Just watched the first three eps of Z NATION, the new SyFy zombie series. Given the perpetually duplicative complexion of television, I assumed that, in the wake of the remarkable ratings success of THE WALKING DEAD, everyone in the biz would soon be purloining its premise and delivering up a plethora of living dead-plagued landscapes populated by bands of ragged roustabouts just trying to survive. As TWD sank into the baleful depths of Mazzara dullardism, I even fantasized that someone would build a better zombie-trap, throw it against TWD and bury that series, which I'd really come to hate, beneath its own premise. For whatever reason, this hasn't materialized, neither the trend nor the fantasy. A tv adaptation of ZOMBIELAND made it as far as a pilot film but it apparently went over poorly and was dropped. Only this year--5 seasons into TWD--did SyFy partner with the Asylum to produce the next ongoing televised zombie apocalypse. I'm only a little late to that party but last night I did finally get around to taking in the first three eps of its fruit, Z NATION.
Z NATION is a bit of a party. Karl Schaeffer, its showrunner, tells us that "every week, you’re going to see our zombies doing something different, that you haven’t seen zombies do before. Our goal was to put the fun back into zombies." A clearer focus on that goal would have certainly aided "Puppies & Kittens," the series pilot. It delivers some humor along the way, mostly toward the end, but overall, it takes itself way too seriously and combined with its other sins, almost led me to forgo the rest of the series. It indulges in one of my least favorite tropes of genre productions in having characters spout faux-"futuristic" language. Zombies are called "Zs," killing them is called "granting them mercy," dates are recorded as "A.Z." (After Zombies), there's militaristic techno-babble ("Delta-Xray-Delta, this is Northern Light. Operation Bite Mark, do you copy?") and so on. In one of the early scenes, a group of people are throwing a going-away party for their sick grandmother, who is then given "mercy" via an "eight sacrament"--ritually shot by one of our heroes. This is treated as a joyous event. In my view, such tropes are the waste-products of feverish nerdish circle-jerking and they only tend to alienate viewers from material that, set in a world only divorced from our own by three years, shouldn't be so alien to them. Following contemporary b-movie trends for better or worse, the cinematography favors the hand-held and a fairly restricted color palette. The latter is a huge mistake; while the pilot is often fairly dull, the tone adopted by the subsequent episodes would be much better served by a vibrant, even over-the-top expressionistic use of color. The production design is dirt-cheap and it often combines with the scale of the piece to give the impression of simply trying to do too much with too little.
Much of this is emblematic of the work of the company that produced Z NATION. I'm an ordained minister in the Church of the B-Movie but it's exceedingly rare that I've felt compelled to preach a sermon on behalf of a product of the Asylum. Over the years, I've slogged through more of its execrable filmography than I'd care to recall The company's bread-and-butter is grinding out "mockbusters"--dirt-cheap knock-offs of whatever huge-budget blockbuster Hollywood is currently pimping. Hollywood makes TRANSFORMERS, the Asylum has TRANSMORPHERS; Hollywood remakes THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL; the Asylum counters with THE DAY THE EARTH STOPPED. Hollywood offers THE HOBBIT: the Asylum gives us AGE OF THE HOBBITS. The company makes its money by using such titles to separate credulous Redbox renters from their entertainment dollars by making them think they're getting the current upbudget Hollywood schlock. One can admire their initiative. Admiring their schlock is much harder. A lot of schlock can be endearing; the Asylum's schlock one more typically finds oneself enduring. Their movies aren't so bad they're good; they're mostly just bad. There have, in my experience, been a few exceptions. SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE'S SHERLOCK HOLMES--released to ape the Robert Downey Jr. SHERLOCK HOLMES--had a good b-movie take on Holmes, and was entertaining enough. It fell on its face only insofar as it, like so many other Asylum projects, simply tried to do too much with too little. SIX GUNS, the Asylum's rip on JONAH HEX, ended up being a better Jonah Hex movie than the one that bore the name. And, of course, the Asylum's biggest catch--and likely its biggest hit--was SHARKNADO. A riff on Roger Corman's weird critter movies for SyFy, the flick about a tornado full of sharks is schlock done right, and--no other way to put it--an absolute blast. These bright spots are definitely the exception. That the Asylum was behind Z NATION is one of the reasons I was initially disinterested in the series.
I finally looked into it because I kept coming across internet chatter from the following it has developed, raves about it being a fun little show. The clincher was when a comrade from the Internet Movie Database boards threw some kind words its way and said she hoped I was going to be checking it out (thanks, Helen).
As I sank into the couch and started watching, a lot of the pilot fed my own initial prejudices. A lot of it looked and felt a lot like the Asylum. There was borrowing from THE WALKING DEAD. The central plot of the entire series, in fact, is a straight lift from the previous season of TWD: a "package"--a fellow with a potential cure for zombie-ism--must be delivered to a lab across a long, dangerous stretch of the zombiefied U.S. Initially, the "characters" barely qualify for the word. In the pilot, only Citizen Z (DJ Qualls) and, in particular, Doc (Russell Hodgkinson) bring any real life to the proceedings. While most of the others were just presences, Harold Perrineau was terribly unlikeable as Hammond, the needlessly prickish, order-barking soldier assigned to escort the "package." Thankfully, he ends up as Zombie Chow before the end of that first episode, and the way ZN handles the events surrounding his demise is what made me, rather unimpressed up to that point, decide to give it another shot and continue to the next one. Our heroes find a cute baby in a wrecked vehicle and suddenly the show finds its sense of humor. Holding the child at arms length as if horrified by it: "Whoa, it's a real live baby--I haven't seen one of these in years... What do I do?" The characters have just shot several zombies but when the baby cries, "Somebody better shut that kid up before he attracts Z's like flies." And another character agrees. There follows the usual argument over what they're going to do with an infant in a zombie apocalypse. Rather than reveling in the angst, TWD-style, though, Hammond dramatically declares "God, I hate moral dilemmas!" Which made me laugh. Shortly after, the proceedings are interrupted when the baby itself abruptly turns into a zombie. Not a helpless baby zombie. No, the hellish tyke gets up out of his carrier like a little gremlin and chases our heroes out of the building, angrily pounding at the door as they slam it in his face. The "moral dilemma" talk then shifts to how we can't possibly leave it running around like that--it would be inhumane. Hammond volunteers to go inside and kill it and, instead, ends up being eaten by it and another zombie. Z-Baby is too small to even have any teeth, but there he is, chewing big, meaty chunks out of Hammond.
As Z NATION continues beyond this initial outing, its efforts at "drama" remain fairly low-grade--nothing of any real seriousness is handled very well. It has little in the way of internal logic--zombies sprint or shuffle at a glacial place depending solely on the momentary needs of the plot; they're driven by a ravenous lust for flesh yet ignore live humans within arms reach in order to follow distant sounds. A lot of it doesn't make a lick of sense--Citizen Z is able to remotely tap into cameras, tvs, phones, radios everywhere in spite of their being no power; the other characters go into a large city like Philadelphia that's swarming with millions of zombies yet are able to walk around the open streets while talking, yelling and even shooting with minimal attempted molestation or even interest by the flesh-lusting corpses. But what ZN does deliver after that initial mixed bag of a pilot is a typically black sense of humor, which takes center stage and becomes its saving grace. This is a show wherein a guy driving a truck pulls over thinking he has a flat and it turns out he has a ground-up zombie stuck in the wheel-well. "Well, I guess that explains the pull to the left." Some of the laughs are as cheap as the production design, others more pricey, a lot of them may not even be intentional, but together they do work, and while they don't make Z NATION great and may not make it any more than disposable entertainment, they do make it a goofy, gory, fast-paced bite of fun. An amusing diversion I'm going to continue following for a while.
 The soon-to-be-deceased is toasted while a chorus sings "Shall We Gather At The River" and it's possible the entire scenario was meant as a joke but if it was, it really falls flat.
 The Asylum was sued over that one and lost.
 Exploitation flicks have always knocked off popular Hollywood product. The Asylum takes that practice to a whole 'nother level.
 A sequel was recently released; haven't seen it yet.
 Thankfully, this improves with the subsequent episodes. Doc finds a worthy foil in "10,000," a cocky young sniper, and Cassandra (Pisay Pao, one of the most beautiful women on television) begins to get some moments (both characters appear in the pilot but are given virtually nothing to do there).