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'Z Nation': lightweight zombie contender for the 'Walking Dead' championship belt

This weekend SyFy launched their entry into the zombie apocalypse genre, “Z Nation.”  It’s from the people who made “Sharknado.”  It’s trying to ride the coattails of the biggest show on television, “The Walking Dead,” which is only a few weeks away from kicking off its new season on AMC.  The crazy thing is, it just might work, because this lightweight contender for the zombie championship belt is surprisingly good.

Sure, it doesn’t have the production values of “The Walking Dead,” and the cast is not playing in the same league as the heavyweight champeen.  I’m afraid to ask what the budget for “Z Nation” is, but I’ll bet it’s only a little more than what “The Walking Dead” spends on catering.  The zombie makeup is decent, but most of the other special effects are pretty lame, especially the gun blasts.  There’s been more convincing gun animation in Nintendo Wii games.

But the producers of “Z Nation” are very clever about shooting their action scenes in a way that minimizes the shortcomings of the visual effects.  The action scenes are quick without being shaky-cam choppy.  That makes the zombie encounters fast-paced, as well as preventing the audience from dwelling on the production values.  Also, the fast and furious zombies of “Z Nation” are a much bigger threat than the shambling, faintly pathetic walkers who stumble after Rick Grimes and company.  It’s always hindered my suspension of disbelief that the zombies of the “Walking Dead” could have somehow overpowered the armed forces of the world, when women and children can take out several of them using small knives, and it takes a while for zombie bites to kill.  The “Z Nation” undead are closer in spirit to the fast-moving, fast-spreading contagion of “World War Z” (which it’s also cheerfully willing to rip off.)  According to the opening montage of the series, they even managed to knock a chunk out of the Washington Monument.  That’s impressive work for a horde of unarmed walking corpses.

People in “Z Nation” also refer to the monsters as “zombies,” which is surprisingly uncommon in this genre.  I gather we’re generally supposed to assume nobody knew what a zombie was before the apocalypse got under way.  Not so in “Z Nation,” where the survivors are probably all well-versed in Hollywood zombie lore.

Despite the more aggressive undead threat, “Z Nation” takes itself much less seriously than That Other Zombie Show, to the point of actually throwing in a joke about “The Walking Dead” in the first episode.  The characters trade the kind of cynical tough-guy and tough-chick banter you’d expect out of an Eighties direct-to-video post-apocalyptic action film.  I’d be willing to wager the writers of this show have seen every Eighties DTV film ever made.  The characters’ attitude actually seems appropriate given the setting – this is all happening three years after zombies overran the world, so it’s not surprising the few survivors would be a little off their rockers, with highly developed senses of gallows humor.  There’s even a little semi-religious ritual around the notion of “granting mercy” by killing zombies that feels right, the kind of belief system that would evolve to help people hold onto their humanity in a world of constant bloody violence.  (Retirement parties for aged members of the survivor community end with”mercy” administered through a pillow held over the retiree’s face, because that’s the only way to check out without coming back as a zombie.  It’s macabre to watch Grandma smiling and laughing her way through a goodbye party that must inevitably end with a bullet, but really, in world where dead people rise as flesh-eating zombies in a matter of moments, how else could it work?)

Judging by the first episode, “Z Nation” is a fast-moving, darkly humorous return of the suddenly A-list zombie genre to its B-movie George Romero roots.  That’s a smart strategy for latching onto the trailer hitch of the “Walking Dead” phenomenon and inviting viewers to have a little extra zombie fun on Friday nights.

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