(Some spoilers ahead for the new Netflix original series “Santa Clarita Diet.)
Wait, so Netflix’s “Santa Clarita Diet” is a comedy about zombies, right? The answer in Season 1 is: yes and no.
Netflix’s comedy about a suburban mom named Sheila (Drew Barrymore) who suddenly finds herself a reanimated corpse who claims human flesh is supposed to invoke everything we know about the walking dead — including “The Walking Dead.” But dont’ expect a jokey show about a shambling, gray-skinned rotter or her family trying to pretend she’s still alive a la “Weekend at Bernie’s.”
Instead, “Santa Clarita Diet” plays up a lot of the same tropes as other zombie fiction, but it’s taking a lot of liberties with the premise. It’s closer to the CW’s “iZombie” than the popular conception of zombie as made famous by George Romero and “Night of the Living Dead.” It’s more accurate to call Sheila “undead” than a zombie. At least right now.
1. Undead vs. Zombie
In the first “Santa Clarita Diet” episode, nerdy neighbor and paranormal stuff expert Eric (Skyler Gisondo) discusses whether the word “zombie” applies to Sheila. At least at first, it doesn’t.
In most zombie fiction, a person infected with whatever it is that makes people zombies (whether it’s transmitted through a bite or just something that everyone has like in “The Walking Dead”) dies, and then their corpse is reanimated as a zombie. Their brain is basically no longer functional, which is why all zombies ever want to do is eat: it’s the only instinct that generally survives. Zombies look like people, but fundamentally aren’t. They’re also still dead, so their corpses slowly rot, which is why they shamble around.
A better descriptor for Sheila is “undead.” She’s definitely dead, but she’s also not an animated corpse. She’s still a person with a personality, despite the living functions of her body having ceased. She’s similar to a zombie in that she wants to consume human flesh, but different in that it’s not the only thing she thinks about or does. Her personality has been changed, robbing her of impulse control and heightening certain elements, but she’s still a person.
2. The Virus
A lot of time is spent trying to figure out what caused Sheila’s condition, and it’s generally agreed upon that it’s a virus and not some other cause. Like other zombification viruses, it’s transmitted through bites — Sheila infects Loki (Deobia Oparei), but we’re not sure how Sheila was infected.
But it seems like the only way to transmit the virus is by biting. So far, there are no other undead. For the time being, at least, we’re not going to see a cannibal monster-infested world like that of “The Walking Dead.”
Most of Season 1 is spent pursuing a possible cure, but as is revealed by Dr. Cora Wolf (Portia de Rossi) in Episode 10, there isn’t one. Sheila did, in fact, die in the first episode. The “cure” Dr. Wolf is creating will stop Sheila’s progression toward whatever she’s becoming. Apparently it’ll also stop her body from “deteriorating.”
3. The Timeline
Where “Santa Clarita Diet” differs from other zombie stories the most is in the timeline. In most zombie fiction, infection with the zombie disease leads to death, and after death, reanimation. This can take anywhere from minutes to days, but zombie bites in particular are always fatal, and the bitten always reanimate. They usually reanimate as soulless, mindless killing machines.
“Santa Clarita Diet” actually functions on similar rules, it seems, but stretches the timeline way out. We see Sheila die by vomit in the first episode, when she pukes up whatever that weird red ball was. After that, she’s undead, but generally still a person, even if she is a cannibal. She’s also mostly in control of herself.
Halfway through the season, Sheila’s body starts to “deteriorate,” which is another word for rot. Zombies, being dead, generally fall apart like any organic matter would after dying. Without life processes, they’re just like any buried body — except they’re just walking around. That’s not quite the case for Sheila: she’s obviously not rotting, but her body is breaking down.
Dr. Wolf also notes that, eventually, Sheila will succumb to “unprovoked aggression.” It sounds like she’ll basically eventually lose her mind and become something much more akin to the kinds of zombies we see in horror films and TV shows. But that process is only just beginning in Season 1, it seems, which spans at least several days and more likely a few weeks.
This calls to mind the “ghouls” of the “Fallout” video game series. Ghouls are people who were irradiated in a global nuclear war but weren’t killed by the radiation. Their skin falls off and their bodies cosmetically deteriorate over time (radiation sustains their muscles and bones), but they keep their mental faculties — for a while. Eventually, ghouls do go feral, at which point they pretty much just act like your traditional zombies.
Apparently, though, Sheila can be cured of her feral tendencies. She’d still need to eat people and she’d still have her undead intensity, but she wouldn’t be disintegrating or liable to eat her family.
4. The Unanswered Questions
There are definitely a few things that a second season of “Santa Clarita Diet” will probably address. Chief among them will be things about the undead-ening virus: its seemingly Serbian origins and how it wound up in California, for starters. It’d also be nice to find out what that red thing Sheila barfed up was.
There are also the questions of how Joel (Timothy Olyphant) will deal with his wife’s cannibalism, since he’s already struggling. Same goes for Abby (Liv Hewson) dealing with this new version of her mom.
And then there’s one last question: Will there be a “Santa Clarita Diet” Season 2? We’ll probably know sooner rather than later, but it’s all up in the air right now.