of Emily Bevan, who plays the mischievous, light-hearted Amy, a fellow PDS syndrome sufferer who refuses to mope around the house all day; Bevan attacks her role with zeal and brings a refreshing lightness to an otherwise grim milieu. All play their roles with a determined ferocity and typically British, tight-lipped stoicism, perfectly suited to the post-traumatic tenor of events.


As the series progresses, the already-complicated situation grows even more so, with subplots involving townspeople on both sides of the PDS divide growing more prominent. There are no simple solutions, though, and even apparently cut-and-dried positions are fated to grow more complicated as time passes.


Episode 3 also serves up a good number of twists, ensuring that the series doesn’t just engage in redundant monster-mauling (always a danger in zombie flicks). Then there’s the growing significance of a “zombie prophet”, a fringe figure operating on the Internet, who calls for a rejection of government involvement and a reversion to the freedom of true zombiism.


Kiernan’s struggles to navigate these treacherous waters, all while taking his medicine, coping with his blood-soaked past and striving to find some kind of reason to carry on, form the main narrative arc of the series.


Visually, the gray and dreary countryside is a perfect setting for this tale of dead, not yet dead and recently-dead. The gloomy overcast sky also proves a perfect foil for the stark whites and sterile interiors of the government treatment facilities featured in the opening episode. Flashbacks, which occur throughout the episodes, are drenched in saturated color palettes in various sickly hues. An intermittent, pulsating synth score effectively adds to the tension without being overbearing.


Extra features are nonexistent, which is disappointing insofar as one would like to know a bit more about this wholly inventive series. A couple of behind-the-scenes features or interviews would have been enlightening. It’s by no means a huge disappointment, though, just a little one.


This is a solid, albeit short, TV series that focuses more on character and less on action than most examples of the zombie genre. For this reason, it will doubtless fail to satisfy some genre aficionados, but by the same token, its pleasures are longer-lasting and more significant than most.

Rating:

DAVID MAINE is a novelist and essayist. His books include The Preservationist (2004), Fallen (2005), The Book of Samson (2006), Monster, 1959 (2008) and An Age of Madness (2012). He has contributed to The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Esquire.com and NPR.com, among other outlets. He is a lifelong music obsessive whose interests range from rock to folk to hip-hop to international to blues. He currently lives in western Massachusetts, where he works in human services. Catch up with his blog, The Party Never Stops, at davidmaine.blogspot.com, or become his buddy on Facebook (or Twitter or Google+ or whatever you prefer) to keep up with reviews and other developments.


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