Even among the most diehard zombie fans — and I unquestionably count myself among that number — the recent bonanza of zombie everything has led to something like zombie fatigue. What was the last great zombie movie you saw? Mine was The Battery, and that came out in 2012. Similarly, despite its continuing high ratings, The Walking Dead wore out its welcome for me about the same time. Since then, I've certainly seen plenty of zombie movies, books and other media, but nothing has really sunk its rotting, diseased teeth into me. The genre just seems ... tired. So when I saw that the CW had a new zombie show scheduled, my reaction was a barely audible "meh." Still, I'm determined to catalog the highs, lows and mediocrities of the zombie world, so I knew I had to at least check out the pilot. You know what? I'm actually glad I did.
Yes, the zombie genre is tired, but a lot of the reason undead fatigue is setting in is because people who make zombie movies, books and TV shows have roughly the same amount of imagination, creativity and storytelling ability as their rotting, brain-dead subjects. For every film like The Battery that takes the familiar tropes and uses them in service of a great story about people I can relate to, there are a dozen brainless regurgitations of George Romero's barely warmed-up leftovers, with maybe a little half-hearted dash of 28 Days Later thrown in for spice. Surely there are ideas for the walking dead that aren't just rehashes of the same half-dozen classics? Another movie, book or idea to rip off somewhere out there, or — gods forbid — even an original idea?
Well, iZombie may have done just that. This is no zombie apocalypse tale. It's set in the more or less familiar world we all live in, where dead people do not, as a rule, come back to life hungry for the flesh of the living. Then there's a weird incident involving a mysterious drug, and at least some people — those affected by the drug, and the protagonist, who was scratched by one of them — do go all Night of the Living Dead. Or, more accurately, Return of the Living Dead, since these zombies are both created by a chemical and hunger for the sweet, sweet nectar of human brains. Our hero is a doctor by the name of Olivia Moore (Liv to her friends) on the fast track to medical superstar when she gets turned into a member of the living dead, and it changes her lifestyle pretty damn quickly. No longer a hotshot resident with a bright future, she moves her medical residency to the morgue, where she meets up with Dr. Ravi Chakrabarti, the only person smart enough to realize she is a zombie, presumably because of his experience with dead people. Oh, and the missing brains, which she has to eat to keep from reverting to a totally feral, "true zombie" state. Before long, she's teamed up unofficially with a rookie homicide detective by the name of Clive Babinaux and using her zombie powers to solve crime.
This is not, in other words, The Walking Dead. It's not completely original, either — most of these ideas have been used at one time or another, in everything from the similarly titled British obscurity I, Zombie (about a man's slow descent into zombiism) to the oddball zombie buddy cop movie Dead Heat. Still, while most (maybe all) of the pieces have been played before, the sum total feels both fresh and engaging, taking some tired zombie ideas into pleasantly novel territory.
The pilot episode sets all this up with remarkable dexterity, relying on an absolute minimum of dumb exposition. It does use some clever comic-book panel transitions to ease the load (the series is adapted from a comic of the same name, so it's not totally random), but it accomplishes the always difficult pilot task of establishing a new fictional world, introducing half a dozen characters, sketching out their relationships and setting them loose in that world quite well. From there it steps into a pretty standard police procedural about a dead hooker that feels a bit perfunctory. For the most part, the story seems to exist mostly to serve up the premise — she's dead, she turns more zombie-like if she doesn't eat brains, and when she does, she gets flashes of the dead people's lives, even up to speaking languages they spoke. That's fine, for a pilot, and it doesn't show its seams too badly unless you're really looking. Yes, it feels a little rushed, but again — pilot, and a single hour-long episode to deliver all the introductory story and the plot. All things considered, it does a fine job.
Overall, it's hard to consider iZombie anything but a success. It's a novel take on zombies, even if some of its ideas are pretty familiar from some non-zombie fiction (say, Ghost Whisperer and The Medium). It is, for good or bad, definitely a CW show — lots of pretty people, the occasional bit of clunky acting, and a little cheap-looking at times, but it's also excellently paced, funny and surprisingly engaging. It's not high art — it's a zombie/cop show based on a comic book, after all — but it does make for an entertaining twist on the zombie genre and a show that I'll be watching for at least a while to see if it can live up to its initial promise. We may not have needed another zombie thing in the world, but we got one...and it's actually pretty goddamn entertaining.
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iZombie airs Tuesday nights at 9 p.m. on Channel 2 in Denver, or view it online at the iZombie website.
Find me on Twitter, where I tweet about geeky stuff and waste an inordinate amount of time: @casciato.