Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Babylon Fields (TV Pilot, 2007)

Wednesday, 9 July 2008
Writers: Michael Atkinson & Gerald Cuesta
Director: Michael Cuesta

Cast: Ray Stevenson (Carl Tiptree), Amber Tamblyn (Janine Wunch), Jamey Sheridan (Ernie Wunch), Leila Arcieri (Aimee Stanley), Kathy Baker (Shirley Wunch), Eric Nelsen (Mike Bobkin), Wass M. Stevens (Meyers) & Mackenzie Milone (Doreen Wunch)

A small-town becomes the epicentre of a zombie outbreak, as the dead leave their graves and return home...

Babylon Fields was a TV pilot filmed in 2007, seemingly inspired by the French film They Came Back ('04), but CBS didn't pick it up for their 07/08 season. It's easy to see why, as the performances are less animated than the corpses, and it's difficult to imagine where the story could go because of a twist on the clich├ęd zombie setup. Y'see, instead of zombies rising from their graves and shuffling around in a stupor for human flesh (a la Romero's template-setting Night Of The Living Dead), these zombies are just regular people who find themselves back in the land of the living, suffering post-traumatic stress and bad skin...

The living characters are relatively blank; there's Janine Wunch (Amber Tamblyn) and her mother Shirley (Kathy Baker), who come home from shopping to find their dead father/husband sitting in his armchair, drinking a beer and watching TV. Then there's lawman Carl Tiptree (Rome's Ray Stevenson), who realizes the town of Babylon is in the midst of a zombie outbreak, with hundreds of dead people climbing out of the ground at the local cemetery...

Babylon Fields has a number of interesting ideas and sequences: a Christian zombie returns to his church only to be kicked out and threatened with death by worshippers, as a clergyman worries it's a test from God; a woman's prayers are answered when her dead husband returns home, and they resume their marriage; and the abusive Ernie Wunch (Jamey Sheridan) begins to realize he was murdered and buried by his killer.

The episode sustains itself well enough, despite a languorous pace, because of these tweaks to expectation. The obvious dilemma in writing a zombie TV show is how to make a typical Dawn Of The Dead-style scenario go the distance. And how many actors want to spend years of their career covered in make-up and slowly groaning? The way Babylon Fields gets around the problem is commendable; turning the show into a black-comedy and having the zombies retain their intelligence. You'll grin as two zombie neighbours swap death-stories, then snigger as it's later revealed a woman had sex with her zombie-husband -- and wasn't put off by his autopsy scar. Yeuch.

With harmless zombies, you start to wonder where the real threat will come from. This Pilot is content to play with the idea of zombies as "skeletons in the closet", each signifying the past coming back to bite you -- particularly in the case of the Wunch's, who are number one suspects for killing Ernie and getting away with it. While that's an intriguing side-effect of the sentient zombie angle, would it have sustained a series and satisfied horror-hounds? Probably not. So, there are a few indicators the zombies will need human flesh to sustain themselves at some point in the future...

But there will be no future for Babylon Fields. It's already a year-old footnote in zombiedom, accessible only to internet downloaders with a desire to see what a TV zombie series might have looked like. On the evidence of this Pilot, I can understand why CBS turned it down. It's strange and badly-paced, with no characters to really care about. There are some great ideas floating around (many lifted from the aforementioned They Came Back), but it's difficult to imagine the premise lasting more than a dozen episodes. I suspect horror fans would have been desperate for a blood bath by episode 4, which is what Babylon Fields sets out to avoid -- aiming instead for black-comedy suburban satire. A mini-series would have been a better proposition for this concept.

The zombie genre's a difficult one to transplant to the small-screen (hence why it's never been attempted before now), but Babylon Fields was a brave attempt that tried to do something different. I'd certainly have watched a few more episodes, if only to get a feel for where the show's direction. How would the nation react to this miracle/abomination at Babylon? Would the zombies be captured and tested on by scientists? What would the world's religions think about it all? Would the zombies decide to feed on people in secret? Would they join forces against the living? What would villainous zombies do, seeing as they apparently can't be killed again? If people die and are buried in the same cemetery, would they also come back to life? And why did none of the zombies resemble half-rotting skeletons? Hmm.

Overall, I recommend tracking this down online if you're interested in zombies, or just want to see something very different to the usual TV fare. It has plenty of problems, but I was surprised and intrigued by its subversive attitude -- just not enough to excuse its limp pace and paucity of characterisation. But I'm guessing CBS took one look at such a weird proposition and just didn't think it would appeal to mass audiences. They were probably right, but it's still a shame they didn't give it a chance to prove them wrong.