Unsurprisingly, this zombie apocalypse series from the producers of Sharknado isn't great. However, surprisingly, Z NATION isn't as unforgivably terrible as I was expecting it to be. It earns credit for at least identifying things The Walking Dead isn't doing over on AMC, so it doesn't feel like a lazy re-tread. Its zombies are of the high-speed variety, capable of chasing human prey; the pilot sets up an actual storyline for the show to arc; and there's a very strong militaristic vibe throughout. It's actually more 'Falling Skies with zombies' than a cut-rate Walking Dead.
Created by Karl Schaefer (who co-created Eerie, Indiana—a childhood favourite of mine) and Craig Engler, Z Nation takes place three years after a zombie outbreak. Civilisation's on a precipice and the U.S President is dead, but salvation's at hand when an experimental drug works on a prisoner called Murphy (Keith Allan), leading to soldier Mark Hammond (Lost's Harold Perrineau) being ordered to transport him from New York to California, so his blood can be used to create a vaccine. Hammond's guided cross-country by a military computer genius known as 'Citizen Z' (DJ Qualls), and teams up with a group of zombie-killing wanderers who agree to help him complete the mission.
There are certainly some aspects of Z Nation I like, and in some ways prefer to The Walking Dead, which you can't help comparing the show to. Hammond's mission gives the whole show a long-term goal and direction, which Walking Dead often lacks, and it's more immediately frightening when you have a pack of white-eyed, rotting zombies actually running after you. (Yes, I'm not particularly against undead sprinters, a la the Dawn of the Dead remake and World War Z)—although they do feel more like people with an infection, a la 28 Days Later than reanimated corpses.
Sadly, in most other respects Z Nation is the poor man's Walking Dead. The characters aren't very interesting, the acting's a little shaky from everyone apart from Perrineau, and the whole look and feel of the show doesn't stand out as unique. It's directed by John Hyams—the son of famous director Peter Hyams—who's best known for making two direct-to-video Universal Soldier sequels, and it shows in Z Nation. Nothing looks woeful, but it employs the gritty washed-out aesthetic Saving Private Ryan made popular, but I'm not so keen. It's the go-to choice for cheap shows these days, and nothing about the direction or compositions really took my interest.
The Asylum production company are behind this drama, and to be fair Z Nation is easily the best thing I've seen them produce. It has an actual script and special effects that are decent, performed by actors who are actually trying (and not erstwhile stars from the '80s and '90s), so for them it's a huge improvement over the likes of Mega Shark vs Mecha Shark. Overall, Z Nation's a much better TV show than expected, but still a dumb one that's only really a serialised B-movie with grindhouse pretentions, appealing to anyone who yawns between scenes of zombies being stabbed in The Walking Dead. Still, if it can more regularly tune into a campy horror vibe this pilot occasionally had, and get a bit nastier, I can envisage Syfy having some success with this. It's a thousand times better than Dominion already.
written by Karl Schaefer • directed by John Hyams • 12 September 2014 • Syfy