Zombies have been a media staple ever since 1968 and George A. Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead, but in the early 2000s there was a real zombie renaissance – roughly beginning with the release of Max Brooks’s seminal The Zombie Survival Guide, and finally sent crashing from its pedestal ten years later by the disappointing film adaptation of Brooks’ World War Z.
This dramatic rise and fall didn’t kill zombies stone dead, though. Quite the opposite, it was this period that dragged them groaning and shambling into the mainstream, out of being a subset of the horror film and into being a genre of their own right. Often this took the form of the ‘zombie apocalypse’, bridging the gap between monsters and disasters, as if either option wasn’t bad enough on its own. And the best zombie shows run the full gamut – to individual (and often quite chummy) zombies to full billion-strong hordes of them.
It is worth noting before we begin that ‘zombie’ is a somewhat broad church. You have the slow zombies of Night Of The Living Dead, the fast zombies of 28 Days Later, and then beyond that the endless series of euphemisms – walkers, ghouls, deadites, and so on – for what is still essentially a living corpse. So, let’s define our terms here: a zombie is any dead body revivified by anything or anyone other than Dr. Frankenstein. Okay? Does that sit right with everyone? Good.
The Best Zombie Shows On Netflix
1. Ash vs. Evil Dead
The Evil Dead is the franchise that made ‘shlocky’ a good thing – to say nothing of ‘splattery’ and other unfortunate-sounding words beginning with s. There’s just something about Bruce Campbell with a shotgun in one hand and a chainsaw in place of the other that seemed to really strike a chord with people.
In a world full of sequels, continuations, reimaginings and reboots which all seem to think ‘let’s drop everything that was good about the original’, Ash vs. Evil Dead is refreshingly aware that what the audience wants is to see Campbell’s Ash fighting the Evil Dead while overacting shamelessly.
The plot, such as it is – a cursed book called the Necronomicon Ex Mortis causes the dead to rise – is puddle-shallow and doesn’t need to be anything else. The joy of it is in the moment, as Ash casually drops action-hero lines that rival the entire 1980s for sheer cheese factor, and the deadites manage to be both genuinely creepy and completely ridiculous at the same time. Not many works can strike that balance, but Ash vs. Evil Dead is one of them.
Zombie master George A. Romero’s films always had a strong undertone of humans being the real monsters, and zombies merely being the catalyst to set this off. Betaal combines this by reaching into India’s not-too-distant colonial past for its own legion of undead monsters, to produce some hard-edged (if blunt) satire.
Despite some fairly campy, unrealistic touches (glowing red eyes, anyone?) Betaal ends up a surprisingly intense and claustrophobic take on the zombie show, with its main group of innocent, unsuspecting corporate mercenaries finding themselves stranded way, way off the beaten track after a routine village-destroying goes badly wrong. In true Romero style, there’s just as much tension and threat coming within our group of survivors as there is from outside.
The appeal of any apocalypse scenario – zombie or otherwise – is being the only one left, and being able to do whatever the hell you want. This is exactly what transforms C-average high-schooler Josh into protagonist material. Here, it’s only adults who get zombified, letting the usual high-school drama spill out into the real world with real stakes.
But this isn’t the bleak kind of post-apocalypse, with starvation and impossible choices. It’s the fun kind, with roving gangs in silly outfits, and, in a nod to the obvious Ferris Bueller influences, Matthew Broderick hamming it up as a cartoon bad guy. Despite some fairly strong reviews, Netflix only kept Daybreak around for one season, but given all the hits they’ve pulled the plug on, that means nothing.
4. Dead Set
Charlie Brooker’s take on the zombie apocalypse was bound to throw at least a few barbs in the media’s direction (this was during his ‘How TV Ruined Your Life’ days, after all).
With Dead Set, he comes right out and has the Day of the Zeds strike in the middle of Orwellian house-based reality show Big Brother, whose unhappy contestants don’t even notice anything’s wrong at first. Like many works of horror – and pretty much all reality shows – none of them are particularly nice people, which makes it a bit less distressing when they get torn apart by a swarm of the undead.
When Brooker has a message, he is rarely subtle about it, and you don’t need many shots of zombies drinking in Big Brother to work out his opinion on that particular strand of ocular chewing gum. Still, it’s an enormous amount of fun to see the shouty, neurotic behind-the-scenes atmosphere of a reality show run headlong into some actual problems.
What tends to get underplayed in zombie media is why, exactly, the recently dead are rising from their graves. Usually that works, since any explanation represents time not spent blowing them away with shotguns. But with Glitch, the hunt for a reason why it’s happened takes centre stage.
Unusually, in Glitch when they return from the dead, they’re not white-eyed and craving human flesh, but are actually completely fine. Better than ever, even. When a policeman gets quite a shock on seeing his recently dead wife roaming the streets, he starts investigating any possible links between the resurrected, and things spiral out from there.
‘…and together, they fight crime’ is usually a phrase emblematic of hackneyed television, but iZombie manages to shake up the formula. Instead of a rough approximation of a buddy-cop duo, it’s a zombie who’s lucked out and secured a job at a morgue – then finds that when she eats a brain she gets its memories. It’s sort of like Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased), but if they were both dead.
Despite what is fundamentally a fairly silly concept, iZombie isn’t afraid to delve into more dramatic storylines – in particular as more people end up zombified and having their own fun with brains, and society finds itself having to adjust to this unusual new demographic. It’s a distinct departure from the usual ‘society’s collapsed’ shrug of worldbuilding which, going through this list, you might think happens the second a zombie appears.
Whereas most zombie shows have a contemporary setting, the better to subtly hint ‘this probably won’t happen tomorrow – but what if it did?’, Kingdom is set in medieval Korea, which is a bit of a departure straight off the bat. And it has the advantage that it doesn’t even need to be the usual deserted-streets, looted-shops setting, since a medieval kingdom stricken by famine is just as bleak a backdrop.
Kingdom, by nature, must be both a zombie show and a period drama, and initially it seems to be putting the court intrigue front and centre. The Crown Prince is worried about being usurped by the new Queen. The brutal Haewon Cho clan is taking ever-greater control of the government. And in the middle of all this, the king himself seems to have been taken mysteriously ill – oh dear, I think I’m beginning to see where the zombie stuff comes in.
Kingdom is two seasons in now, and still going, a rarity in Netflix’s Hobbesian world. With a strong plotline based on the royal succession, and horrible zombies coming in orthogonally to provide a completely different existential threat, it could end up as the show that crown-squabbling-ice-zombie mashup Game Of Thrones always wanted to be.
8. Santa Clarita Diet
One of the more original – and funny – takes on the zombie genre, it would be too easy to dismiss Santa Clarita Diet as one of those interminable American Beauty-style soap-operas where Drew Barrymore’s jaded suburban finds something that pulls them out of their rut and lets them enjoy life again. Granted, that is the basic dynamic: it’s just that here, that inciting incident comes when she’s rendered undead.
This leads into a dynamic common to many shows where we are asked to sympathise with a killer, where they try their best to pick out victims who obviously deserve it. Here, though, it has the additional frisson of Barrymore keeping an eye out for potential meals who, ahem, look quite tasty – much to her husband Timothy Olyphant’s quiet distress, as if murdering them wasn’t bad enough.
Despite the preponderance of gore, and other bodily fluids, Santa Clarita Diet is first and foremost a comedy – and a good one, full of ridiculous situations that might seem contrived if they weren’t laugh-out-loud funny. In a genre full of world-ending apocalypses, it’s a lovely lighter note.
9. The Walking Dead
Beginning in 2010, while The Walking Dead hardly came along in the zombie genre’s first full flush of youth, it was front and centre in the efforts to drag the concept of the zombie apocalypse out of the horror ghetto and into the mainstream.
Like the things it inexplicably keeps calling ‘walkers’, as if the z-word is considered politically incorrect, The Walking Dead will keep on shuffling along and devouring human flesh long past the point it seems scientifically possible. The upcoming eleventh season is meant to be its last, but that still leaves at least two spin-offs still out there, shambling about and moaning.
The Walking Dead is a big-budget TV codification of pretty well every standard zombie apocalypse trope, helped immensely by the production crew being given the keys to Atlanta to do with as they pleased. Empty streets? Removing the head or destroying the brain? A constantly shifting group of survivors? The Walking Dead has it all.
10. Z Nation
Z Nation is something like an economy version of The Walking Dead, following an amorphous group through a post-apocalyptic America and with all humanity’s hopes and dreams pinned on one guy who’s immune to being zombified, who a ragtag group of survivors have to get to the super-secret research centre to save mankind – you know the sort of thing. It’s at a later stage of the apocalypse, with society having well and truly crumbled for a while now, but still basically familiar territory.
This lower-rent approach opens the door to taking it all a bit less seriously. They’re never winking directly at the camera, but when they deliver a line as on-the-nose as “I hate moral dilemmas!” it’s hard not to think they knew what they were doing. Keep an eye out for some hilariously unconvincing baby puppets.
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