Zombie Lore is Lost on Jimmy Donnellan

‘s, “Z Nation: The Inconsistent Show With One Fantastic Episode” is a biased and limited review of a fun show. Like too many critics, he equates seriousness with quality and he works from the theory that Z Nation (ZN) has to compete with The Walking Dead (TWD). He said, “you can be the more boisterous cousin to The Walking Dead if you want to, but don’t expect to be taken seriously when the quality of the show is more inconsistent than a heart murmur.” It is certainly true, ZN is not the pinnacle of zombie or horror television but it would likely get George A. Romero’s -Father of the Modern Zombie- approval. The show is flawed  but to dismiss it without attempting to understand its DNA is criminal and unfair. In short comparing these shows does a disservice to both as their focus and goals are dissimilar. 

The core premises of both shows are significantly different. In The Walking Dead the characters are just trying to survive and not on their way to anywhere in particular…In our show there is a definite goal and they actually have a guy who’s been bitten and not turned, so we know there is a potential cure to be had. Beyond that, our show has humor in it, both the gallows humor you’d expect from hardened survivors in the Z-pocalypse and also some over-the-top moments. So while both shows have overt similarities like zombies, they’re quite different once you get into them. –Z Nation co-writer and co-executive producer  Craig Engler 

TWD can be classified as a horror thriller and ZN as a comedy horror. In many ways TWD is an outlier as a zombie show as it has forgone the humor that is indicative of zombie lore. Donnellan even admits that, “The Walking Dead would certainly benefit from some levity, that’s without a doubt” and he characterizes ZN as, “slapstick and ridiculous…cheesy humour.” From  the grandfather of American zombie films White Zombie to cult favorites Night of the Living Dead and From Dusk Till Dawn and even twilight influenced Warm Bodies, Zombie movies have had a very simple formula. Apocalypse/Virus + Gore + Comedy = Zombie Show.

TWD has elevated the zombie genre, and with The Fear of Walking Dead, AMC has attempted to own and re-envision the genre. AMC’s apocalypse is realistic and a far cry from B movie classification. TWD retains the gore and violence and even includes romance as it explores what it means to be human in post-apocalypse America. The show’s parables are varied and distinct; it may even be called a meditation on life. TWD‘s story-telling is engaging, dark and aligned with our presumptions of the genre, minus the comedy. Everyone loves this show. While the last word is yet to be written on this series, its cult like following is reminiscent of The Wire, Breaking Bad and Sopranos.

Donnellan’s appreciation and devotion to TWD is understandable, but his lack of understanding of zombie lore is egregious. He ridicules the “wild story arcs” and “absurd sequences and moments” that are uniquely ZN, from the birth of a zombie baby to zombie weed and the rolling cheese wheel that flattens zombies. At least he doesn’t argue or compare the shows’ zombie speed and look. Anyone that has to steel themselves, “for one last nonsensical adventure before I abandoned the show for good” simply isn’t a fan of the genre. So it is clear why he compares TWD to ZN and why he likes, “Light”, the episode that is most like TWD. It is, “full of taut, realistic combat across many different set-pieces.” It would be interesting to read zombie experts and enthusiasts (super fans) responses to Donnellan’s article. Engler should send Donnellan a book on zombie lore, or direct him to 71 Gnawing Facts about Zombies.

I already conceded, ZN is flawed. But it is its flaws that remind us of the genre. This is not to say the show’s quality should not be improved. Donnellan claimed, “it’s starkly different in tone from one episode to the next, creating a zombie series that never knows what it wants to be.”  The show can quickly move from comedy to tragedy evoking uncontrollable laughter or tearful sentiments.  This zombie road trip for the cure mimics the risk taking of a comic book, anime, manga or graphic novel, though it is not as dark. The road story format is clearly intentional. Engler wanted to, “delve into the different ways society and various survivor groups would react to the situation.” This brings us story arcs with bounty hunters, Mexican cartel, military groups, scientists, communists, outlaws, Native Americans, etc…

In addition to the varying tones, the show’s production value also doesn’t always rise above the dreaded B movie level. Admittedly, sometimes ZN is reminiscent of Sharknado and the Zombies clearly have not attended the now renowned TWD Zombie Workshop. But part of the joy of zombie movies is trash talking the believe-ability and logic of the script. Donnellan’s mind would melt if ZN went international in its third season which will likely begin in September 2016.

ZN is not necessarily designed for sober, binge-watching. This is not your CBS saccharine, predictable, consistent show. It would not be surprising if the show’s writers each specialized in sub horror or zombie areas: comedy, science fiction, thriller, romance, apocalypse and even procedurals. ZN is the ultimate definition of a zombie drink a tall mixed drink consisting of several kinds of rum, liqueur, and fruit juice. This is escapism at its best!

It is also troubling that ZN‘s inclusive cast (race, age, gender, sexuality) is lost on Donnellan. He only acknowledges,  “Vasquez [Matt Cedeno] as the group badass.” This negates the fact that Engler’s zombie world is being saved by a bad-ass black woman and this black woman is no mammy. She is not there to placate or soothe. The group respects and follows the lead of Warren (Kellita Smith). Vasquez’s character is complex, and he will likely be a love interest for Hammond, but he is not the the only badass and he is not the defacto leader.

Just because TWD and ZN are on basic cable and speak to apocalyptic zombies, does not make them comparable. Do not watch ZN,  “to see anything to rival the overall excellence – in almost every aspect – of AMC’s flagship show.” In fact, it would have been a mistake for ZN to position itself against the critical and commercial success of AMC’s TWD. Sure the former President of SyFy Dave Howe said his efforts were, “…an attempt to do on television basic cable something which traditionally is only being done on premium cable–on an HBO or Showtime,” but that was more of an attempt to save or re-position the network; to increase production value and brand awareness. There is nothing about AMC and SyFy that is in competition. Any such claim is is a red-herring for promotion and branding. It is simply disingenuous. AMC’s shows are some of the best on television: The Walking Dead, Fear The Walking Dead, Into the Badlands, and Humans. They are innovative and illustrative of the network’s brand/taglines, Story Matters Here and Something More.

Donnellan’s review epitomizes much of what is wrong with criticism today. Critics are unable or unwilling to check their bias and limitations and far too often use the keyboard to share opinions instead of studied and complete criticisms; I’d cop to this as well. Donnellan’s review makes the loss of Roger Ebert, whose reviews were sublime, even more difficult. Engler’s succinct response to this less than positive review, “well at least they liked one episode.” 

engler response to article1

 

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