The Rise of Zombie Culture: Undead Politics in In the Flesh

Illustration by Stephanie Gao

With all the blood-spattered graphic t-shirts, movies, popular zombie TV shows (I’m looking at you, The Walking Dead), and the plethora of oncoming zombie apocalypse memes (get your chainsaws ready, folks), there’s no denying that we’ve developed a pretty big fascination with zombies within contemporary media culture. But really, is it any wonder? There’s quick-fire action, saving the world from impending zombie doom, and characters who always look amazing no matter how many undead bodies they’ve fought through. What’s not to like?

Putting all the gory fun aside, it’s no accident that zombies have made their return (no pun intended) into our mainstream culture in recent years. With the dramatic increase of unemployment following the global stock market crash in 2008, there came a substantial increase in the number of people who were suddenly seen as disposable and unneeded. People were losing their jobs, homes, and families, and who were the banks to blame if not immigrants and the poor? (Of course, they could blame themselves, but that involves accepting the responsibility and consequences of their actions, which they seem immorally opposed to.) The recent influx of zombie movies reflects this social phenomenon: the more people who turn into zombies, the more people there are who need to be disposed of.

The zombies in recent media are no longer slow and encumbered. Now, they’re fast, violent, and infinitely more threatening to “civilized” life, not unlike the rapidly growing number of people living below the poverty line. When did all these zombie movies come out? You guessed it—right after the stock market crash in 2008. In fact, the recent rise in zombie culture coincides almost exactly with the stock market crash in 2008. The satirical zombie film Zombieland came out in 2009, with Resident Evil: Afterlife following it a year later. Major zombie TV shows and blockbusters came out not long after, such as The Walking Dead in 2010, and World War Z in 2013. All these shows and films have one thing in common: kill the zombies, save the world.

One notable exception to this trend is the BBC show In the Flesh, in which the world has already survived a zombie apocalypse. The government is reintegrating medicated zombies, treated for what they call “Partially Deceased Syndrome” or “PDS”, back into society. The story centres on one particular PDS sufferer, Kieran Walker, and his struggles coming back to his zombie-hating hometown of Roarton as well as his flashbacks to the people he killed during his untreated state. In a refreshing twist, In the Flesh doesn’t cast the zombie as something to be protected from, but rather presents PDS sufferers as people worthy of protection, while the zealously religious people of the town are the ones cast as dangerous. In doing so, the show flips the traditional rhetoric of the zombie story—what if you didn’t need to kill the zombie anymore? What if the “civilized” people were the danger instead?

These questions speak to a larger societal context in which the world is divided into good, ordinary subjects and those who are a threat to them. In examining these issues further, the show unmasks certain forms of systemic violence that often go unnoticed in contemporary society. The way the people of Roarton treat zombies is a lot like the way racialized subjects are systematically discriminated against in today’s post-colonial society. This issue is especially relevant today with social media campaigns like #BlackLivesMatter or #IfTheyGunnedMeDown. The people of Roarton treat PDS sufferers as threats to society, monsters that need to be eradicated, so any violence done against them is justified—celebrated, even. There is even a small group of volunteer military forces called the HVF (Human Volunteer Force) who are celebrated as war heroes for having killed PDS sufferers in their untreated state. If this dehumanization of a marginalized group is starting to sound sadly familiar, it should. This is exactly the way we’ve disguised and justified violence against racialized bodies and people with mental illness. Luckily, In the Flesh actively refuses to participate in this troubling logic. By framing the zombie as someone who is worthy of protection, In the Flesh humanizes those who we’ve come to think of as monsters, and offers us alternative ways of thinking about and responding to this violence.

In the Flesh also concerns itself with realistic representations of mental illness, both real and fictional, which is a nice departure from shows that either perpetuate the stigma around mental illness or avoid the subject altogether. In the Flesh deals with a fictional mental illness, PDS, but also very real ones like Kieran’s depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Kieran is haunted by memories of the people he hurt in his untreated state and of events leading up to his death as a human. What’s interesting about this is that the show treats all of these illnesses, fictional or otherwise, as equally worthy of treatment and acknowledgement. It rejects the notion of people with mental illnesses as “crazy” or senselessly irrational, and instead presents them as real, suffering people in need of help. However, the show is also careful not to aggressively force happiness onto its characters—it makes a conscious effort to accurately depict the amount of time it takes for a person to overcome mental illness, which can be comforting to those who feel like they may never get better.

If you are looking for a thought-provoking, thematically interesting show to binge watch, In the Flesh is a pretty good place to start. Unfortunately, it’s only two seasons and nine episodes, but it’s definitely worth a watch if you’re interested in unconventional post-apocalyptic narratives. All episodes are available on BBC iPlayer for streaming online at, and if you’ve watched the show and want a third season, you can support the show by posting #SaveInTheFlesh on your social media.

Happy watching!

-Contributed by Carine Lee

Still not convinced whether or not to watch In the Flesh? Perhaps one of our earlier reviews can help convince you!


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