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Santa Clarita Diet offers zombie satire with a feminine edge

Contributed by
Mar 29, 2018

When Netflix first announced their original comedy series, Santa Clarita Diet, they gave away few details about its concept. We knew that Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant would play the lead roles and that some level of suburban hijinks would ensue. Yet that did little to prepare us for the trailer reveal, wherein Barrymore was revealed to be a newly reborn zombie, and that the diet of the title was one of human flesh smoothies. 

Santa Clarita Diet follows your typical upper-middle class family through the trials and tribulations of suburban life, and also there are zombies. Barrymore and Olyphant play Sheila and Joel Hammond, married real-estate agents who just want to sell houses, raise their teenage daughter and find the occasional free morning for a five-minute quickie. After Sheila suffers an especially brutal bout of vomiting—we're talking a lot of vomit—she finds that she has no pulse, she no longer bleeds, and she wants to have sex 24/7. Oh, and she craves human flesh.

Zombies are a popular feature of horror. They may lack the thematic sophistication of vampires or the primal appeal of werewolves, but their near-universal appeal lies in that seeming simplicity. Death is scary, and it’s made even more so when it turns out that’s not the end of the road. There are many interpretations of the zombie — from mindless sloth-like sleepwalkers to ravenous beasts of unstoppable power; from pensive about their undead lot in life to degrading beyond all recognizable traits of humanity. Romero made zombies the ultimate metaphor of aimless consumerism, while The Walking Dead uses them to convey ideas of regret, grief, and an unbearable loss of humanity. Yet oddly, the world of zombies remains an oddly male one. It’s not that there’s no such thing as female zombies in fiction, but the stories told around the creatures are frequently pretty macho tales or ones in which the focus is much more on the male heroes stopping the undead force. There are wonderful exceptions, like the CW’s sinfully underrated iZombie, but it still feels like a missed opportunity.

The underappreciated genius of Santa Clarita Diet is in the way it takes the zombie genre, one that’s already on the verge of being overused, and makes it fresh by adding a feminine, domestic edge. Sheila’s life is one dictated by the limited confines of suburban motherhood. She needs to be the best at her high-pressure job, then come home and keep the house in order, then be the perfect mother, then try to fit in with the other women in the neighborhood, and then maybe find time to be a good wife for her husband. Prior to her undead transformation, her life is reasonably content but also one of a seldom shifting schedule that bores her to tears.

This is a scenario that’s eerily familiar to many women, and in pop culture, these sorts of characters are all too frequently ignored or turned into humorless shrews. The wife has to be the serious one while the dad goofs around and gets to be the “cool parent.” Think of Marge Simpson or Lois in Malcolm in the Middle. Yet for Sheila, the tropes are subverted, and it’s her zombie condition that kickstarts it. Being undead turns out to be a pretty sweet deal for Sheila; she’s got more energy, she’s more sociable, she no longer feels the need to hold back or play the demure lady role, and she is horny all the time (fortunately, Timothy Olyphant is there to ease such concerns). Instead of ending her life, being a zombie brings new life for her. So, not only do we see a deliberate rejection of the lazy sexist tools of sitcoms, but we see it melded with the zombie genre in a fresh new way.

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That’s not to say that the show does away with the more traditional zombie elements. For one, Santa Clarita Diet is bloody. It’s the kind of slippery guts, dangling eyeballs, floating body parts in the bathtub, vomit up the walls, ceaseless blood orgy that you’d never see on network TV. The series doesn’t skimp on the gore, and it’s all the better for it. There are few sights as specific and hilarious as Drew Barrymore smothered in blood to her own delight. Her bodily decline throughout the series is also genuinely stomach-churning. As much as being a zombie rejuvenates her, it also brings its unfortunate downsides, like the occasional loss of a toe.

The degradation of the female form is a common theme in horror, with the genre being chock full of stories of women losing control of their bodies or having it ripped away from them by mystic forces. Body horror remains a potent and popular subgenre because it plays on our endless unease with the thing we live with every single of the day. For many women, there are specific elements that cut deep: fear of childbirth, loss of ownership of your own body, the obsessions of feminine youth and beauty, and so on. Too often, women’s bodies, both on and off-screen, are positioned as battlegrounds or spectacles to be gawked at, usually independent of the women who inhabit them.

For Santa Clarita Diet, Sheila’s body and its betrayal carries much of that symbolism, but it’s also firmly her story. There are upsides and downsides to her predicament, and she enjoys the former more than her family are comfortable dealing with. Her body declines but she herself feels pretty good, as her mind refuses to get on the same page with the rest of her. There’s a liberation that comes with reverting to a more primal form. Sheila no longer cares what the world thinks of her as a result. For women, the curse of the zombie is a freeing one, even as it leads her to rot. You don’t see many stories like that in the zombie genre, much less ones centered on women.

There are other wonderful things to recommend about the show; the comedy is sharp, the supporting cast are wonderful, there's an interesting lore to the zombies, and Olyphant is having the time of his life as a highly-strung suburban dad trying to deal with his flesh-craving wife. But you should watch Santa Clarita Diet for Sheila and for this strange, fresh and genre-bending take on the world of zombies that blends Romero with Arrested Development. Like Sheila’s fleshy smoothies, it’s a life enhancing experience!

Seasons one and two of Santa Clarita Diet are now streaming on Netflix.