Zombies are so popular now that it almost seems cliché to recommend yet another film or television series revolving around them. Yes, AMC’s The Walking Dead is outstanding, but this often overlooked show – In the Flesh – is even better. Originally, the show was comprised of a three episode long miniseries for BBC Three but, thanks to its enormous popularity, it was granted a second season (or “series” as the British refer to it) consisting of six more episodes and continuing the enthralling story created by Dominic Mitchell.
In the Flesh follows main character Kieren Walker (played by Luke Newberry), a zombie. How many examples can you name in film and television in which a zombie is the main character? Probably very few. This factor is what makes this show so interesting and such a fresh take on what can seem to some of even the most devout horror fans as a tired subgenre. Anyway, the show’s mythology is highly complex and, in a very British televisual style, it focuses on serious societal issues, unafraid to examine politically potent plotlines.
In the Flesh tells us what happens after the zombie apocalypse—after what the characters refer to as “The Rising,” an otherwise ordinary day in the United Kingdom. Those who died already, during a certain time frame, spontaneously come back to life, dig themselves out of their own graves, and find that they crave human flesh. Their bites do not infect you – you cannot become one of them – but they still can kill you. The UK government has developed a cure for this “rotter” problem (their term for the zombies) by injecting them with a serum in the back of the neck every day. After some good ole rehabilitation in a creepy mental institution/rehab-like facility, these “rotters” can be reintegrated into society, becoming normal, compliant citizens. Of course, not everyone is okay with that plan and chaos soon ensues.
By now you’re probably thinking “this is super unique I have to go watch it immediately!!” But wait, there’s more to the story. Kieren, our zombie protagonist, had committed suicide because his love interest, Rick Macy (played by David Walmsley), had been sent away to fight in Afghanistan by his hypermasculine dad, who hoped his son would reassert his manliness and calm any suspicions about his rather obvious relationship with Kieren. This introduces one of my favorite aspects of the horror genre: monstrosity as a metaphor for queerness, albeit in this case the monster is quite literally a queer character.
Furthermore, the prejudice displayed by some of the townsfolk of Kieren’s hometown of Roarton, England (a highly rural, religious, close-minded community) is representative of the real prejudice and discrimination against LGBTQ individuals, making In the Flesh a highly political form of horror. Instead of calling them “rotters,” the government insists on the “politically correct” term of “Partially Deceased Syndrome Sufferers” – sound familiar? Roarton does not want to integrate these “rotters” and forms paramilitary groups (known as the HVF, or “Human Volunteer Force”) to fight against the evil-incarnate zombies. For me, this makes the show’s meanings easily transferable to the United States: the gun-loving, Bible-quoting, hyper-discriminatory stereotype of the Southern region of the country instantly comes to mind.
The true importance of In the Flesh is in this equation of social violence against the zombies with social violence against contemporary queer individuals. The “rotters” are forced to wear a matte face makeup, to cover their rotting flesh, as well as contacts to make their eyes appear “normal.” This demonstrates how the mainstream has consistently demanded that the gay community assimilate into the “normal” – a concept some refer to as “homonormativity.” Basically, if you get married like straight people and have a family like straight people, then the threat you pose to the norm of society is defused. The mental institution in which we first see Kieren, moreover, also calls to mind the need to “rehabilitate” queer people – to enforce what society deems normal behavior onto individuals who do not choose to adhere to their standards.
In the end, zombies break the boundary between dead/alive just as queer people break the binary of gay/straight. Why does this matter? The show’s creator, Dominic Mitchell, has been quoted as saying he intentionally created a bisexual or queer character, one who conforms to no category whatsoever. This is seen in “series” (or season) two when Kieren appears to be sexually attracted to fellow zombie Amy Dyer (played by Emily Bevan) and also develops a relationship with fellow zombie Simon Monroe (played by Emmett J. Scanlan). As a zombie and a truly queer character, Kieren illustrates the uselessness of binaries, dissolving them in a tremendously captivating way.
So, go watch In the Flesh (it’s available on Amazon Instant Video, where I watched it myself). It’s a politically powerful work of television that illustrates how society uses conceptions of “normal” to punish those who do not willingly accept the terms that enforce approval. Kieren, indeed all zombies, call into question real human anxieties over politically-marked boundaries that map normality for our culture. Beautifully, In the Flesh warns against assimilation with the demanded norm, telling its audience to be who you are, no matter what the cost. It is a striking story of self-discovery and family interaction surrounding sexuality and prejudice. Unfortunately, In the Flesh has not been renewed for a third “series” (or season) due to a decrease in BBC Three’s funding for original programming (it is a nationally/governmentally-funded television network, somewhat analogous to PBS). I sincerely hope it gets renewed eventually, as Dominic Mitchell deserves a high degree of recognition for his super original take on the zombie narrative, as well as for producing such a great drama series.
Brooke Bennett is currently an undergraduate student and honors candidate at the University of Arkansas, hoping to continue her academic career in Film and Media Studies as a graduate student. She has written several pieces on The Walking Dead and loves to chat for hours about the cultural importance of all things horror. Her current favorites in horror are found-footage style films and zombie narratives. Brooke’s other work can be found on Academia and you can follow her on Twitter.