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In the Flesh

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April 15, 2013 by Richard Crowest

Dominic Mitchell rewrites the rules on zombies – and the portrayal of gay men.

– Contains spoilers –

The vampire and the werewolf – though condemned in popular culture to eternal enmity – are really just us. At least, they’re the bits of us polite society would prefer us not to acknowledge. The beast within. The insatiable hunger for flesh and bodily fluids. The never-ending search for a fresh young neck to bite. They’re the parts of our own psyches that we’re supposed to keep firmly under lock and key. And that, of course, is why they’ve kept such a strong hold on our imaginations. They do the things we’d secretly like to. Or at least, are afraid we’d like to.

The best horror – and science fiction – acts on some level as metaphor. The parallels are easy to spot with our lycanthropic and blood-sucking friends. Similarly, there’s no great mystery about the dozens of sci-fi invasion thrillers of the 50s and 60s. Honest, hard-working Americans, all secretly wondering if their neighbours were closet pinkos, had their fears reflected in the most lurid terms by films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). It’s almost too perfect a coincidence that the film’s lead – the only person to know the hideous truth, and desperate to convince others of the danger – was played by an actor named McCarthy.

The zombie genre, though, isn’t as easy to pin down. In popular culture it only really bursts into life with George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in 1968. It seems less a metaphor and more a direct response to the terror of impending holocaust – and what might follow. Like Godzilla or the giant ants of Them, conjured by radioactivity from nuclear weapons, Romero’s zombies seem simply an extension of present fears. They lack subtlety, driven only by the lust for flesh; they’re slow and lumbering, bereft of cunning, and derive much of their menace from sheer force of numbers.

There’ve been many variations on the theme over the years, often well made and well regarded. But that central essence has remained largely unchained.  A zombie story is, almost by definition, a post-apocalyptic story, and it’s generally a straightforward battle for survival by the brain-users against the brain-eaters.

To turn the genre on its head, then – and to do so without dismembering it or sucking the brains out – requires a rather exceptional talent. Which is clearly what Dominic Mitchell possesses. In the Flesh is all zombie, and it’s all metaphor. The rules are the same, but the playing field is dramatically different. The zombie apocalypse dawned – and was put down. The brain-users triumphed, to the extent that they even found a treatment for the essence of zombiedom. The dead that rose from the grave were given back their free will, their personalities and their memories – and sent home to their families.

In the Flesh is so subtle that it’s easy to forget just what a breathtakingly ambitious feat this is. It’s essentially like using a chainsaw to cut your toenails – one wrong move and everything gets very limp and messy. But Mitchell delivers a pedicure to be proud of. The details are beautifully thought out – the support leaflets for sufferers of “Partially Deceased Syndrome” and their families; the hostility of communities that fought the initial wave of uncontrollable zombies; the slang terms that are graffitied on every bridge: “No Rotters here”.

The metaphors are multiple, and never signposted. They emerge naturally from the drama and the attitudes of the characters. PDS is homosexuality; it’s HIV; it’s mental illness. These themes are beautifully illustrated by the contrast between the lead character Kieren (Luke Newberry) and the first fellow PDS sufferer he meets after his return home, Amy (Emily Bevan). While Kieren is haunted by memories of his actions as a zombie, she’s cheerfully well-adjusted, out and proud, and an utter embarrassment in front of Kieren’s parents. And yet the drama works perfectly well even if you don’t look below the surface. The range of characters, their flaws, beliefs and prejudices, are all complete and credible in their own right.

But Mitchell goes further, and it’s here that In the Flesh, for me, becomes truly groundbreaking. He gives us metaphor, and he gives us the reality alongside it. Kieren suffered from mental illness – he committed suicide. And, though it’s never stated in as many words, Kieren is gay or bisexual. The way that the series hints at the nature of his relationship with his Rick, his former schoolfriend (and another PDS sufferer), teases the audience, but also suggests a certain embarrassment or even shame – something all-too understandable in the small, close-knit rural community where they grew up.

The significance of this series is summed up for me by the absence of the word “gay” anywhere in its dialogue or billing. It makes up for something I’ve been bellyaching about for some time – the dearth of characters in contemporary television who just happen to be gay, without their sexuality being in some way an “issue” that has to be dealt with. By shifting the issues into the metaphorical space, Kieren and Rick are allowed to emerge as far more complex, multi-dimensional characters than gay people are usually permitted to be on television.

In the wake of the suicides of many gay teenagers over the last few years, and the campaign of video messages that grew up to provide hope for those who might feel the same, In the Flesh feels, on one level, like a three-hour It Gets Better video. That might seem a strange thing to say, given the fate that befalls Rick. But what emerges for Kieren is a re-integration into a society that had rejected him. He rediscovers the love of his family – even his zombie-hunting sister – and learns that no-one suffers alone. Given a second chance, he finds that it is better to be alive than to be dead, and to live openly in the world rather than hide away. Remarkably, all this is achieved without the schmaltz or sentimentality that infects so much contemporary drama.

Nonetheless, at the very end as Kieren helped carry the coffin of the man he loved, I found myself unexpectedly weeping. Tears streamed down my face because, despite being a reanimated corpse with yellow eyes and grey skin, Kieren was the most real and loving depiction of a gay man I’ve seen on television in a long time.


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