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With the myriad hospital dramas and cop dramas on TV, it’s surprising that hour-long zombie series are still relatively a rarity. (While still provoking a “More zombies, really?” reaction from most people.) The horror sub-genre’s most popular small screen outing is definitely AMC’s The Walking Dead, which is the most obvious comparison when talking about Syfy’s upcoming zombie actioner Z Nation. But it’s the wrong comparison to make.
Z Nation is the first foray into longform television series for The Asylum, a company that has built its reputation on churning out low-budget knockoffs of popular movies. (Can you guess what Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies and Atlantic Rim were sort-of based on?) As such, Z Nation is on a completely different wavelength from Robert Kirkman’s walker-filled universe. If The Asylum made some version of 28 Days Later, this first episode, “Puppies and Kittens,” would be its 28 Weeks Later, hopefully without the eventual rapey vibe.
You know the beginning of the story: zombies happened and the world turned into a wasteland. Harold Perrineau plays Delta Force Lieutenant Mark Hammond, who is initially providing transport for doctors working on a zombie antidote. Their latest concoction only works on one guy, a small-time criminal named Murphy (Keith Allen). There are other doctors in California who could potentially mass-produce a cure if they had a blood sample, so unfortunately for Murphy, who isn’t too keen on being shuffled from one side of the country to the other, he’s quite possibly the only chance the human race has left for survival.
Having lost all communication with his government contact, played in WTF fashion by DJ Qualls, Hammond stumbles upon Camp Blue Sky, a small community housing the gun-toting Garnett (Tom Everett Scott) and Warren (Ellita Smith), both of whom are ex-National Guard. They agree to help Hammond and Murphy get on their way, eventually running into other camp members Mack (Michael Welch), the strangely amusing Doc (Russell Hodgkinson) and Addy (Anastasia Baranova), who swings a baseball bat with spikes on the end of it. Cassandra (Pisay Pao) is found later in the episode, and there’s our central cast...for now.
Z Nation is the rare show where its faults are actually the result of its more championable qualities. There are some really bizarre choices made in this first episode, with Qualls’ character and performance posted at the top, but there are also some spectacular sequences, especially the one involving the zombie baby teased in the previews. The point is, there are a lot of things that happen in this episode on both sides of the scale, because something is always happening. Z Nation’s biggest strengths are its momentum and pacing, along with stopping short of taking itself too seriously.
Choices like giving Addy a small camera to document her exploits just feel trendy and unnecessary, as it makes one wonder how she keeps the thing powered. As well, some of the line readings are just silly, though not destractingly so. (“It sounds like a…baby.”) There are other nitpicks to make, but it’s hard to talk shit on a series that treats zombies like brainless victims rather than unstoppable monsters for once. And it’s also pretty funny, guys, in a straight-to-video kind of way. At one point, a zombie gets a fat croissant-shaped hole blown into his head from some gun that presumably wasn’t shooting croissant-shaped bullets. I wouldn't call it observational humor...
Creator Karl Schaefer, who also gave the world Eerie, Indiana, has kicked off Syfy’s upcoming original programming slate in a big, ridiculous way. Here’s hoping the season gets ever more insane as the trek across the U.S. continues on, and that Syfy’s other zombie-tinged new show, the docuseries Town of the Living Dead, makes for a bloody good double feature.
Z Nation premieres on Syfy on Friday, September 11 at 10 p.m. ET.