When I first started “Z Nation,” SyFy’s entrance into the “Walking Dead” zombie market, I wasn’t sure if I was watching the latest version of some “Halo” game or an actual TV show. Which makes sense, seeing as it is produced by Asylum Studios, which is responsible for the unapologetically campy “Sharknado” franchise. Despite these roots and the low production value, “Z Nation” is not what Susan Sontag joyfully called thing as pure artifice. There is a lot hiding beneath the much-hyped zombie genre.
Monster genre seems as if it is constantly fighting an uphill battle with viewers’ respect. And for some greater reason, the zombie genre carries more reflexive disdain than the vampire or supernatural ones. Why is that? Part of it must be branding, and the vampire genre has managed to subvert audience expectations with shows like “True Blood” which, at least initially, changed the direction from a traditionally singular study to a social allegory. But also, the vampire is a human (a super human, really). Thus, the vampire accepts individuation, its monster-ness not subsuming its human-ness. The zombie, on the other hand, resists that individuation. Its mind—and therefore its ability for characterization—is destroyed. The fear of the zombie is rooted in its physical rather than its psychological menace. Thus the zombie mob. While vampire genre is man vs. super man, zombie genre is man vs. environment.
There must also be teeming social forces that are unearthed by various iterations of horror. With the vampire genre, we see youth-obsession take an immortal form that would make even the Kardashians jealous; the ugly aspects of eternal beauty symbolized by a parasitic dependence on other’s lifeblood. After all, a beautiful surface lives off the penetrating gaze of the other, if not some shard of that reflected identity. Guy Debord spoke to that reciprocal gaze of spectacle and observer in his essay “Society of the Spectacle.” This is also why there are almost never vampire outbreak plots — the vampire belongs to a dark class of celebrity amid an average world. As much as it is feared, the vampire is an aspirational figure.
On the other hand, the zombie genre manifests the deep-set fears of society imploding on itself. It’s similar to the primordial chill of books like “Lord of the Flies” and “Heart of Darkness,” except with the added layer of uncanny familiarity. In the zombie genre, the zombie mob isn’t some unified structure; instead it’s a barely contained throng of automatons. Three years past the Occupy Wall Street chaos (both inside and out), along with the well-documented low party identification of young people and the surge of breathless coverage following libertarianism’s newfound trendiness, one can read the zombie mob as Baby Boomer’s nightmare fantasy of Gen Y-ers. Especially since the narrative of the zombie genre always rests in the perspective of uninfected “sane.” Anytime sanity is labeled by perspective of narrative, there’s an ideological mechanism in place organizing sanity and insanity.
In denying the mob perspective (save for exceptions like Isaac Marion’s genre-resisting novel “Warm Bodies”), we also miss what could be a vehicle for some fascinating pondering on a wide range of philosophical themes – things like the mind-body connection or the nature of simulacra, at the very least.
But I digress, the traditional zombie plot is represented par excellence in “Z Nation,” i.e. the plot of survival in a world where reassuring social order has collapsed. Though predictable, the zombie plot is well equipped to poke at questions of the public sphere, whether it’s aware of this fact or not. For example, in the first scene of “Z Nation,” under flickering lights, three convicts are read a hastily-passed order that waives tester consent for testing new drugs. It’s arguably the most horrifying part of the episode and provides the half-monster, half-human who survives the antidote without turning into a zombie (unlike the two others). He’s the unlikely savior of America’s future, abandoned by the government until his body serves some utility.
Deeper analysis of the seemingly banal reveals much. Can you watch “Z Nation” for its video-game style gore and bombard of nonstop action? Sure, but it’s almost more fun to look beneath that and probe at the plight of the Living Dead.