“It’s fun, it’s just not your normal fun,” says Drew Barrymore about her new ten-part Netflix horror comedy series Santa Clarita Diet. It sounds like it’s a zombie series, even though the pre-publicity has studiously avoided the word “zombie”, preferring instead to refer to “the undead”. But it’s not like zombie comedies are new, with everything from Zombieland and Shaun Of The Dead to Warm Bodies and iZombie offering various different takes on the genre from parody to rom-com to social metaphor. But it does seem like the creators of Santa Clara Diet are using the freedom of Netflix to put a smart new spin on the sub-genre.
So, who’s behind Santa Clarita Diet? What’s it about? And how have they injected new life into the undead? Let’s have a closer look, with 10 Things You Need To Know…
- Santa Clarita Diet has been created by Victor Fresco, a writer/producer on such critically acclaimed shows as Better Off Ted and My Name Is Earl.
- It stars Drew Barrymore in her first ever regular TV role as Sheila Hammond and Timothy Olyphant (Justified, Deadwood) as Joel Hammond, both content, if a little bored, real estate agents.
- They play a Californian husband and wife whose lives are suddenly drastically changed. “Well, my wife’s going through some changes; she all of a sudden kind of wants what she wants,” explains Olyphant. What she wants is human flesh, because she’s now one of the undead. “This woman… is really going through a rebirth,” says Barrymore. “She just wakes up and sees things around her that she had blinders on to before. … I just was excited about what (this role) could be and how it could really be a physical transformation, an emotional transformation and a behavioural transformation.”
- Despite the grisly premise, it’s not really a zombie show. “You take out the fact that my wife and I are killing and eating people, and it feels like a family show,” says Olyphant. “It feels like a show about a marriage, and a family, a real teenager with real teenage problems.” Adds Fresco, “This series started with a question: how do you keep a relationship going when one person kind of changes? These are two people who have loved each other for 25 years, and that love is as strong as ever. But when Sheila wakes up one morning feeling and acting differently, she and Joel face the challenge of keeping their marriage and family together while handling this new, very stressful situation.”
- It’s also a metaphor for our narcissistic society. “I’m interested how our culture has come to glorify people who are only interested in themselves, like on reality shows. I saw the undead as a metaphor for that narcissist culture,” says Fresco. “The undead are the ultimate narcissists. They want what they want, when they want it now. Getting your needs met is wonderful, empowering even, but it also creates a problem: how do you get what you want all the time without alienating, and so losing, the people you love? This is Sheila’s dilemma.”
- But that doesn’t mean the show is shy about showing the gore. Because Santa Clarita Diet involves less-than-normal circumstances, Fresco needed a skilled visual effects team to complete his vision. Led by prosthetic make-up effects designer Christien Tinsley (Westworld, American Horror Story, Jonah Hex), the Tinsley Studio artists helped bring his undead story to life. And even though Santa Clarita Diet is a comedy, Tinsley says the show’s effects aren’t cartoonish. In a different context, they might even be disturbingly real. “It wasn’t like we were making fingers that expanded like rubber bands – we didn’t do goofy elements like that for this show,” Tinsley says. “In fact, in some ways, we probably played it more real because the nature of the writing and the performances.”
- Drew Barrymore was more than happy to muck in. Executive producer Tracy Katsky recalls how Barrymore loved the freakier aspects of filming. “So it’s over 100 degrees, and it had been a really long week,” she says. “Everyone on the crew was a little bit cranky. And we get to the scene where Sheila eats someone, which is the first time you see anything like that. And there was a shot of Drew Barrymore, America’s sweetheart, with her face buried in a pile of human wreckage, and she pulls up with blood all over her face and hair and hands and looks her husband in the face and says, ‘I really want to make this work.’ We all knew, in that moment, ‘We are doing something really different here.’”
- Drew Barrymore’s character could actually benefit from being undead. Barrymore says she was cast because, “Victor Fresco said, ‘I feel like you could eat people … and still be likable.’ I felt so complimented.” She goes on to explain, “I wanted Sheila, like, hunched over at the beginning and soft and a little bit overweight. By the end, she is a very different person. And we subtly wove that in with hair, make-up, wardrobe, attitude, line readings, looks in the eyes, body language and posture.”
- And so could Olyphant’s. “Joel was a quarterback and she was a prom queen,” says Olyphant of his character. “They’re high school sweethearts. And when we meet them, I think he’s just going through the motions. To some degree, he’s a bit of a zombie when we start.” Just as unexpected changes befall Sheila, Joel experiences an awakening of his own and realizes he’d do just about anything for his wife – even kill for her. “She has an appetite for things that she never had before, and for Joel, it’s wonderful on some level: The sex is great, she’s full of life, she’s fun,” says Olyphant. “But it’s also a bit unnerving. It’s hard to understand why it’s happening, or if there will be consequences so severe that (they) won’t survive it.”
- Santa Clarita Diet also stars Liv Hewson as the couple’s rebellious daughter, Abby, and Skyler Gisondo as Eric, a young undead “expert” who lives door and has a crush on Abby; they both soon learn about Sheila’s new true nature. The supporting cast includes Ricardo Chavira, Mary Elizabeth Ellis and Richard T Jones, with Nathan Fillion and Andy Richter among its many recognisable guest stars.
All 10 half-hour episodes of the series will become available to Netflix members worldwide on Friday 3 February.