You probably know this already, but zombies are everywhere. From movies to car and candy commercials to the most popular show on television, the undead are taking over in a totally different kind of way. With the massive success of AMC’s The Walking Dead, you can anticipate some imitators, just don’t expect Syfy’s Z Nation, which premiered this past Friday, to be one of them, at least not according to the guy behind the new show.
Series creator Karl Schaefer recently sat down with Blastr to talk about the various ways his show is different from its big name competitor, their right to exist, and the current zombie phenomenon as a whole.
AMC’s entry into the undead business is well known for being a sullen, bummer of a time, and from the get go, Z Nation wanted to differentiate itself from this overwhelmingly bleak, depressing atmosphere. Schaefer says, “If you’re going to go through the apocalypse, would you rather be with the people on The Walking Dead, who are always kind of miserable and not having any fun, or our guys that are out to go kick some zombie ass?”
Like it or not, there will be comparisons between the two shows, that’s just a fact of life in this situation. But, as Schaefer says, it’s his job to differentiate the new show from what fans already know. To that end, he says:
So distinguishing ourselves from that. The fact that we’re a very low-budget, run-and-gun version of that show. Making ourselves original and standing out, and playing out the mission that they’re on and traveling the show. We’re in a different state and location every episode, even though we’re shooting it all up in Washington, in Spokane. So I think the main thing was just making it funny, original and not disappointing to an audience that has a real gold standard to compare it to. We had to earn our right to exist.
For what it’s worth, Schaefer believes that they have in fact done something that, while still in the same general genre as The Walking Dead, stands on its own merits. (Cards on the table, we haven’t watched the first episode of Z Nation yet, so we can’t speak to how successful they are in this regard.) He says:
I think everybody started out going, ‘Oh, we’re just going to do a zombie knockoff show.’ But the sum of all the parts have really made it into something else. I think people are going to be really surprised in the end with just how cool and elaborate and how about something the show is every week
One key difference is a certain sense of self-awareness. Schaefer explains:
Our characters live in a real world where zombie movies existed. People call zombies ‘zombies.’ They’re not dancing around. In The Walking Dead they sort of act like it was a complete surprise to everybody what they were … our guys actually argue about the difference between Romero and Max Brooks’ rules. They live in a world where The Walking Dead existed in their past.
Such knowledge can be a double-edged sword, and can easily be overused and cloying if you’re not careful. But at the same time, it can also provide a grounded feel to the proceedings, but it is definitely something that should be used sparingly and with restraint.
Z Nation is essentially framed as a road trip, where, a few years after the outbreak, a group of survivors, led by Harold Perrineau, must transport the only known zombie bite survivor across the country to the last functioning lab in hopes of finding a cure. Schaefer says the series is:
about people under intense pressure. It’s about empathy, in a strange way. And how they learn to, while they have to kill zombies, the whole notion of giving them mercy and trying to record who they are in case someday somebody needs to know what happened to the people that died and became zombies. [It’s about] the traveling across the country and all the different subcultures and different ways that humanity tries to pull itself back together.
As ubiquitous as the undead are, Schaefer offers his thoughts on why this subset, once the sole domain of hardcore gore hounds and weird little horror dudes, has become such a central piece of popular culture. He says:
It’s such a strange phenomenon that people are so into it. It’s unbelievable, the amount of interest in zombies … you can do incredible violence to zombies and nobody cares. That sort of cathartic release is part of the attraction to it. And part of it is, what’s the worst thing that could happen? I think a zombie apocalypse is there in everybody’s mind. It’s a stand-in for our consciousness as to what’s the worst thing that could happen. It’s almost believable. If you turned on the news tomorrow and CNN had a report about thousands of living dead stampeding in New York City, you’d go, ‘Yeah, that seems right. I expected that to happen.’…My theory is that our collective unconscious knows something bad is in our future.
That’s a cheery thought.
Did you watch the premiere of Z Nation? Do you plan to? Is this the breath of fresh air that the zombie genre needs, or are you over it at this point? Sound off in the comments below.