It is strange that with something truly apocalyptic in the air in the last couple of years, the zombie sub-genre feels like it has fallen out of favour with audiences. The fearful isolationist politics glimpsed in 28 Days Later has become the norm in the UK, as it seeks to quarantine itself from dangerous Outsiders. At the same time, the stumbling government response to a sustained public health emergency has seen us live out the opening chapters of George A. Romero’s Dead trilogy in real-time.
For some reason, though, the idea of basing a horror around a global pandemic, or the splintering incompetence of global hierarchies, suddenly seems unpalatable to production companies. Netflix’s exceptional Kingdom, for example, seems to have been quietly buried despite critical acclaim for its first two seasons.
Set in ancient Korea, it tracks the outbreak of a mysterious parasite that transforms its hosts into cannibalistic ‘monsters’ – but its success in spreading is catalysed by squabbling factions of the ruling class either obscuring its existence, or using its propagation as an opportunity to consolidate their power. Even before the slash-and-burn cuts taking place at Netflix, it was clear Season 3 – if it happened at all – would not see the light of day for a very long time. Perhaps that kind of commentary was considered off-limits after the Covid-19 pandemic very much saw that occur…
At the same time, Netflix was very happy to churn out yet another zombie story in the critically panned Resident Evil reboot – which has been canned after a single run. Having watched it, it is easy to see where things went wrong. It is two projects: a geo-political drama using an undead outbreak as a framing device to talk about Europe’s obscene treatment of refugees before and during the pandemic; and it is also a bloated and tedious going-through-the-motions of a hackneyed video-game franchise it is not actually possible to adapt into a coherent cinematic narrative.
The Resident Evil franchise – for those who haven’t played – is abhorrently written. Its dialogue is laughable, its action absurd (most infamously, protagonist Chris Redfield once punched a flying boulder away), while making spectacularly ham-fisted attempts to cram the increasingly bizarre world into a ‘real-world’ understanding of the need to fight ‘terrorists’… But due to its placement as one of the first video-games to really allow us to personally experience a zombie apocalypse – and feel a kind of personal threat that wouldn’t have been present were we just watching it as a mawkish, backward film – it grew a loyal fanbase in spite of its writing.
This loyal fanbase is what presumably led to Netflix tagging its established IP onto a more challenging narrative it did not believe was so easy to market. In doing so, it managed to please nobody. The credibility of the series’ social critiques was utterly undermined by the need to pay as much fan-service as possible; cramming in sequences with giant insects, genetic experiments and mind-control where there could have been more time to explore an intriguing Britain, where refugees bribe smugglers to get them off the island, while other flag-waving simpletons lick the boots of a corporatist fascist government.
That is a project that Netflix evidently either had no faith in, or were actively worried by, though. So, they seemingly slapped a recognised brand on it, and ordered a series of insane re-writes minimising any impact that story might have had.
In terms of established IPs they might have resurrected instead, BBC3’s edgy, thought provoking In the Flesh would have been a much better bet (and probably would have cost far less to make too). Axed by the Beeb in an effort to make itself less of a ‘financial risk’, the show used an undead rising to confront how society has dehumanised conceptions of minorities and the working class. Unsurprisingly, it does not fit with the agenda of the UK’s state broadcaster – but it would have been bitingly relevant in the wake of the pandemic.
It’s strange that such an apparent open goal is something nobody is taking up – and I don’t doubt that will change, eventually. Who takes the first effective jump toward a new undead satire following Covid-19 is still up in the air, but someone must have an idea.
Personally, I’ve long had the ambition of writing a story from the perspective of a member of the precariat, in which a cost-of-living crisis, the possibility of losing work, and the threat of eviction, forces them to continue working amid an undead uprising. If anyone fancies putting up the money – and doesn’t want to slap an established IP on it to ‘help’ it to sell – I’m open to offers.