In the Flesh is quite an oddity. A post-post-apocalyptic drama, where the zombie apocalypse has already happened and a partial cure has been discovered for the sufferers. Part dark comedy, part horror and part kitchen-sink feature, this is a zombie drama with BBC stamped all over it.
The main character is Kieren Walker (get it?) a sufferer of Partially Deceased Syndrome – meaning that he was formally “Ravid” but is now a reformed zombie, medicated in such a way that enables him to return to the community. He no longer has a desire to eat people, but he is not alive either – his skin is pale, his eyes mottled and yellow. He hides his appearance with foundation mousse and contact lenses. He cannot age, or die (except by trauma to the head), he cannot eat or drink (without purging a sort of black bile afterwards).
Kieren is racked with guilt, tormented by visions from his time as a zombie and anxious of returning to his family in case the treatment is not as successful as the doctors believe. His fears are sparked further when a fellow patient snorts a peculiar drug shortly before release and begins to exhibit “zombie” behaviour. His prescribed medication (delivered to all PDS sufferers through a hole directly into the spine) seems to make the condition worse and he lashes out at the doctors and has to be forcibly restrained. There are dark hints about what happens to the rotters who are not suitable for treatment. Keiran is informed by his doctor that he is “one of the lucky ones.”
He is right to be concerned about rerurning home but the danger is not what he imagines.
In his home town of Roarton, there is a greater level of anti-PDS sentiment than anywhere else in the country. We discover that this is partly because they were neglected by the army and were the first community to establish an HDF (Human Defence Force) to combat the undead threat themselves. Jem, Keiran’s sister is still a proud and active member of this vigilante group even though they have been ordered to stand down by the authorities. Inflamed by the zealous rage of local preacher, Reverend Oddie (Kenneth Cranham) and led by the power crazed bully Bill Macey (Steve Evets), the PDF effectively run Roarton.
Typical of BBC dramas, this is a character driven story and heavily allegorical. Keiren’s return home is peculiar, his parents are eagre to pretend that everything is fine yet are forced to smuggle Keiren into the house under a blanket. They also insist on cooking meals for Keiren who cannot eat but he strangely acquiesces by pretending to do so. The reasons for his compliance and their peculiar denial are slowly revealed.
Keiren has been thrust into a truly hostile environment. Jen refuses to acknowledge him as her brother and maintains a hatred towards all PDS sufferers. She is soon forced to reconsider her position when the family witness the brutal killing of a neighbour’s wife, who is shot in the head outside her home while cowering in her bed clothes.
The Beeb really plays with the zombie genre, creating something peculiarly unique.The specifics of the zombie lore, for example, are very gradually revealed and the audience is left guessing – just like the characters. The themes which are explored are broad yet the zombie theme provides a surprisingly apt vehicle. Amongst them are issues as broad as vigilanteism and the failings of the NHS.
In the Flesh is really gripping and it deals with important issues so well, that sometimes it almost becomes ludicrous: it is about zombies afterall. As someone who frequently complains about the narrow minded ass hats who think horror and sci-fi can’t be high brow, this might seem a bit rich. Yes this is really good and the humour is there to ease the process of believing the unbelievable, but…it’s zombies. When you think of a serious zombie thriller you think “Walking Dead” (confronting the reality of human nature after the collapse of society) or Dawn of the Dead (tackling rampant consumerism). In the Flesh does press the 1970s kitchen sink drama angle a little too hard, and it does pile on the issues a little too thick. Gay rights, mental health, feminism, drugs, vigilante culture, the self preserving society…I could go on. And on.
This was pretty clearly meant as a flagship for more series. Hopefully not following Kieren, whose sallow face and constant moping was getting a bit annoying (and he did bear an unsettling resemblance to H from Steps). There were lots of little loose ends that weren’t followed up and hints of much bigger world of issues outside. If the BBC actually bite the bullet and commission more is anyone’s guess. This is afterall an organisation with a long established disdain towards sci-fi and horror, unless it can sell over seas – and as this plays as a 1970s kitchen sink drama with zombies in place of striking miners, I can only assume that appeal will be very limited. Let’s not forget this is the same BBC that cancelled Survivors but commissioned the shit-fests that were The Day of the Triffids and Outcasts.