If The Walking Dead is A-list, Z Nation (Syfy, Fridays, 10/9C) is definitely B-movie goodness. A fresh twist in the zombie movie/TV show sweepstakes, it finds a group of ordinary people turned survivors attempting to get the one known survivor of a zombie attack to a secure lab in California so a cure can be synthesized from his blood.
It’s been three years since a virus has turned the bulk of humanity into zombies and a team of scientists has what they think might be a cure. Even as they test it on three unwilling convicts, zombies are breaking through the lab’s defenses. While the scientists try to escape, the zombies crash into the lab – but when Lt. Hammond (Harold Perrineau) returns to the lab after evacuating the scientists, there’s one man who has survived being bitten, a convict named Murphy (Keith Allan).
Coordinating Hammond’s efforts is a lone soldier (DJ Qualls) at a military installation called Northern Lights who has missed the last flight out. It is he who gives Hammond the orders to take Murphy from New York to California – and we check in on him from time to time.
Meanwhile, Hammond and Murphy are all that’s left of Hammond’s unit when they stumble on a group of survivors. After their camp is decimated, Hammond ‘persuades’ them to help him get Murphy to California.
Written by Karl Schaefer (Eerie Indiana, The Dead Zone, Eureka) and directed by John Hyams (NYPD Blue, Universal Soldier: Regeneration), the Z Nation premiere, Puppies and Kittens, is a blast of ignited rocket fuel that sketches in virtually every character – including Hammond – in broad strokes as it jets from one action set piece to another.
Addy (Anastasia Baranova), for example, is the one who prefers a baseball bat-turned-mace over guns (they’re too noisy); Doc (Russell Hodgkinson) is the wiry older fellow who has survived partly by selling scavenged meds for whatever he hasn’t been able scavenge himself that will help him stay alive; Garnett (Tom Everett Scott) is the basically decent guy who still has trouble killing to survive; Mack (Michael Welch) is just a kid, but he’s adapted quickly – though he gets ahead of himself sometimes and puts himself in danger.
In this nasty world, though, Murphy is a breath of fresh air. He was used as a test subject against his will and, whatever got him put in prison, he’s not about to let that keep him from being a genuine SOB even after surviving that zombie attack. Idiot that he is, he wants to get away from everyone and thinks he’d survive on his own.
There’s great chemistry between the cast members, but Puppies and Kittens isn’t really about delving into characters and their motivations a la The Walking Dead. We will no doubt learn a great deal about these survivors as the series progresses, but the show is about the action and the horror of the situation – there’s more action in the premiere than any three episodes of The Walking Dead.
Walking a line between traditional zombie movies and Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake, Z Nation’s zombies move like a bat out of hell while they’re still newly turned, but slow as they age and deteriorate. And it’s the zombies where the show suffers most, budget-wise. The zombie makeup is just barely good enough to be mostly effective. Production company The Asylum does low-budget genre fare and they are good at it, but the sheer number of zombies does no favors to the people charged with makeup effects and/or CG.
If the premiere is any indication, Z Nation will be, first and foremost, an action/horror series. It has its share of creepy and scary moments, but nothing we haven’t seen before. What makes it different is its context: this is a world where there’s at least a tiny bit of hope – even if that hope is in the hands of people who barely no each other, and even if the person who provides the hope is a complete pain in the derriere.
The end result is fun to watch, but Z Nation really feels like a series that should have been scheduled for summer.
Final Grade: B
Photo by Oliver Irwin/Courtesy of Syfy