Review: Radiant, self-deluded life, experienced 'In the Flesh'

We are so far into our modern infatuation with the zombie apocalypse that it was only a matter of time before a chronicle of the next step emerged.

"In the Flesh," which premieres Thursday on BBC America, opens in a rehabilitation center where those suffering from Partial Death Syndrome (PDS) are receiving medical and psychological treatment that will allow them to return to their families.

Dominic Mitchell's story, which focuses on 18-year-old Kieren Walker (Luke Newberry) as he transitions back to life among the living, could easily have tipped toward satire à la "Shaun of the Dead" or the sticky sentiment of "Warm Bodies." Instead what quickly emerges in the three-episode first season is a moody and moving portrait of the ultimate state of "otherness." It's a powerful meditation on what happens to a community once a galvanizing threat is removed but then returns, albeit in a more benign state.


Surrounded by the misty fields and murky forests of Northern England, the fictional village of Roarton survived the Uprising thanks to the dedication and bravery of the Human Volunteer Force (HVF). Many in the town do not take kindly to the government's plan to rehabilitate and return former zombies to their homes.

The HVF in particular, led by grizzled para-militarist Bill Macy (Steve Evets) and an Old Testament-leaning vicar (Kenneth Cranham), make it clear that they no longer answer to a government that did not protect them during the Uprising. So Kieren's parents must smuggle him home and keep his return a secret as they attempt to reconstruct their family. That Kieren's younger sister Jemima (Harriet Cains) is still proudly wearing her HVF armband and patrolling the woods for "rotters" (the local term for the animation-challenged) complicates things even further.

Slight, artistic and, yes, secretly gay, Kieren never fit into the Roarton ethos to begin with. Plagued by flashbacks and guilt over the things he did as a zombie, he does not understand his place in the post-Uprising world. On one side are those who believe the only good rotter is a dead rotter; on the other are PDS zealots, who see themselves as a super-race.

Kieren believes neither; he's not completely certain he deserves to be alive at all. Only after he meets up with his former killing partner, Amy (the delightful Emily Bevan), who is PDS and proud, does he begin to accept his own existence.

Little is said about the history of the Uprising or the discovery of the cure. Mitchell wisely keeps the narrative focused on Kieren and those around him, which infuses "In the Flesh" with the normalcy it needs to be effective.

A wonderfully chatty nurse shows up at the Walker house just after Kieren arrives, newly trained by the NHS to show family members how to deliver the PDS meds and provide community support, and Kieren's parents are a convincing mix of happiness and fear. Still, in the beginning, it's easy to sympathize with Bill and the HVF; having become warriors by necessity, they don't quite know how to return to peacetime, especially when many of them distrust the government, for good reason.

When Bill learns that his own son will soon be returned to him, the plot thickens, but theme thins a bit as "In the Flesh" becomes more specific in its metaphor. With a subplot about the closet, the story becomes at times a bit heavy-handed — it's easy to judge until "one of them" turns out to be your own child.

Although they might seem normal, with contact lenses covering their mottled eyes and makeup boosting their pallor, the partially dead are, well, partially dead. The wounds that killed them do not heal; they cannot eat or drink; and they are permanently the age at which they died.

Also, in their right minds or not, they killed and ate people, something they might begin to do again if they miss their daily shot to the spine. So any comparisons one might draw with the gay community or other groups suffering from discrimination honestly don't bear up under pressure.

Fortunately, "In the Flesh" doesn't need to stand for anything beyond what it is: A surprisingly beautiful story exploring both the evil of self-delusion and the admirable expansiveness of the human heart.


'In the Flesh'

Where: BBC America

When: 7 and 10:45 p.m. Thursday

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)