By Peter Hummers on November 27, 2019
The Walking Dead was a fresh take on a tired (for its time) trope: the zombie apocalypse. In its day it had great plots, characters and action, but like its titular characters it refuses to die. I can recommend only the first six seasons; your mileage may vary.
There is a light at the end of the television, however; but first, here are two tasty standouts from recent zombie cinema, a comedy and a chaotic thriller, and their thematic spawn, which is my streaming TV pick.
SHAUN OF THE DEAD (Fandango etc.)
Shaun and Ed are slackers who share a London flat. Shaun, 29, is a minimum-wage clerk in an electronics store, and his best friend Ed is a sarcastic slob content to play video games when he isn’t occasionally contributing to the rent with proceeds from selling pot.
Underachieving Shaun (Simon Pegg, Dr. Who, the Mission Impossible films, and co-writer of Shaun), is plagued by the daily distractions of his perpetually disappointed girlfriend Liz, his Mom (Penelope Wilton, Downton Abbey) and her husband (Bill Nighy, Love, Actually).
The subtext of the early scenes is what Shaun doesn’t notice during day one: A voice on a TV in a shop saying “authorities are concerned,” a man running in terror down the street, the sound of a car crashing – but remember, this is London. Shaun’s girlfriend, fed up with his lack of ambition, breaks up with him so he and Ed (Nick Frost, Hot Fuzz) spend the night drinking in their local pub, “The Winchester.”
Next morning at the flat, a groggy Ed tells Shaun, “There’s a girl in the garden!” She appears to be drunk until she attacks them, getting pushed onto a bird-bath stand and lethally impaled by it. Until she gets up and attacks again. By now the streets are a full-blown bedlam of walking dead and Ed and Shaun pick up some friends to make a last stand at the pub. What follows are some very funny zombie apocalypse set-pieces leavened by an emotional moment or three, leading to a heart-warming resolution. Heart-warming and very weird. Shaun of the Dead (2004) is available on-demand on several platforms. Here’s a 2:30 trailer. [R]
WORLD WAR Z (Fandango etc.)
This 2013 Brad Pitt film takes a more traditional tack to the zombie apocalypse: all terror, all the time. After a montage of climate problems including news items of rabies epidemics comes the main title card, spelled out in menacing all-caps, WORLD WAR Z. The only clues as to the possible origin of the coming pandemic come in the form of anecdotes and speculation.
We are introduced to Gerry Lane (Pitt), a retired United Nations investigator, his wife (Mireille Enos, The Killing) and their daughters, preparing for a vacation. In their car in Philadelphia on the way to their RV, they are caught in a huge traffic jam. When a lane-cuttling motorcycle flashes by, taking one of their side mirrors, Lane steps out of the car. A motorcycle cop stops, yelling at him to get back in the car when the cop is crushed by a speeding garbage truck plowing through the traffic. Lane, a man of action, begins drafting the speeding truck, saying “This is our way out of here!” Not for long – the truck crashes and the family abandon its car amid more bedlam of cars crashing and explosions.
Lane sees a pedestrian run over horribly but then get up again. They make it to their RV and get as far as Newark, which is also now wall-to-wall terror. The news on the radio described a planetary crisis. In touch with a UN official who requests Lane’s help, the family is ultimately plucked from a rootftop by helicopter and taken to an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic. Lane agrees to assist in the search for the earliest case and is flown with a military cohort to Israel, where a huge wall around the country was completed just before the first case of zombieism was reported. Did they know something?
The second act is pretty much roiling mobs of zombies, with spectacular large-scale special effects; the third act is confined to a claustrophobic lab where a possible antidote is tested. Here’s a 2:23 trailer. The film is available on demand through the usual services. Bring popcorn! [PG13]
Z NATION (Netflix)
I only heard of this five-season 2014 SyFy series on Twitter; it’s now available with subscription on Netflix. Like The Walking Dead, it follows a shifting group of zombocalypse survivors, but has more subplots in the first episodes than TWD had in its first season.
The idea is that the only survivor of a hail-Mary prison experiment to find an antidote to vampire bites has to be shepherded practically on foot to a lab in California. He was a prisoner, and now he’s an unpleasant and sardonic character who has an active zombie phobia, having been bitten seven times. The show is billed as a dramatic action comedy, most of the comedy coming from wisecracks and Easter eggs: the push to find an antidote is called “Operation BiteMark.”
Among its cast is DJ Qualls (Man in the High Castle) and Tom Everett Scott (Southland). Matt Zang plays a sharpshooting kid who joins the survivors and is adept with a rifle and a slingshot. Whe asked his name, he replies, “10,000” as he intends to kill 10,000 zombies. “When you reach 10,000, then what? Will you change your name to “20,000?” “No, Jeff,” he says. “I like the name Jeff.” Here’s a two-minute trailer.
[Update] As I watch more and more of Z Nation, it gets funnier and funner (that’s “more fun”), sublimely so! (I also found out two of the characters are from the Sharknado universe!) Still plenty of action. [TV14]