Zombie stories have all but saturated pop culture. They’re everywhere—28 Days Later, The Last of Us, Warm Bodies, just to name a few—and thankfully for those of us who love zombies, they’re not going away any time soon. However, since there’s so many of these stories, they face a huge challenge: being both unique and interesting to audiences that have already consumed dozens upon dozens of zombie narratives. Some of them, such as The Walking Dead and The Last of Us, succeed. Others, like the Resident Evil movies, do not.
Of course, there don’t seem to be too many places to take these narratives, and that adds to the challenge. Often, they will follow a group of people attempting to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. Warm Bodies switched this up a bit by creating a cure for the zombies. In The Flesh goes a similar route; it follows Kieren Walker, a zombie who’s been cured of his feeding urges, as he struggles to fit back in with society—but whereas Warm Bodies was a comedic love story, In The Flesh has a much darker narrative to follow. It’s also a giant allegory for LGBTQ+ discrimination.
Right now I’ve only watched the first season of In The Flesh, which is only three episodes long. I also have no idea how I’d never heard of this show until last week, because its first season is quite possibly one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.
Spoilers be ahead.
In the fictional village of Roarton, Lancashire, humanity has survived a zombie apocalypse, and though many people were killed, life is more or less continuing on as though nothing had happened. Known as the Rising, every person worldwide who died and was buried in 2009 came back to life and spent the following year killing people and eating their brains. Thankfully for humanity, many of these “rabid” zombies were captured and taken to a government facility for treatment. Using a serum to stimulate the brain, these “rabid” zombies were able to regain control of their memories and sense of self. Though they are still technically zombies—they don’t need to eat, and their bodies still appear semi-decayed—after four years of treatment, many of these “Partially Deceased Syndrome sufferers” are now ready to be returned to the custody of their families and given a second chance at life.
Kieren Walker is one such PDS sufferer, who after going home, finds that his hometown, Roarton, is not quite ready to accept him back into the community. PDS sufferers, pejoratively known as “rotters”, are outright discriminated against and sometimes even lynched in the streets. The HVF, Human Volunteer Force, which was the primary militia defense force against the zombies, still prowls the streets, refusing to believe that Kieren and those like him are anything but demons in disguise. Making matters even worse, Kieren’s own sister, Jemima, is part of the HVF.
Season 1 focuses almost explicitly on these conflicts, while also attempting to reconcile Kieren’s guilt over the people he killed and his coming to terms with how his suicide back in 2009 affected his family.
As I said, In The Flesh is a giant allegory for LGBTQ+ discrimination. PDS sufferers are murdered—sometimes even dragged from their own homes in the middle of the night in the process—religiously discriminated against, called less than human, and constantly pressured into hiding their true appearance. PDS sufferers are given face cream and contacts to make themselves look more alive, and the one woman who refuses to adhere to those standards, Amy, is assaulted in her own home as a result of her refusal. Her assailant even has the audacity to tell her that how she looks is an abomination and an insult to everyone who died after the Rising. Next we see Amy, she’s finally put on her makeup in order to blend in, when beforehand, she had been the only PDS sufferer we’d met thus far who was comfortable with her deceased state.
However, what I love most about this show is that Kieren himself is LGBTQ+. I greatly dislike when shows, such as True Blood, use mysticism to talk about minority issues when the shows themselves are not actually about minorities. Though True Blood has many LGBTQ+ characters, the main characters are still straight. That is not the case here. Kieren is bisexual, and his bisexual identity and the struggles he has to face because of it are an intrinsic part of the story. Ultimately, these issues he had, and the falling out with his boyfriend back in 2009, culminated in his suicide. Now, the stigma he faces as both a queer person and a PDS sufferer go hand in hand.
Though there are certainly problems in how LGBTQ+ relationships are portrayed, such as their stories almost always being tragic, in this case I couldn’t imagine In The Flesh being any different. The narrative makes Kieren’s relationship tragic because it’s about the unjust discrimination LGBTQ+ people face and why it’s wrong to discriminate against them. The first season also ends with Kieren and his family finally coming clean to each other about all their emotions over his suicide and presents his family as people who would have been willing to support him and help him come to terms with his internal pain. In The Flesh does a wonderful job when it comes to portraying these issues, and it made watching the show much more enjoyable and emotional.
One of the problems I had with True Blood is that all of the LGBTQ+ stand-ins, while also not necessarily being LGBTQ+ people, are murderers. They kill people all the time, and thus the discrimination against them that we see in the show is more than founded. The same cannot be said of Kieren and his fellow medicated zombies.Though it is true that he used to kill people—and the show makes a point to say that his being unable to control it at the time doesn’t make it better—he and the other zombies we have met thus far don’t kill anyone now. With the medication, they can act as fully functioning human beings. It’s important to note that though the medicine takes away his feeding urges, it can’t cure him of his zombieism. That is now an intrinsic part of him that will never go away. I realize that this is not a perfect allegory. However, at the very least, In The Flesh uses its queer protagonist and zombies to explore themes of mental illness, suicide, and medication in a nuanced and interesting way.
Unfortunately, not everything about the show is awesome. Though just about all the female characters, especially Jemima and Amy, are fleshed out and interesting, the show opens with a woman being fridged. Jemima’s best friend Lisa is murdered by Kieren and Amy while they are still both in their “rabid” state. Jemima, after watching her brother’s corpse eat her best friend, is naturally traumatized by this event. She’s angry and upset, and she doesn’t know how or what to take her anger out on. Furthermore, she and Kieren used to be really close, but he didn’t even leave her a note before his suicide, and she had no idea that he was even feeling that way. Though Jemima is a wonderful character, it is a shame that her friend had to be fridged in order to further her internal pain. As Kieren can remember the atrocities he committed while “rabid”, her death is also used to further his guilt as well. Making matters even worse, the show is predominately white, and Lisa is the most prominent PoC in the narrative.
Despite that, In The Flesh is still one of the best shows I have ever seen, and if you’re not watching it, you’re missing out.