In the Flesh (Dominic Mitchell, 2013-2015) takes place in the isolated, rural community of Roarton, Lancashire. As the setting of the inception of a global zombie apocalypse, Roarton becomes a hotbed of conflict between the human survivors and the now-medicated zombies (or Partially Deceased Syndrome sufferers to give them their politically correct title) who are being integrated back into society. In the centre of this conflict is Kieren Walker, a queer PDS-sufferer who has returned five years after his suicide and is frequently torn between disguising himself as human, or going ‘au naturale’ like his best friend Amy Dyer and taking pride in his difference. These PDS-sufferers are able to re-join society thanks to the intervention of scientists Victor Halperin and John Weston, named for the directors (Victor and Edward Halperin) and screenwriter (Garnett Weston) of White Zombie (1931), which first introduced the Haitian zombie to Western cinema audiences.
Despite this nod to Halperin and Weston, In the Flesh does not make any further reference to Haitian voodoo practices. While the undead of Roarton are ‘othered’, this is not on the basis of racial discrimination. Nor are the zombies present here mindless slaves, but rather – when medicated – capable of complex thought and emotion. The origin of the rising is transplanted to the Christian book of Revelations, preached by both the living and the dead. Finally, and most crucially in contrast to works such as White Zombie, the zombie does not stand as metaphor for present societal prejudice. In In the Flesh, this metaphor evolves into explicit fact. Kieren is ‘othered’ because he is queer, mentally ill, and because he is a zombie.
Kieren’s mental illness manifests itself with his queer identity being the catalyst for his suicide prior to the start of the series. By allowing these characteristics to remain, Kieren becomes a sympathetic protagonist, and ultimately a romantic hero, complicating the notion of the Uncanny. In Season 2, Kieren’s relationship with the radical zombie leader Simon Monroe questions the Uncanny and makes the zombie a romantic figure.
Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle present the Uncanny as consisting of seven modes: repetition; coincidence and fate; animism; anthropomorphism; uncertainty about sexual identity; fear of being buried alive; silence; telepathy; death. In The Gothic, David Punter defines the zombie as belonging to anthropomorphism, ‘whereby the inanimate is not merely invested with animate qualities but specifically “impersonates” the human. In Gothic terms, what we would have here is the figure of the dead coming back to life…of the body without mind or soul that nevertheless impersonates the human.’ In the Flesh complicates the zombie as an example of the Uncanny by presenting its undead with minds and souls. The PDS-sufferers who inhabit this world can think, feel, love, hate, and fear, and are often more relatable than the monstrous humans who persecute them for their otherness.
The Uncanny is in effect in the physical presentation of In the Flesh’s PDS-sufferers, particularly with those who refuse to disguise their condition such as Amy and Simon. While these characters walk, talk, and think like humans, their physical appearance is a reminder of their undead status, with pallid, white skin, blue lips, cloudy eyes and tiny, pinprick pupils. This stands them in stark contrast to Kieren, who uses cover-up mousse and contact lenses to appear human, and wears multiple layers to cover his suicide scars. While Kieren still looks somewhat unnatural, with his badly applied, slightly too orange make-up, the community of Roarton are comforted by his attempt to blend in, conform, and behave, unlike Simon and his radical followers.
It is the inception of Kieren and Simon’s relationship that begins to complicate this use of the Uncanny, to the point where their ‘au naturale’ state is less unsettling than their efforts to appear human. From their first meeting, Simon consistently tries to persuade Kieren to reject his assimilation, while Kieren, though attracted to Simon, expresses discomfort at both his own appearance – covering the mirror with a towel every morning until his cover-up mousse is applied – and Simon and Amy’s refusal to disguise themselves. Kieren’s perspective, and the use of the Uncanny, changes in the closing moments of episode 203. Following a traumatic encounter with another PDS-sufferer ‘gone rabid’, Kieren arrives shaken at Simon’s door, and the two kiss. In this instance, Simon’s appearance is consistent with his previous presentation, visually a member of the undead. However, Kieren too has his PDS status on display, missing one contact lens and with his smeared cover-up mousse revealing the true, mottled skin underneath. The sight of Kieren and Simon kissing should be unnatural, but it is treated as a tremendously romantic moment, complete with swelling music, and a lingering close-up of the two men. It is their second kiss, in episode 204, which is the more unsettling of the two. Although Kieren and Simon both appear human in order to meet Kieren’s parents, it is our knowledge that this is not their true selves, but a disguise, that unnerves us. This moment is the first instance of the audience seeing Simon wearing cover-up mousse, and the kiss is prefaced by Kieren telling Simon that he looks ‘so bad’. Also in contrast to their first kiss, the camera immediately cuts away to a long shot, rather than lingering on the romantic moment. Through In the Flesh’s presentation of the sympathetic monster protagonist, the viewers are conditioned to accept the zombie as normal, and this attempt to appear human as Uncanny.
As manifestations of the undead, both Kieren and Simon represent two periods in queer history. Kieren, who is overtly concerned with disguising his status as PDS, recalls the earlier Gay Liberation movement. As evidenced by Niall Richardson, the First Wave Gay Liberation movement emphasised the need for gay men to ‘appropriate the “accepted” signifiers of masculinity.’ By contrast, Simon represents the radical branches of the Queer movement, taking pride in his undead appearance, antagonising the living, and encouraging a separatist lifestyle. As Simon tells his followers in the Undead Liberation Army (ULA), ‘if we are serious about being free, the first shackle we have to throw off is shame.’ (204) Meanwhile, Kieren says to Simon moments later, ‘you could be great, if you could just be normal.’ (204) However, both Kieren and Simon’s perspectives and alliances change over the course of their relationship. Simultaneously, Kieren becomes more and Simon less extreme.
Episode 204 marks Kieren’s final rejection of assimilation, reflecting death of the Gay Liberation movement in favour of the more radical Queer Politics. Also present at the lunch Kieren and Simon attend with Kieren’s parents are Kieren’s sister Jem and her boyfriend Gary, both former members of the zombie-hunting Human Volunteer Force (HVF), and now working for the ‘pro-living’ MP Maxine Martin to keep PDS-sufferers in line. Jem and Gary, both intoxicated, are deliberately antagonistic, with Gary recounting tales of the ‘rotters’ that they killed during the Rising. ‘Rotters’, in this context, is treated as a slur. This is emphasised by Gary sarcastically correcting himself with the politically correct ‘PDS-sufferer’. Kieren snaps, angrily recounting the tale of his rising and his pleasure at feeding on humans in his untreated state in a scene that is not unlike a child coming out to a homophobic family. Following this moment, we see Kieren, staring directly at the camera, removing his contact lenses and beginning to wipe his cover-up mousse away, before turning to Simon and delicately washing his own face. Simon’s facial expression here is crucial in establishing the human-appearing zombie as Uncanny, and the natural zombie as a comforting presence. While wearing the cover-up mousse, Simon’s face is blank and emotionless, his mouth slightly open and his eyes staring vacantly. It is the most zombie-like in behaviour we have seen Simon at this point. It is only when Kieren begins to wipe his face clean that Simon begins to move, to become aware, and behave more like a human. In presenting these characters as victims of discrimination, the audience are encouraged to view Kieren and Simon sympathetically. Furthermore, by establishing Kieren and Simon as season two’s primary romantic relationship, notions of the zombie as Uncanny are complicated.