When I wrote my 2008 study of the horror genre, Knowing Fear, I remarked that horror is essentially conservative since it revolves around disruptions to the status quo and efforts, successful or not, to restore that status quo. At a macro level, the inherent conservatism of horror also tends to limit the originality of its stories, with new innovations being few and far between. Two new international Netflix horror series released last week illustrate these two points but do so in ways that vary greatly in their success as they work to add something new to two very familiar stories.
Reality Z is a Brazilian zombie thriller about contestants on a Big Brother-like reality show in Rio de Janeiro who are left to defend themselves against the dead when zombies overrun the world during a live broadcast of their show. If the premise sounds familiar, it’s because Reality Z is an adaptation of Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker’s 2008 miniseries Dead Set, which followed the same story. Reality Z creator Cláudio Torres told Brazilian media that his version would reimagine the story for a distinctly Brazilian context, and he suggested, in quite gross terms, that his intention was to consume a Western product and then vomit it up as something Brazilian. Although the analogy derives from a twentieth-century Brazilian artistic movement called antropofagia (“cannibalism”) that attempted to decolonialize the arts, there is something far too appropriate about the half-digested, steaming pile of vomit that resulted.
Let’s stipulate that Reality Z is well made as far as zombie TV shows go. It looks much more expensive than it was, and the production values are the equal of the upper tier of Netflix shows. This is no October Faction. It had some of the most extensive special effects work of any series produced in Latin America. On a technical level, this is easily on par with any European or American production. It also scored huge viewership in Brazil. But I asked a Brazilian friend if this show were worth watching if I had already seen Dead Set. The answer: “Well, it has five more episodes.”
And that’s kind of the problem.
The first five episodes of Reality Z recreate the five episodes of Brooker’s miniseries, nearly point for point and sometimes shot for shot and mostly word-for-word. Because they follow the original so closely, although shifting the action from the real Big Brother to a fictious version dressed in Greek mythology called Olimpo (Olympus), these episodes are just as solid as Dead Set, but lack some of the verisimilitude that Brooker’s use of a real reality show, its stars, and an exact copy of its set provided to his multimedia riff on Night of the Living Dead, an acknowledged inspiration. (There is a guest appearance from a Brazilian Big Brother contestant, for what it’s worth.) The Latin American production style, with slow motion shots and gratuitous overacting doesn’t help. Torres also errs greatly in following Brooker so closely that the fifth episode of Reality Z recreates the finale of Dead Set, feeling like the end of the show—even calling it “The End”—despite having five more episodes to go.
This destroys the momentum of the series for two reasons. First, by aping Brooker’s end point as the midpoint of the remade series, it closes the loop and feels very much like a season finale. There is no more story to tell, though not for want of trying. Second—and this will come as no surprise to fans of the original Dead Set but I’ll say it’s a SPOILER ALERT anyway—the fifth episode kills almost the entire cast, just as Brooker killed off everyone in the original. Torres makes a terrible mistake in not allowing one or two of the Olympus cast members to survive into the second half of the series to connect what came before to what came after. It’s too much of a break, and it cuts off the viewers’ sympathies from the one or two characters who were given more than one character trait.
The second half of the series is where Torres comes into his own, creating a new story taking place in the same setting. A new group of survivors, led by a corrupt congressman, take over the Olympus studio and begin recruiting survivors. Torres doesn’t handle this half as deftly as Brooker’s writing carried the first, but he has one—and only one—good point to make, which is that the corruption of capitalism forces all of us into ersatz reality shows, competing against one another for the simple right to stay safe, fed, and clothed. Sadly, there isn’t enough time in five brief half-hour episodes to draw out this theme in a sustained way, so it is merely sketched as the new survivors fall into reality show roles, with the congressman as demented director. If you think this half will end differently from the first, you haven’t been paying attention to the nihilism of Reality Z.
Try as I might, I could find nothing distinctly Brazilian about Reality Z. It could have happened anywhere, in any country. Torres says that the most Brazilian element of the series is the country’s love of reality TV shows, which really just means that Brazil is about 10-15 years behind America in that regard. There is a version of this show that might have used its reality show setting to comment on various class tensions in Brazilian society, or made the congressman into an analog for the populist forces that raised the cartoonishly evil president Jair Bolsonaro to power. But this isn’t that show. It’s just a fast-zombie massacre dressed up in half-assed literary theory.
By contrast, the Italian series Curon is not a direct remake of a pre-exiting story, but you’ve seen all of its elements before. Curon is a Gothic mood piece, but it makes extensive use of distinctively Italian themes and issues to reanimate a familiar corpse with an extra layer of interest that takes stories pioneered in England and America and re-centers them in a new cultural context rarely seen in Western media.
Curon tells the story of a woman who moves back to her hometown with her two teenage twins in tow, seventeen years after leaving. The current town sits on a hill above a massive lake which flooded the old town except for its bell tower many years ago. The town is located in the Tyrol, a largely German-speaking border region between Austria and Italy that had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918, Italian afterward, and nearly annexed to the Third Reich during World War II. Inhabited by both ethnic Italians and ethnic Austro-Germans, its history and heroes shift depending on which side of the cultural divide you find yourself. This theme of shifting perspectives and duality carries through the whole of Curon.
When our heroes arrive in Curon, no one wants them there. The twins only slowly befriend the local teens, and their mother is haunted by the memories of her past, literally and figuratively. When the lake begins spitting out doppelgangers of the townsfolk, buried secrets come to the fore and everyone must face a reckoning between past and present.
While the doppelganger theme is familiar from so many previous works—from Edgar Allan Poe’s “William Wilson” to Invasion of the Bodie Snatchers--Curon makes an interesting use of the theme by making the doppelganger’s socially unrestrained versions of their originals. They are all id, acting in their self-interest, without the constraints of society, history, or family. To that end, Curon reveals itself to be the story of generations of abuse and neglect, of the way the breakdown in the social fabric leads the individual to heinous acts of violence and unending selfishness. The doppelgangers are basically Ayn Rand’s wet dream, objectivism taken to its logical end point, killing the social self for the unrestrained pleasures of imagined freedom. Curon seems to argue that absolute freedom from culture, society, and history leaves us little more than feral brutes, red in tooth and claw.
Curon is not perfect. Episodes drag on a bit too much. Conversations meander and too little happens for long stretches. Not all of the characters are sharply drawn. I’m not sure the show’s cultural context would entirely make sense without a deep understanding of the Austro-Italian border region and its history, which the show never explains. But I did like the way it took elements and imagery from Universal Horror movies and Hammer Horror movies and repositioned them in a mitteleuropa context—all the more appropriate since so many of those old American and British movies were originally set in a fictitious Americanized version of central Europe. There is, obviously, also influence from the Italian horror of the middle twentieth century as well, and the stunning physical beauty of the forests, lakes, and mountains only contributes to the power of the imagery. I would, though, have liked to see the writing as sharp as the photography.
Neither Reality Z nor Curon is fully a success. The former moves with a propulsive sense of entertainment, and the latter has deeper, more thoughtful layers. They almost complement each other, like mirror images of two branches of horror. Oddly enough, they worked well together as they made similar points about the importance of social bonds to a well-functioning society and lamented that we live in an age where those bonds have seemingly broken irrevocably.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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