Syfy's 'Z Nation' Aims to 'Put the Fun Back in Zombies'

Zombies are seemingly everywhere these days, and that includes on Syfy's new drama Z Nation.

Premiering tonight, the post-apocalyptic horror series is set three years after a virus has transformed most of the American population into flesh-eating zombies. To save humanity, a group of citizens must transport the only known survivor of a zombie bite from New York to a California lab, in the hopes his blood holds a cure to the plague.

Executive Producer Karl Schaefer spoke with Spinoff Online about Z Nation's twist on zombies, The Walking Dead comparisons and his favorite method of killing a reanimated corpse.

Spinoff Online: Any TV series involving zombies automatically gets compared to The Walking Dead. Was that a big concern when you started developing Z Nation?

Karl Schaefer: Absolutely. Our feeling was, "There's already a great zombie show on, why are we doing another one?" I think it was to be all the places they aren't and to look a bit further down the line, post-Walking Dead

What we ended up doing was adding a sense of humor to the show, and I think The Walking Dead has no humor. There's traveling across the country. Our characters have a sense of hope and a mission. They are not afraid of zombies; they take it to them. It's about kicking some zombie ass.

Every project puts its own spin on the zombies. What were some of the ground rules for your version?

They can do anything we want them to if it's cool. Our zombies are evolving, the virus is changing. We have a much broader view of zombies than a show like The Walking Dead does. Those are slow zombies, too. It's a little bit of a problem in that you almost have to be an idiot to get killed by a slow zombie. We have fast zombies. The main rule is the zombies are on an arc with how long ago they died. A fresh zombie is fast, and as they begin to decay, they get slower and slower. If someone was killed and they were a healthy, powerful person when alive, then they are a fast-moving, powerful zombie. Also, we have the idea that the Murphy character [played by Keith Allan], who they are transporting across the country, is evolving into a human-zombie blend. In future seasons, that may lead us into another type of human that is taking an evolutionary leap forward.

We have zombie animals. We have zombie dogs and zombie babies. We have a zombie gopher in a future episode. We wanted to be the zombie show that said, "Yeah, we'll go for it. We'll do that. It's funny and cool and scary." Our main goal was to put the fun back in zombies and not take them quite so seriously, without it being silly like the Sharknado end of the scale.

The violence and gore are definitely in your face in Z Nation. Did you receive any notes from the network on the level of blood and guts?

They wanted more. They wanted this to be a no-holds-barred show, so that's what we gave them. It's an interesting thing because none of the people on the writing staff are genre writers. We're not really horror writers; we're more social-satire writers. There's an aspect to the violence where part of me was concerned with doing it. Another part of me thought, "It's about violence and the impact of violence on things." Also, if you take violence just a little too far, it can be funny and interesting. None of it is sadistic. Along with the hyper-violence, we introduced the notion of giving these zombies some mercy and having some level of empathy for them and the person they used to be.

The trailer features a zombie baby on the loose. Did you simply want to throw down the gauntlet and push the limits?

Part of the thought behind it was, "What would be shocking and scary and you hadn't thought of? How do we keep it fresh?" Every week, we're trying to have the zombies do something you've never seen them do before. That was very important. The notion was having this baby you care about and wondering what the characters are going to do with it. The next thing you know, it's like a vicious pit bull killing a guy. It added that unexpected element. It was hyper-violent, but it made you laugh at the same time.

You also turned a full school bus of kids into zombies.

There's a certain amount of mercilessness fun in all of this. Part of it is to go far enough that the audience wants you to go there. It's an interesting mix. Even to watch the crew when they get the script every week and kind of go, "Oh, my God. We're doing this?" We work really hard to make it happen and then everybody is really proud to see the zombie bear rip somebody apart. There's that sense of, "Yeah, we'll do that," which is part of the fun of the show. It keeps the tension high, too. Anytime you see something nice in Z Nation, you start worrying. This cannot last.

Besides the zombie threat, what can viewers expect to see during this road trip?

There's a lot of social satire in the show. To me, what the show is really about is how each week our characters run into a different pocket of society that's trying to rebuild itself. How do they do that and how does it go wrong or right? One week it will be a group of cannibals. The next week it will be a religious cult that believes the zombies are the resurrected. Another week it will be an all-female compound that doesn't allow me inside. One week we have another utopian compound that doesn't allow weapons inside. What happens to them? The week after that, they come across a gun show, where we mix liquor and guns. What could go wrong with that? There's a zombie-shooting contest. It's really about traveling across America and seeing how these pockets of survivors are doing.

Our ragtag group is trying to find this cure. Will you be tackling the origin of the zombie outbreak?

Yes, in fact we were just on the phone today hashing it out with the network about how much we want to give away in the first season and what you find out about it. We will hint at where the origin of it is this season.

These are not normal circumstances and Garnett (Tom Everett Scott) has been thrust into the role of a leader. Will the gang begin to crack under the pressure?

Sure. Things get rough as they go along. They always manage to pull together in the end, but there are forces pushing them apart all through the season. And they get separated by circumstances at times. Nobody is sure what to do next. Garnett is a reluctant leader of the group. Then you have the tension of the Murphy character, who has his own agenda and is slowly turning more and more zombie on them. At some point, they start to wonder whether he is more of a threat than a savior. He begins to display some of his newfound powers as a half-human/half-zombie.

Z Nation has a distinct look and feel. Can you talk about your vision and what you were aiming for?

That was definitely a choice we spent a lot of time working on. We wanted it to feel not like a slick TV show, but almost like a combat documentary. The entire show is hand-held. There isn't a tripod shot in the whole season. We wanted it to feel like you were running along with our group, like you're the eighth member of the team, so we're always looking over someone's shoulder. We gave it a really gritty look. I told Syfy upfront that I wanted it so if someone was turning the dial and came to our show in the middle of it, they'd know it was us, that we look different than the rest of their shows.

Guns are highly effective ways to permanently take down a zombie. What's your favorite weapon of choice?

The Z-Whacker is my personal favorite. That's the bat with the spikes on the end. I really like the Sketchy and Skeevy guys that are selling the weapons in the pilot. They are the ones that are running the gun show at the bar in a future episode.

The Z-Whacker is cool because it's up close and personal. The way the Addy character [Anastasia Baranova] character wields it, I wanted the female characters to have a lot of physical power and ability. The notion behind having short spikes is there's enough to destroy the brain, but it's not going to get stuck.

Premiering tonight at 10 ET/PT on Syfy, Z Nation stars Harold Perrineau, DJ Qualls, Tom Everett Scott, Michael Welch, Kellita Smith, Anastasia Baranova, Russel Hodgkingson and Keith Allan.

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