Netflix’s Santa Clarita Diet loves people. That’s unusual for a zombie narrative. Most zombie narratives present people as lurching, decaying, cannibalistic monsters. Misanthropy, paranoia, and loathing have been central to the modern zombie genre since George Romero first gleefully showed humans leaping for each other’s throats, even before they got turned into zombies. “They’re us, that’s all,” Peter (Ken Foree) says mournfully, watching brainless ghouls wander emptily around the mall in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead.
That basic insight, and the disgust that comes with it, has remained at the heart of the zombie genre ever since. Zombies are people, people are zombies, and all of them are just worm food with insatiable appetites. Even the zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead views its sad, shuffling working-class protagonists from a jaded distance, tinging its humor and affection with mockery and blood.
There’s a lot of gore in Santa Clarita Diet, from severed heads to chewed-off fingers to a kitchen that looks like someone exploded inside it, because someone more or less exploded inside it. But for all the viscera, the series isn’t disgusted by humanity in the usual zombie way. When realtor Sheila Hammond (Drew Barrymore) literally vomits out her guts and becomes undead, she starts having to feed on human flesh. But this doesn’t send her family, her town, or her world into an apocalyptic spiral of devolution.
On the contrary, instead of becoming misanthropic and evil, Sheila becomes more outgoing and energetic, dispensing optimistic life advice to neighbors, and leaning in at her job. Most importantly, her nervous but loyal husband Joel (Timothy Olyphant) is still there for her, exasperated but still willing to help when she drags in another corpse. Humans may be ravenous monstrous meat, but in Santa Clarita Diet, that meat remains lovable, in sickness and in health.
The series’ reversal of zombie misanthropy is cheerful, adorable, and entirely conscious. In the second season, which premieres on March 23rd, the narrative keeps lurching toward standard zombie storylines, then salsa-ing away. (Not even metaphorically, in one gloriously uncomfortable dance scene.)
Season one ends with a cliffhanger: Sheila’s condition is deteriorating, and the family chains her up in the basement for fear that she’ll run wild and infect others. This is standard zombie procedure — the uninfected are always quarantining the infected in a futile effort to prevent the spread of the disease. For a second, it looks like Santa Clarita Diet is going to become a more standard zombie narrative, all about the danger of contact and the struggle to keep people apart.
But Sheila-in-the-basement doesn’t even last an episode. Joel and their daughter Abby (Liv Hewson) can’t bear to be away from her, and both end up sneaking downstairs to sleep with her. The chains are swiftly abandoned — though Sheila and Joel decide to keep them around for sex play.
The Hammonds’ active sex life is another deliberate tweak of zombie tropes. Normally in zombie stories, sexual relationships, like all relationships, are a vector for infection and death. On The CW series iZombie, Liv, the good-hearted undead detective protagonist, can’t have sex for fear of infecting others. And of course the horrific zombie baby in the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake shows the consequences of sex in a zombie world. Get close to people in a zombie story, and you just risk producing more people who’ll tear out your throat if they can.
Again, Santa Clarita Diet acknowledges the trope; Eric Bemis (Skyler Gisondo) the Hammonds’ helpful, virginal neighbor, finds a girlfriend who turns out to be a zombie. He has sex, which in a horror story normally leads to some form of grotesque punishment. But while this show acknowledges that connecting with other people (zombies or otherwise) can initially seem terrifying, it suggests that intimacy doesn’t have to be a disaster. Sometimes, it turns out, zombies are just looking for sex. Or love. Or for someone to help them make sure their ears don’t fall off.
Aaron Bady at The Los Angeles Review of Books argues that Santa Clarita Diet is unconsciously conservative and default pro-Trump because it’s apolitical: “This suburban show wants to exist in a world without politics, without a larger frame of reference than the home life of a suburban family, their suburban neighbors, and their workplace selling suburban homes to other suburban families.” It’s true that in 2018, setting a sitcom in suburbia isn’t likely to be a radical or relevant political statement. But even so, Bady misses the anti-Trump political subtext of making zombies lovable.
Misanthropic zombie narratives inevitably become stories about purity and containment — about a terrifying fear of the Other, the people who appear human on the surface, but are mindless and dangerous and frightening. The typical zombie story is about people committing genocide to save themselves, about using walls and guns and extreme tactics to hold out the oncoming ravenous hordes. “Those diseased people over there aren’t like us, and we have to protect our fragile way of life by dehumanizing them”: that’s a summary of zombie narratives that fits Trump’s philosophy just as well.
The second season of Santa Clarita Diet, filmed after the 2016 election, takes pains to show that it’s not afraid to take sides. Liv becomes more and more serious about environmental activism, culminating in an explosive anti-fracking demonstration. Sheila confronts the up-to-the-minute dilemma of how to deal with a sexist boss when she’s not allowed to simply rip out his vocal cords. And the series takes a lighthearted but firm stand in favor of punching Nazis, and / or of tearing Nazis limb from limb and eating them.
Still, the biggest political message of Santa Clarita Diet is the same in season 2 as in season 1: “Everyone deserves love, even zombies.” Sheila has, as Joel notes several times, a “medical condition”; she’s disabled and different in ways that are sometimes frightening and disgusting on the surface. Standard zombie narratives say she needs to be forced out of her job, tied in the basement, walled up, and / or shot in the head, with a swift and unceremonious corpse-burning to follow. When the zombies come, films and shows like The Walking Dead suggest that the only means to survival is embracing harsh masculine values: be tough, be ruthless, trust no one, carry lots of guns.
Santa Clarita Diet, by contrast, rejects hate and the politics of hate. Joel, confronted with zombies, is in every way the opposite of the survivalist NRA machismo wet dream. When he wields a gun, it’s a tiny little girly thing, and he can’t even bring himself to shoot a zombie with it through a silk pillow. He’s a good man not because he has the stomach to do the cold-hearted thing, but because he doesn’t.
In most zombie stories, the fact that Joel still loves Sheila after she turns would ultimately lead to his gory death. In Santa Clarita Diet, though, the invaders with their odd dietary customs aren’t monsters. They’re family. Even in the face of a zombie apocalypse, Joel and Sheila insist that caring for other people is what keeps us human. Even when we’re zombies.