(warnings: may contain some spoilers)
Santa Clarita Diet (2017) premiered on Netflix last week bringing the zombies once again closer to the comfort of our homes. The lives of Joel (Timothy Olyphant) and Liv (Abby Hewson) take an unexpected turn when their wife and mother Sheila (Drew Barrymore) becomes a zombie. The three try to find a cure to Sheila’s zombie problem with a help of their neighbor Eric (Skyler Gisondo). The level and quality of gore in Santa Clarita Diet is remarkable considering this is not The Walking Dead. Netflix does not have to follow many rules and it shows. I was not impressed by the trailer when it first aired, but I was still compelled to watch the show because I love zombies and I have enjoyed most of Netflix’s productions. The show pokes fun at suburban neighborhoods and people who settled down, but it is also soaked through with undead humor. People who do not necessarily enjoy a zombie horror might enjoy this zombie comedy.
Santa Clarita Diet is another addition to movies which represent zombies from their own point of view, and explores an idea that zombies do not mean an end to our existence, but sees them as an alternative way of being. The idea is nothing new and almost as old as the genre itself. The first zombie films took inspiration from Haiti’s voodoo religion but in 1968 a movie by George A. Romero, Night of the Living Dead, changed the course of the genre forever. Romero’s zombies had nothing in common with voodoo, they were not slaves whose souls have been taken from them; any human would become a zombie after death. Romero was inspired by Richard Matheson’s I am Legend (1954), however, a novel which is relevant to the development of zombie and vampire genre. Two classes of vampires were introduced in the novel: the feral and more traditional vampires who only come out at night and a new class of those who overcome the disease and can survive in daylight. The new class is the new life form that inhabits the Earth and Robert Neville, the main character, represents the last surviving human on the planet. Matheson’s undead are multidimensional. Romero famously followed the tradition of exploration of zombie consciousness which culminated in his character Bub in Day of the Dead (1985) when audiences could empathize with Bub who kills the main villain of the story to revenge the death of Dr. Logan. Bub was able to recognize people and perform simple tasks. The idea of zombies who retain their consciousness, hopes, and dreams was taken even further in the beginning of the twenty-first century.
One of the closing scenes in Shaun of the Dead (2004) shows Shaun keeping his undead best friend Ed in a shed so he can occasionally play video games with him, but the idea is not further explored. One year later, a black comedy Graveyard Alive: A Zombie Nurse in Love (2003) discusses how zombification leads to empowerment, a theme that it shares with Santa Clarita Diet. Graveyard Alive’s zombies are not aggressively feral; they continue living their lives with added appetite for humans and sex. Patsy Powers is able to catch the attention of a doctor that she has been interested in for a while but who prefers another sexy blond nurse, Goodie. Eventually, the entire staff at the hospital turns into zombies. Patsy’s zombie life is exciting compared to her previous life of soap operas, misery, and daydreaming.
American Zombie (2007) pushes more boundaries with its documentary form. The world is populated by classes of feral, low-functioning, and high-functioning zombies. A crew of documentary filmmakers interviews several zombies to discover their lives and to uncover the truth behind the zombie disease. Perhaps the most sympathetic zombies are a woman who is desperate to find out whom she was in her human life (zombies forget who they were), and a woman who is ashamed and in denial of her zombie identity. The latter zombie is a vegan, she hopes to get married to a human and have babies. Although it is heavily implied that zombies cannot have children, they are good at foreplay and have their own human groupies.
A relationship between zombies and humans is fully explored in Warm Bodies (2013) that is narrated utilizing zombie’s inner monologue. A relationship between a human and a zombie reveals that certain zombies can be cured. The movie also features different zombie classes (based on the degree of decay) and focuses on love as being the key factor in re-humanization.
Santa Clarita Diet plays with the idea that Sheila resembles a zombie before rather than after she becomes one. Her zombie self is full of energy and she confesses that she prefers the zombie life, but this is not surprising as we find out on the show that the dead are driven by their desires. The series is Graveyard Alive and American Zombie‘s foster child with more hilarious jokes, but it adds something new. Unlike Patsy or characters in American Zombie, Sheila has a family life and remembers everything before and after she became a zombie. The show explores and asks how far we would go for our zombie loved ones. Serialization allows to observe human behavior throughout a longer period of time and I am curious to see how the show deals with some moral issues, but also with Sheila’s decaying body which is becoming a problem. The first season set a pretty high standard, but I believe Netflix could nail the second season as well.