‘Z Nation’ Review: ‘The Walking Dead’ Meets ‘Sharknado’?

Z Nation on the Syfy channel seems to be, to some degree, a rip-off of the AMC monster (as it were) hit The Walking Dead, but with at least one significant difference.

[Spoilers follow]

As the Inquisitr previously suggested, with The Walking Dead taking cable TV ratings by storm, it is to be expected that the Syfy channel would try to take a piece out of the undead pie, even a bite-size piece.

Airing its second season, the less-extravagant, but action-packed, faster-paced, and generally unpredictable zombie apocalypse series filmed in the Spokane, Washington, area, originates from the same production company as the campy Sharknado franchise, but without all the cameos. It logs about 1.6 million viewers per episode.

The healthcare premise of both shows is pretty much the same. Everyone still alive is infected by the zombie virus, and those who die — or are bitten by other undead creatures — reanimate as zombies unless taken out by a brain blow.

“I give you mercy” is Z Nation‘s signature catchphrase when one of the principals puts an about-to-turn victim out of his or her misery.

In the show, which also has kind of a Mad Max road trip vibe in addition to satirical elements, flesh-eating zombies are referred to simply as Zs, unlike the nomenclature in TWD — e.g., walkers, biters, roamers, the infected, skinbags, and other terms of endearment.

In its first season, Z Nation received a 53 percent quality rating on Rotten Tomatoes, while the second season score is hitting 70 percent at this early stage (with new weekly episodes starting on September 11, 2015).

That being said, unlike The Walking Dead, it may not necessarily be appointment television, but the DVR, cable On-Demand, and online streaming makes that irrelevant.

As alluded to above, Z Nation, created by Karl Schaefer and Craig Engler and assisted by their writing team, contains a lot of action and gore, but it offers a different sensibility (or nonsenseability?) than The Walking Dead.

While The Walking Dead is typically “deadly” serious with mostly dour characters advancing the drama, the apparently purposely cheesy Z Nation often goes for slapstick humor and laughter-inducing dialogue and sequences, including at one point, a giant zombie-killing cheese wheel.

To be sure, the juxtaposition between many dark, mayhem-filled sequences and over-the-top comedy can be uneven.

In addition to quirky and dangerous human characters that show up in each episode, including cult leaders, various outlaws, and drug cartel killers, Z Nation has also featured zombies on Viagra, zombie pole dancers, the iconic Liberty Bell in Philadelphia pulverizing zombies, the birth of a zombie-human hybrid zombaby, plus characters toking on a “ZWeed” recreational hallucinogenic.

Zombies in Germany

Moreover, while both shows depict the core group on a quest of some kind stretching across an entire season (or more), individual Z Nation episodes can be more readily watched as stand-alone or self-contained entertainment.

Den of Geek appropriately distinguished the two shows, as follows.

“If AMC’s The Walking Dead is the miserabilist emo-goth teen of the televisual zombie apocalypse, then Syfy’s Z Nation is its swaggering, devil-may-care little cousin, who’s having too much fun smoking weed, gorging on pop-culture tropes and generally dicking around to waste its time indulging in any gravely serious, existential, pseudo-political clap-trap. Therein lies the secret to Z Nation‘s appeal: it’s fun. It laughs at itself, and wants you to laugh along, too.”

As Brian Lowry of Variety noted when the show originally launched in September, 2014, Z Nation is “essentially trotting out an old-fashioned wagon-train western, with a hardy band running a zombie gantlet trying to reach California.”

Also reacting to the September, 2014, premiere of the pilot episode, IMDB User “Horribly Good” described Z Nation in this manner.

“…I am struggling to decide if this is the worst written and acted show to ever make it to cable… or if the program is the product of a think-tank of insane genius. I genuinely found myself laughing out, half-a-dozen times, as I wait in anticipation of the next cliché, twist, stupid one-liner and dialogue…The show is so horrible its good. Five minutes into the first episode I knew it was junk, but I kept watching. By the end of the show I was surprised to find that I honestly enjoyed it…”

One storyline seems or seemed to overlap between the two shows. You’ll remember that in Season 4 of The Walking Dead, Eugene Porter, a character who claimed to have a cure for the zombie epidemic, scammed two soldiers, Abraham and Rosita, into escorting/protecting him on the way to a supposed government laboratory in Washington, D.C. It was all made up by the fake scientist to enable him to survive in a hostile environment, however.

A similar mission drives the narrative in Z Nation. The core group is transporting Murphy, the world’s only zombie-bite survivor, an opportunistic ex-con slacker, to a CDC lab in California so researchers can develop a vaccine for the zombie virus from his blood. The reluctant savior Murphy, who slowly appears to be transitioning from human to quasi human and has developed mixed loyalties as a result, has also somehow become a zombie whisperer, with the ability to psychically control the flesh eaters, who in Z Nation are more peppy and aggressive than in The Walking Dead.

Participants take part at the Zombie Walk Duesseldorf

The action in The Walking Dead has mostly occurred in Georgia, while the Z Nation group has fictionally navigated across large and desolate/washed-out portions of post-apocalyptic America in the journey to deliver Murphy to authorities, assuming the authorities are still functional.

Like what happens on The Walking Dead, several main characters have already been killed along the way as you would expect given the subject matter, the Z Nation protagonists are currently led by ex-National Guard officer Roberta Warren (Kellita Smith), perhaps functioning as Syfy’s version of Rick Grimes.

Her crew consists of millenial wanderer Addy (Anastasia Baranova), burnt-out hippie Doc (Russell Hodgkinson), Tommy aka 10K (a sharpshooter whose goal is 10,000 zombie kills, played by Nat Zang), and ex-DEA agent Vasquez (Matt Cedeno).

The main characters are intermittently guided/cajoled by a soldier known as Citizen Z (DJ Qualls) who communicates by radio from an isolated NSA Arctic listening post. Yes, NSA surveillance survives the zombie epidemic.

Murphy — who some internet commentators claim reminds them of the title character in House — is masterfully portrayed by Keith Allan.

In a review of the series which airs new episodes every Friday night at 10 p.m. Eastern on Syfy, TV.com writer Tim Surette offered this assessment of Z Nation in its second season.

“One thing that fascinates me about Z Nation is that each episode is made for about $700,000, well below the industry average for a one-hour drama. And though it looks like it was made for even less, it’s interesting to see the success behind the show and how it fits in with everything else. It is, by all economics, a hit for Syfy and a potential look at an alternative way of making television. Get unknown actors, play into the low budget, and deliver the fan-friendly thrills that other similar shows (ahem, The Walking Dead) don’t, and exceed low expectations. Z Nation might be copycat TV, but for what it is? It more than does the trick.”

For those who may (or will be) jonesing for zombie entertainment when The Walking Dead goes into either midseason or end-of-season hiatus, catching up on Z Nation via Netflix or some such outlet may be a thing. Z Nation is far superior to the disappointing Fear the Walking Dead, at least in its six-episode, first season.

Although many fans expected that FTWD would offer a glimpse of the initial spread of the zombie virus, and how that would play out as society gradually deteriorates, it quickly morphed into a possibly anti-military subplot about soldiers protecting or not protecting a Los Angeles conclave, with a focus on a very unsympathetic family, particularly the junkie son, the other annoying son, and the previously Berkeley-bound brat daughter, along several equally unpleasant adults. By the way, why would unleashing hundreds of penned-up walkers on a military base/quarantine area be a good idea under any circumstances, if not a grossly criminal act?

Perhaps ahead-of-the curve conspiracy aficionado Tobias is the only character that can save the lackluster spin-off from circling the drain.

Parenthetically, cops and soldiers in the FTWD universe to their credit apparently quickly caught on to the fact that zombies can only be neutralized with a killshot to the brain, unlike — for example — the gendarmes in The Horde, and their gangster counterparts, who in the French film inexplicably waste a huge amount of ammo firing into the torsos of murderous flesh-eaters in a Paris high-rise.

Incidentally, the much-anticipated Season 6 premiere of the real Walking Dead last Sunday night was ratings gold, capturing about 15 million viewers on its first run, plus an additional five million time-shifters.

Are you a fan of Z Nation from the Sharknado studio? If so, how does it compare, if at all, to The Walking Dead?

[Photos by Sascha Steinbach, Getty Images News]