AMC’s The Walking Dead is a massive hit for the network — and don’t ever compare post-game show Talking Dead‘s ratings to those of your favorite series unless you want to be incredibly sad — so it would be easy to attribute’s Z Nation‘s existence to Syfy’s desire to recreate Walking Dead‘s success. But Z Nation, despite being a bloody post-apocalyptic zombie thriller, doesn’t share much with Walking Dead. It’s a familiar take on the genre, but it proudly displays Syfy’s touch throughout the pilot, and it’s all the better for it.
One of the best things about Z Nation is apparent from the start: It doesn’t waste any precious time. It picks up three years after a zombie virus has devastated much of the United States (“an extinction-scale event”) and quickly dives into the humans-vs.-zombies war, with leader Mark Hammond (Harold Perrineau) shooting at zombies within the first minute. Zombie apocalypses are urgent events, and Z Nation has no time to slow down the action. The pilot starts off chaotic and remains so for the entire hour.
As with all zombie narratives, it is not entirely hopeless. Hammond’s mission is to transport Murphy (Keith Allan), a man who has been bitten eight times by zombies but remains alive because of an experimental treatment. He is the only hope for a cure but has to be transported from New York to California — 3,000 miles of zombie-infested land — with the help of only a few survivors (including Tom Everett Scott and Kellita Smith, who band together, and DJ Qualls who plays a hacker nerd who navigates our team from a secure location). Murphy is the key to Z Nation; without him, there would be nothing to fight for. In its best moments, Z Nation is vaguely reminiscent of Children of Men, in which the nation’s hope and survival rely on the safety and transport of one person.
At the same time, however, Z Nation is a zombie thriller on Syfy — and from the Aslyum gang! — so it does occasionally veer into ridiculous B-movie territory. It is remarkably gruesome, despite Syfy’s limited budget (it definitely does the best it can with the money, but I’m wary of how the show will keep it up past the pilot episode), and it certainly loves shots of zombie blood flying out of skulls and painting the room. No one is safe here: Not only are the conventionally attractive actors often badly scarred, sweaty, and covered in a mix of filthy and blood, but not even babies are spared from the horror. A late, amazingly disgusting scene featuring a gross zombie baby is one of the highlights of the entire episode, because it shows the writers’ dedication to having gleeful fun with the genre.
There are two main ways to approach the zombie thriller: a straightforward, horrifying narrative with parallels to our real lives that make us rethink relationships and humanity in the wake of a great tragedy, or silly horror fare that knows zombies are inherently both silly and scary and therefore great fodder for blood and guts. Z Nation takes the latter route and showcases an appreciation for the genre; it’s a show that knows there are important things to be said — there is a great story in Allan’s criminal character turned possible savior — but also that shooting the hell out of zombies can be just as entertaining.
Z Nation is a mixed bag that goes all out but then reins it in; it establishes basic relationships but quickly lets you know that no one is safe from death. I wouldn’t be surprised if half the main cast is dead by the season finale. It’s no Walking Dead, but it’s no Sharknado either. It’s not Emmy material, but it’s definitely fun to watch.