The premiere of Syfy’s Town of the Living Dead, a comedic reality show about a small town’s six-year endeavor to create an independent zombie flick, should signify that we have finally and officially reached Peak Zombie in mass media. (This same network already premiered a new zombie show just a few weeks ago.) Instead, the series takes a unique approach — this is probably the first time the words “zombie” and “reality” have appeared in the same logline — that shows there are still plenty of new ways to tackle a zombie-related narrative. The result is far from perfect, but it’s at least refreshing.
Town of the Living Dead takes place in Jasper, Alabama. It follows a hard-working and dedicated group of people who are hellbent on finishing their zombie movie, Thr33 Days Dead, no matter how long it takes them or how many obstacles are in their way. It’s a film that has been plagued with problems from the beginning: they are currently in their sixth year of production, they are all running out of money, they had to take a break so one of the main actresses could have a child, and many citizens of the very Christian town are opposed to the film (“I don’t want to come back from church and have a lot of dead people running around. That ain’t Christian,” says one radio caller).
The set is likened to being on the sinking Titanic, and the stunts constantly go awry. The lead actor suffers from panic attacks. At one point, the hard drive crashes and they lose everything (as a former film student, this almost physically hurts me to hear). At another point, someone breaks their leg. It’s comical how disastrous this production is, and Syfy knows it, but the crew’s dedication evens it out. It wouldn’t be surprising if the crew quit after six months, but they’re still working hard after six years, broke, exhausted, and covered in foul-smelling fake blood. There is even an added bonus for them now: If the crew completes Thr33 Days Dead, Syfy will air the finished film on the network for all to see. It’s a win-win, because the crew’s work will finally pay off and, based on the bits of dialogue we catch, Syfy might have their cheesy, campy zombie version of Sharknado.
In many ways, Town of the Living Dead is very much a reality show. The producer, Tina, who sank $250,000 of her own money into the film, takes charge and becomes a breakout, memorable, all-in “character” who struggles with her money issues. There is a built-in conflict between the production and the town, as well as numerous conflicts between the crew members themselves, who clash on set, sometimes even coming to blows, as in the pilot episode, when a stunt involving a crushed “zombie” head gets screwed up.
The unscripted series also relies on some good ol’ Southern stereotypes, even veering into the hillbilly genre of reality programming that has become weirdly prevalent, largely due to shows like Duck Dynasty or Here Comes Boo Boo. There’s no doubt that Syfy is coaching them to play up to these stereotypes — the “dumb,” shirtless, “let’s go blow shit up!” stereotypes — and that the characters are also willing to buy into them to an extent. Town of the Living Dead is not as bad, in this regard, as its counterparts that indulge in these lazy schticks, especially because there is a very visible honesty and reality to the characters that shines through.
For example, Tina’s willingness to basically cripple herself with debt just to finish this doomed film is certainly naive, but it’s also nothing short of admirable. The film’s director, John, is talented and dedicated to his craft — a perfectionist on a distinctly imperfect set — but can’t fully commit to his dream job because he has to support himself with a day job at the local Radio Shack. His goofing around on the job is almost sad; he’s obviously bored and itching to hold a camera, but he can’t, not yet, and it’s clear he thinks Thr33 Days Dead might be his ticket out of the Shack and into Hollywood. The makeup is surprisingly amazing for an amateur production, and the crew’s invasion of local grocery stores in rotten flesh in order to recruit more extras is amusing.
It’s unfortunate that Town of the Living Dead doesn’t dig too deep into these folks’ personal lives and examine their real, underlying motivations for making this film — surely, after six years, it goes far beyond “zombies are cool” — nor does it provide answers to basic questions (where is the money coming from, and how did this crew hone their skills?). It could also benefit by further expanding on the way this six-year production is affecting the town and why the town is so frustrated with its continued existence. But the screw-ups, the twangy Southern soundbites, and the explosions are far more laughable and entertaining and well suited to what Syfy is going for: a silly unscripted comedy with a zombie peg.
Still, ultimately, what makes Town of the Living Dead such a surprisingly fun watch is the crew’s perseverance and dedication. If they were only in it for fame or money, they would’ve stopped years ago. It’s a pure passion project, and the crew is wholly committed to creating something they think is good and can be proud of. And not even Syfy can say that.