Zombies, zombies, everywhere zombies. Do we really need another zombie series on TV right now? In case ‘The Walking Dead’ isn’t enough for you, or you’ve burned-out on its characters and formula, Syfy would like to offer its own new zombie drama, ‘Z Nation’. Is this one different enough to provide a compelling alternative?
Let’s be very clear: ‘Z Nation’ is not ‘The Walking Dead’. Whether you consider that a good or bad thing is up to you. This is not a show that makes any pretense of creating richly-drawn characters plagued by emotional dysfunction. Based on the first episode, it’s nowhere near as dour in tone and seems unlikely to get stuck in a single location for long periods of time while the narrative only lurches forward in fits and starts as slowly as the ambling undead. This is a fast-paced action series with perfunctory, disposable characters, lots of cheesy low-budget VFX and gore, and a little bit of humor. I expect that many viewers will laugh it off the screen while some will consider it a refreshing change of pace.
The pilot episode, called ‘Puppies and Kittens’, dispenses with the set-up in a 30-second prologue. It’s the zombie apocalypse. Governments have collapsed, society is in chaos. Blah blah blah, let’s get going. Why or how any of this happened in irrelevant.
We’re dealing with the rapid-infection, running zombies here. They have a tendency to come from out of nowhere and move very fast. Human characters freely use the word “zombie,” though they’re more apt to call the monsters “Zs.”
Harold Perrineau from ‘Lost’ plays Hammond, the lone surviving soldier from a squad that was otherwise wiped out. He’s charged with transporting a former prisoner named Murphy from New York to a medical lab in California. In Murphy’s blood is an experimental zombie vaccine. He’s the only human who has ever survived being bitten by Zs and not turned. Hammond occasionally makes contact with a command center going by the call sign “Northern Lights,” whose radio operator (DJ Squalls) gives him directions and orders, and tries to coordinate with other remnants of the military system, usually unsuccessfully.
Hammond comes across a small pocket of survivors led by a former National Guardsman named Garnett (Tom Everett Scott). Garnett and a few of his buddies agree to drive Hammond and Murphy to a nearby army base. In the meantime, their camp is overrun and the rest of their friends are killed. By the time they get to the base, it’s been destroyed and everyone there is dead, except a baby found in the back of a crashed car. Although they don’t know what to do with a baby and realize that it will just hold them back, Garnett feels responsible for it.
Don’t worry, the show’s not going to get all sentimental. In short order, the baby gets splattered with zombie blood, is infected and turns into a little brain-muncher. It skitters all over the place (which makes no sense at all, since babies don’t have enough muscle tone to move that quickly, but whatever) and eventually kills Hammond. Plot twist! I guess he’s not our hero after all. Garnett and friends unload a lot of bullets into both of them, then decide to follow through with Hammond’s mission to get Murphy to California, much to Murphy’s dismay.
In an epilogue, the Northern Lights guy (who’s been stranded alone at an arctic station) takes off his uniform, throws on a pair of sunglasses, and blasts a radio transmission across all frequencies. He’s going to be the new DJ of the apocalypse, making chatter and spinning up tunes to whoever’s still left to listen.
As a production of The Asylum, ‘Z Nation’ has a lot of stilted acting and weak dialogue, poor production values and frequently terrible CGI effects, but it embraces that cheesiness. While not quite an overt comedy like ‘Zombieland’, the show makes stabs at satire and black comedy, to variable effect. (A bit involving a black market for zombie weapons is pretty amusing.) It’s neither very scary nor suspenseful but, unlike Asylum’s countless “mockbusters” and giant monster TV movies, at least tries to play the horror elements straight.
This is not a great show. On any objective scale, it is not as “good” as ‘The Walking Dead’. But it has its own vibe and could be a kind-of fun time-waster while we wait for the next season of ‘Walking Dead’ to start up next month. I’ll watch at least one more episode to see how it fares.