An iconic image of a zombie is the braiiins-eating, staggering husk of a body, the dirt of their burial plot smudged over them. But like vampires and werewolves, there are fresh ideas to explore with those reanimated corpses. Recently, The Last of Us presented a unique hour of post-doomsday television, showcasing an older gay couple (Murray Bartlett and Nick Offerman) surviving in a world overtaken by the “infected.” In the Flesh shifts the focus away from the human survivors, and places it onto the undead, using zombies to center the show around bigotry, depression, and queerness. Airing in 2013, the series stayed out of the grave long enough to release two seasons, nine episodes in total, offering up a new take on the horror subgenre by looking at the “two sides to every story” that is the living and the undead.
‘In the Flesh’ Centers On Zombies In Recovery
Years have passed since “the Rising,” where bodies crawled out of graves as monstrous cannibals. A cure has since been developed and the undead are soon integrated back into society. Kieren Walker (Luke Newberry) is one of these Partially Deceased Syndrome sufferers who are returning to their families. It won’t be an easy transition, for Kieren or the village of Roarton he arrives back to. There is distrust and anger seething from the residents, but Kieren is his own worst enemy, struggling with guilt over the kills he committed while in a “rabid” state. Kieren may not ask for it, but he takes on an important role within the community, helping to fight back against the bigotry that befalls fellow PDS sufferers. Roarton needs to understand the PDS sufferers aren’t killers anymore, although a sense of unity won’t be coming easy as extremist forces take over on both sides.
“I am a Partially Deceased Syndrome sufferer, and what I did in my untreated state was not my fault.” Kieren, and others like him, are obliged to follow this mantra as government-run treatment centers attempt a return to normalcy. For a smoother assimilation, Kieren applies the daily regimen for someone with PDS to help make the living comfortable: an injection of Neurotriptyline (the cure); a mousse foundation to add pigment to his pale skin; eye contacts to hide pallid, milky-white irises. What does it mean to be, essentially, a zombie in recovery? There will be understandable backlash and Roarton harbors a divisive stance for a big reason.
The Rising occurred worldwide and in England, the cities received better enforcements, leaving smaller communities like Roarton to defend itself. They did, creating the Human Volunteer Group to hunt down violent “Rotters.” From the brain-intact mind of creator Dominic Mitchell, In the Flesh keeps flashbacks to a minimum, sticking to the present day to chronicle the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. That the show goes this route, reveals a zombie’s heart hasn’t lost its humanity. In the Flesh balances a somber tone, not shying away from the darkness known to the subgenre, and in doing so, Partially Deceased Syndrome gets made into a metaphor to represent several issues.
How Human Can A Zombie Really Be?
Mitchell explains in a BBC interview, “I always thought because the government introduced this policy where the PDS sufferers go back into society that there would be a backlash to that, especially because in Roarton it’s a microcosm of Britain and I think that a lot of things that happened in Roarton, happened everywhere else and people were like, hang on a minute I don’t want an undead person living next to me.” The show doesn’t stray too far from the village’s outskirts, keeping the scope big but intimate. The “z-word” is replaced with “Rotters,” which sounds derogatory and that’s the point. Over in Roarton, living humans can be monstrous, religious fanaticism and paranoia making a mess of things.
The local church has a strong hold on residents, delivering sermons demonizing those with PDS. MP Maxine Martin (Wunmi Mosaku, Lovecraft Country) arrives to stir shit up as a member of the pro-living Victus party, implementing a policy that strips PDS sufferers of their humanity with a message stating, “giving something back to the society they once ravaged, it’s what everyone wants, living and PDS alike.” Kieren and others are forced to do manual labor in order to have the “chance to apply for re-citizenship to the United Kingdom.” Combating them is the Undead Liberation Army, who take pride in their nonliving status, a ULA disciple telling a group of followers, “the first shackle we have to throw off is shame.”
Mental health is a major storyline for Kieren Walker, a sweet and soft-spoken teen who ended his first life due to severe depression. Upon reuniting with family, Kieren finds out younger sister Jemima (Harriet Cains) has become radicalized by the HVF, further fracturing the Walkers. In a SciFiNow interview, creator Dominic Mitchell discussed the importance to Kieren’s past, “In most dramas if someone commits suicide that’s it, but in a zombie drama you can come back and say everything you couldn’t before. It’s the ultimate second chance and I wanted to explore what happens in a family who has been through that.” What really hurts the Walkers is how Kieren didn’t let them help him. The show doesn’t place blame on anyone’s shoulder, Kieren’s pain is as real as the pain his family feels, and their road to healing is difficult but not impossible. If the undead can rise, anything is definitely possible.
The cure Kieren takes regrows brain cells, bringing back horrible memories of his time as a Rotter, but he isn’t the only one in distress. His parents are struggling; mom Sue (Marie Critchley) tries to keep everyone together while dad Steve (Steve Cooper) looks on the perpetual bright side to avoid painful conversations. Kieren’s sister Jem isn’t a rebel child empowered by being a gun-trotting HVF member, she’s deeply hurt Kieren ended his life without even leaving behind a note. Away from family, Kieren finds comfort in Amy (Emily Bevan), another PDS sufferer, whose bubbly personality is a shield to protect herself from the ignorance faced in public. When he reunites with childhood friend Rick (David Walmsley), their relationship peels back an unrequited queer love story, exploring Kieren’s pansexuality in doing so. A zombie tale can’t go without true-to-life bigotry entering the mix it seems. Rick does everything to please his father, Bill Macy (Steve Evets), the leader of the Human Volunteer Group — and that includes Rick feeling he must stay in the closet. Tensions are high throughout Roarton, and while there might be a distinction between the living and the undead, the line is blurry. Helping this is the show’s color grading, which at many times makes everyone and everything so muted in grays, it can be hard to tell who has PDS and who doesn’t.
‘In the Flesh’ Breathes New Life Into the Undead
Mitchell went on to say in the SciFiNow interview, “In the Flesh is really a story of identity. How do you fit in when you’re completely different and people are labeling you? The government has labeled him a PDS sufferer; the HVF have labeled him as rotter and his family don’t know what he is.” Identity is a critical theme, so too is duality. It’s us vs. them on the show, and Kieren finds himself at odds on whose side he should drift to. He can feel awkward with Amy, who takes her daily injection while leaving off the mousse and contacts for a brazen act of self-love. Kieren might be getting more confident in his queer identity — bringing a guy home to meet his parents — but his PDS status never lets him rest easy and in covering up his face, it ends up hiding who he is now. Across two seasons, he grapples with where he belongs.
Family is an important aspect, with In the Flesh including a kind-hearted father and bigoted one. Mr. Walker loves Kieren, he’s a gentle man who stays mum on his own feelings, when he isn’t the goofy dad who dresses everyone up with berets to celebrate Kieren’s plans for a Paris trip. Bill Macy, Rick’s father, is truly indoctrinated by the Church and Human Volunteer Force, treating Rick like a HVF member, not his own child. Mothers, Sue Walker and Janet Macy (Karen Henthorn), shoulder a lot of unsaid concerns at home, when Roarton holds a support group, these two women find they have similar concerns. They love their sons, yet can’t help struggle with the PDS-laced apprehension lingering in their village. It’s why the agenda of the church, along with the Victus party, is dangerous, the goal is to take advantage of the prejudice that entirely ignores the humanity PDS sufferers have. The Undead Liberation Army goes up against them with its own extreme acts, like the Blue Oblivion pill returning the undead to their rabid, rotter state. Both sides wreak havoc on communities and families through this power struggle.
If the show only focused on Kieren, it would still be a brilliant show, but by diving deeper into societal conflicts, it elevates a unique premise. In the Flesh provides hope, without shying away from the darkness of the zombie genre, and it’s to the show’s benefit that it leaves out extended flashbacks to how horrific the zombie doomsday must have been. Kieren Walker won’t forget his violent past, but he grows to accept a second chance at life, knowing he isn’t the simple, mindless monster Roarton fears him to be.