The recently release Netflix original Santa Clarita Diet may not just be a gory spin on the suburban sitcom, but the future of the zombie genre.
It all started in 1968 with George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. The controversial little B-movie captured the public consciousness like few films have in history. After a long hiatus, Romero returned to the genre he created with 1978's Dawn of the Dead and 1985's Day of the Dead. Zombies dominated 1980s horror, from surreal gorefests like The Beyond to horror comedies like Return of the Living Dead. After years of growing popularity, the genre almost ceased to exist by the end of the decade.
In 2004, the genre was suddenly revived by the back-to-back hits of Shaun of the Dead and Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake. Just a year earlier, a little comic called The Walking Dead had been launched as well, the TV adaptation of which proved to be the peak of the genre's popularity. After years of sustained dominance in movies, comics, video games, and books, zombies have developed something of an overexposure problem.
For every creative project like Max Brook's World War Z, there's a dozen derivative cash-grabs.The Walking Dead remains immensely popular, but its audience seems to have reached its limit, having peaked two seasons ago. The sequel to 2013's World War Z (an adaptation of Brook's novel in name only), once scheduled for release this summer, has been put on hold indefinitely. It seems that the genre may be on the verge of a collapse as it was at the end of the '80s.
This is where Santa Clarita Diet comes in. The show follows married couple Sheila and Joel, a pair of Californian realtors. After coming down with a strange illness, Sheila wakes up with a sudden craving for flesh and no heartbeat. While the characters avoid the term zombie as "inherently negative," that's clearly what she is.
Romero's zombie films were innovative at the time, but innovation becomes cliche after being copied several hundred times. The only way for zombies to survive is to branch out a bit. Screenwriter Max Landis once related a statement from his father, director John Landis, about rules in fiction. Giving the example of how to kill a vampire, he argues that a creator can make up whatever rules they want about fictional concepts. Screenwriters and novelists are not bound by the rules of previous zombie stories, only by the rules they make for their own stories.
Santa Clarita Diet is a great example of how zombies can be done. It ticks enough boxes (undead, eats flesh, etc.) for the protagonist to qualify as a zombie, but it makes up its own rules. This kind of zombie remains intelligent after death, but returns with a lack of impulse control. She still has a conscience, and tries to only eat people that have done something to deserve it. It approaches the tropes of zombie stories from a unique angle, rather than simply using them as a gimmick.
The real problem is not the genre, but a lack of imagination. If zombies continue to retread familiar beats, people will lose interest. The key, as usual, is to convince people why they should care about a given story in particular, rather than solely relying on stories that have come before.