The zombie apocalypse hits, and then what? What happens if a cure is discovered and the rehabilitated dead come home? What do we do when the local militia that defended small country villages are no longer needed? Who do we look to if judgement day is rescheduled?
Created by Dominic Mitchell, the show is set in present day, years after the 2009 “Rising,” and after the undead were sent to rehabilitation centers where pharmaceutical company Halperin & Weston developed a drug to control their zombie cravings. But the action revolves around 18-year-old “cured” zombie Partially Deceased Syndrome (PDS) sufferer Kieren Walker (Luke Newberry) who returns to his family and attempts to re-assimilate to life in the small English town of Roarton.
The Walker family want their existence to return to normal, but members of the Human Volunteer Force (HVF) – militias that defended the small towns when the government left them hanging — are less willing to believe “rotters” are anything but monsters, no matter how many pharmaceuticals they’re given (along with makeup and contact lenses to hide their decomposed appearances). Even Kieren’s sister Jem (Harriet Cains), who joined the HVF, is reluctant to welcome her brother back into the house.
“In the literature, films and TV shows, you see what happens straight after the apocalypse or 28 days after the apocalypse but you never see when it’s calmed down four years in the future,” said Mitchell as described his initial idea for the show, which he calls very British and reality-based.
Mitchell, who said he’s been a horror fan since age 11, and counts Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary” and George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” as “massive influences,” said he’s always been fascinated by zombies. But added he always thought zombies could be handled a little better than, say, monsters vulnerable to wooden stakes and silver bullets.
“Watching a standard zombie movie, I was like, surely they can be treated because they’re not mystical creatures,” said Mitchell. “Vampires and werewolves are sort of mystical and romanticized but zombies are sort of grounded and dirty – literally.”
Mitchell said his concept for the show goes back about five years before he said the genre blew up. But “In the Flesh” didn’t become a reality until he benefited from a BBC Drama North initiative called Northern Voices where four writers were selected to receive training on their scripts. The resulting script was commissioned by Drama North and the show aired on BBC Three in March.
While the elevator pitch for “In The Flesh” of “cured zombie comes home” sounds like the premise for a sitcom, the series has already been renewed for a second season and is actually a thoughtful addition to the genre. Another entry to the ZWP (Zombies With Personalities) offshoot, the show is domesticized and, according to Mitchell, has a lot of heart; there are oddly relatable scenes where the family gathers around the dinner table, pretending nothing has changed and ignoring topics of suicide, sexuality and, yes, returning from the grave.
When discussing the community component to “In The Flesh,” Mitchell referenced criminals returning home after serving their time and soldiers following wartime. He said he looked to Northern Ireland during “The Troubles” when villages were cut off and controlled by the IRA as he developed the HVF. Mitchell also plays with religious or other extreme views that fill a vacuum followin unexplained and tragic events.
“People need to be comforted,” he said. “You want answers but, in our show, we never really get to the reason why the Rising happened so people make their own answers and their answers are quite extreme.”
These elements make Roarton a powder keg where the local vicar and working-class laborers-turned-soldiers clash with families of cured rotters. But, despite intense scenes where the viewer is forced to sympathize with the zombie, the action of “In the Flesh” is not as simple as good vs. bad, or where humans are the real monsters.
“We did want to touch on intolerance and fear in a small community but, to be fair, the Human Volunteer Force had to do something because the government left them to their own devices.”
“This thing happened and zombies in their untreated state did attack the human beings, and they had to defend themselves,” added Mitchell. “So you can’t dismiss them because Kieren did kill and eat people.”
To muddy the moral waters further, and to honor the zombie genre necessity of gore, Mitchell has crafted scenes that flashback to Kieren’s months on the rampage with his undead hunting partner Amy (Emily Bevan).
Mitchell said they wanted to be gory and “really bloody and have people go, ‘Oh, god’ in the flashbacks to remind viewers that Kieren has a motivation for redemption, and a lot to answer for – no matter how much the doctors say he can’t be held responsible for his disease.
“Kieren still has guilt about what he’s done, and because the living seem like villains at times, we wanted to remind people that he has done some terrible things.”
Beyond the gore, Mitchell toys with “zombie rules” such as whether bites spread the disease, and includes nods to zombie forebears within the show. He said it was an unconscious homage to “Shaun of the Dead,” a favorite film of his, when he decided to have Kieren’s father opt for a cricket bat as a weapon of choice. And pharmaceutical company Halperin & Weston is a call back to a very old zombie movie. (No, we won’t tell you which one.)
He said he’d likely include more Easter eggs if appropriate as he begins crafting season two of “In The Flesh,” and is excited to explore the characters of Roarton more — as well as shine more of a light on the “Undead Prophet” who exists as an Internet presence in Season One.
After chatting more about his hopes for the next season, Dominic Mitchell said, without a trace of irony at first, “I can’t wait to bite into it.”