Zombies have had their image reformed over the last decade or so. The undead have been girlfriends, best friends, and the hard choices of videogames. But Santa Clarita Diet goes the extra mile when making its affronts against God clash with their surroundings.
Netflix’s horror-comedy follows normal couple Sheila (Drew Barrymore) and Joel (Timothy Olyphant), a real estate duo attempting to raise their daughter Abby (Liv Hewson) right. The neighborhood is good, problems are at a minimum, and the middle-class living is all the American Dream promised. Until Sheila hacks up a mysterious orb and starts hungering for human flesh, that is. Freckly neighbor kid Eric (Skyler Gisondo) has been roped into the scheme, too. Together, they put the “dead” in “deadpan.”
Sheila’s fundead chipperness recalls Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s method of surrounding its dark, psychologically- or physically-upsetting narrative turns with hyper-sunny aesthetics, saturating each shot with catalogue color even when the gore flies. It’s as if the traffic-discussing members of the Saturday Night Live skit “The Californians” were in a Saw movie.
The embodiment of this stereotype-razzing joke by its actors is one half of the equation. They go hammy and stagey, but it’s all part of the fun. Blank-eyed smiles and stilted, upwards-inflected delivery falter, but never fail to reappear—even when confronted with grisly, bloody, supernatural murders. Californian fake pleasantness can’t be broken, even by the very destruction of humanity’s basic ideas of mortality. “It’s nice out, isn’t it? I may get another hummingbird feeder for out here,” Joel says in the Season Two premiere as he guards the murder-masking front door from potential witnesses. It’s always nice out here. Too nice.
That’s because Santa Clarita Diet uses its production to build a weird sense of sun-drenched dread in every scene. The series itself is neither dark nor gritty. It’s upsettingly perfect, which is worse. There’s something extra fucked-up about seeing a picturesque home interior that wouldn’t look out of place on Queer Eye or Property Brothers coated in Evil Dead-levels of goopy blood.
The series’ visual philosophy is clear, even when looking at the stars. Timothy Olyphant’s deep tan, semi-popped polo collars, and perfectly messy salt-and-pepper coif only make his fearful desperation more incongruous… and thus, hilarious. He takes his glamorous imperfection to his Food Network kitchen and fluorescent, unremarkable hospital rooms (OK, it’s the psych ward). Even the latter, overseen by a pleasant, wide-eyed nurse with a big smile, features the juxtaposition of comfort and woe: Bemoaning our catch-and-release mental healthcare system has never looked nicer. The acting is reinforced by what surrounds it, making each line a new joke and each setting a new set-up.
The sets are decorated and lit with a realtor’s eye. (Not literally, of course, because the viscera usually belongs to those outside the industry.) But I’m not sure there’s a single shadow on a single face in the entire series—even at night, when the conspirators are burying or moving bodies. Those headlights put in work to make their skullduggery look like it took place during a GQ shoot. Everything is warm-toned and soft, unlike the cold and often steely blue hues of zombie films. Compared to The Walking Dead, with its sweaty aesthetic, Santa Clarita Diet is cheery, suburban. It’s like walking into an undead Target.
And that suburban dream mocks the horrifying imperfection underneath. The overwhelming brightness of the Rite Aid’s cleaning product aisle (a frequent destination for the protagonists), with its intimidating wall of neon goos and sprayers, rubs our noses in our own inadequacy and impermanence. When faced with such glistening antibacterial majesty, what are we but sacks of germs waiting to be 99.9% eradicated? The pink floral rubber gloves Joel wears to scrub the blood off his kitchen ceiling say all there is to say.
Like the ubiquitous loud colors (not only pink, but also the complimentary combo of yellow and teal), the sun—that damn sun—is always shining brightly like it knows that one day it will burn out. A Terminator- or Tom Cruise-esque chase is all the more exciting because it’s set not in southern California’s ubiquitous industrial plants, but on its hedge-lined lawns. It’s the weird mash-up of genre and aesthetic that enhances both and helps make the series such an exciting artistic achievement. It’s satire so well executed that the writing cannot usurp what we see.
A fully stocked fruit bowl and perfectly tended garden are the benign background for the design team’s discordant vision: There’s always something much more sinister just around the corner. The show does its best Silence of the Lambs when it serves kidney, on a lime-green platter with a nice accent flower, to a nicely dressed zombie Barrymore. She chows down immediately, but struggles to match the happy smile on the realtor signs in the background of the basement she’s chained in. The layers of deception and artifice only make the horror funnier and the satire sharper.
This makes for a delightfully uncomfortable watch, mostly because my brain can’t reconcile the charming locales and smiling faces with the tension underneath. At least with something like The Office, everything’s shot with such stupefying dullness that the white collar cruelty is a shot in the arm. Santa Clarita Diet’s unsettling reinvention of the undead surpasses other straight-faced satire because it uses its entire production to re-imagine the genre, which only makes its monsters more fascinating.
Season Two of Santa Clarita Diet is now streaming on Netflix.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.