The Zombie, shambling harbinger of doom and decay. The version of the zombie that exists today, as popularised by Night of the Living Dead in 1968, is pretty much the accepted template for how zombies should be done. The outrage of Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead where he dared to have zombies running just shows how much the image of the ‘Romero’ zombies have become locked into popular culture.
Zombies have used to hold a mirror up to society and ask who the real monsters are. From the Romero’s Dead trilogy all the way to The Walking Dead zombies are the catalyst for the breakdown of society but the more immediate danger are human beings turning on each other. But now zombies are being used to tell new stories. Zombies are being used as the basis of feminist parables and it is a wonderful thing to watch.
Now, before I continue, this is in no way intended to be any kind of feminist critique. There are many very intelligent, eloquent women who are way more qualified than I to do that and I have no business trying. This is very much just one person’s opinion so I apologise in advance if I am way off base in some of my assertions. By all means put me right in the comments section. This is intended as a celebration of engaging storytelling involving women as the central protagonist and nothing more.
iZombie and Santa Clarita Diet are two very different takes on the zombie genre but both have at their heart a story of how becoming a zombie causes the main protagonists to re-examine their lives and to find creative solutions to the situation that they find themselves in.
The character of Liv Moore in iZombie starts out as a young Doctor pegged for a bright future in medicine. At a party she’s been persuaded to attend there is a zombie attack (written off as an attack by drug users in the press) and she wakes up the following day to discover that her hair has turned white and she has a craving for brains. This leads to her having to radically rethink her life. As she has no wish to be murdering anyone she gets a job in a morgue where brains are readily available and breaks off her engagement with her fiancé for his own safety. This causes tensions for her family and friends who don’t understand what has happened.
The interesting thing about this set up is that everything that Liv does could have been caused by any traumatic event. I’m sure many of us know someone who has had to drastically change their life because something major has happened. It just so happens that the event here is becoming a zombie. Liv has had to put her life as she thought it was going to be on hold and has started to just coast. She is now existing rather than living. It isn’t until she starts to realise that when she eats someone’s brain she gains their memories and elements of their personalities that she finds some purpose again and starts helping the Seattle PD to solve murders by masquerading as a psychic. This is the basic premise for what is an offbeat police procedural.
What follows is Liv exploring her own identity not just as someone who now needs to eat brains to live but through the changes in personality that the brains bring on and how that affects her interactions with the people around her. She has to change her approach to romantic relationships, friendships and work. She makes mistakes along the way, has successes and failures, but all the while the story of iZombie is first and foremost about Liv and how she finds her place in the world now that she is a zombie.
Santa Clarita Diet is, initially, more guarded about how the character of Sheila Hammond becomes a zombie. She starts out as a relatively chirpy character who wishes she was more outgoing and confident. As the symptoms develop she eventually ends up eating someone and her husband Joel finds her chowing down on the corpse in the back garden. What follows is a macabre suburban sitcom where Sheila and Joel attempt to keep Sheila’s condition secret and keep her fed with the least amount of murder possible.
As part of Sheila’s newfound status she finds that she has shifts in personality. She becomes much more of a motivating influence on her friends (who tell her she’s become more interesting than she use to be while not knowing why). She is more assertive in the way that she deals with people she would previously have shied away from.
While being a zombie has obvious drawbacks Sheila finds that she also feels much more confident and empowered. Her new attitude causing her to have much less time for people’s bullshit. The people she is shown railing against are all men. The work colleague who sexually harasses her, the aggressively nosy neighbour obsessed with ants, the road rage driver and the school Principal with an inferiority complex. They are all people who are trying to take Sheila’s power and they all find out that Sheila is not the demure little housewife they expect her to be. Conversely she inspires her female friends to seize the day more in ways that Sheila doesn’t expect.
One thing that both shows have in common is that while zombies are known as pop culture the fact that they actually exist is not common knowledge. Being a zombie is a secret that needs to be kept. Less because of the potential panic but because it is something that would be considered socially unacceptable. While both are concerned about going to prison they are also worried about how being revealed as a zombie will change how the people will see them. These are both women who have resolved to live their lives against the grain of society, decide that they will not to be held back and who refuse to be defined by what has happened to them. That is the story at the heart of both shows and it is using the medium of the zombie to get that story across. Announce a TV show is about a woman living her life her own way and refusing to conform to societal norms and you’ll get a lot of people, mainly men, showing no interest in it. Tell that same story but make the woman a zombie and all of a sudden you have something they are more likely to watch and even learn something from.
It is great to see the medium of the zombie being used to tell new stories. Showing that there is more to zombies than the unremitting grimness of The Walking Dead. That you can use zombies to have darkly comic, engaging stories that put brilliant women at the centre of them. That is something that will, ironically, help keep the zombie genre fresh.