Even though there hasn’t been an actual zombie apocalypse (yet), the shambling hordes have most definitely invaded pop culture. In the past decade, we’ve had big-budget zombie takeovers (The Walking Dead, World War Z), zombie romances (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), funny zombies (Shaun of the Dead), Nazi zombies (the Dead Snow films)…. The list goes on.
But the one thing we haven’t had so far? Crime-solving zombies. Or to be more precise, just one crime-solving zombie: Liv Moore (Rose McIver), the undead protagonist of the CW’s new show iZombie. Given that it’s the latest series from Rob Thomas, the creator of TV cult favorites Veronica Mars and Party Down, it will come as no surprise to his fans that Liv isn’t like other zombies: She’s smart, funny and won’t take her afterlife lying down. Oh, and she likes to eat her brains with chopsticks, flavored with a hefty helping of hot sauce.
Loosely based on the Vertigo comic-book series of same name by Chris Roberson and Michael Allred, the series is a potent blend of horror story, crime procedural, comedy, and coming-of-age drama. Liv is a twentysomething medical resident whose seemingly perfect life gets upended after being attacked by a zombie at a party. As long as she gets a regular supply of brains, she can keep her wits about her — with the side effect of absorbing some of the memories and personality traits of the people whose cerebellums she eats. Soon, Liv takes a job where grey matter is plentiful — at a police morgue — and passes for human to all but the most discerning. More importantly, she uses her abilities to help the authorities solve a slew of local murders.
Thomas didn’t originally set out to make iZombie; between last year’s Veronica Mars movie follow-up and a handful of other projects he was working on, he already had lots on his plate. But Warner Bros. development head Susan Rovner made him a proposition he couldn’t refuse. “Susan just would not take no for an answer,” Thomas recalls. “Her pitch was essentially, ‘Look at the cover of this comic book. That is the next great female lead on the CW, and you need to make her the next Buffy, the next Veronica Mars.’ I kept trying to say no and she kept refusing to listen to me until finally I gave in. And I’m really happy that I did.”
In developing the story, Thomas made some significant changes from the comics, in which the main character is a gravedigger and exists in a world of ghosts, were-terriers and other spooky types. “It’s a weird bit of personal taste on my part, but I have trouble with the supernatural,” he admits. “Which is a funny thing to say, because I have no problem believing zombies that are caused by virus outbreak. I’m a huge 28 Days Later fan. I totally get those kinds of creatures. And yet when they’re rising from the grave because of a mummy’s curse, that’s a lot less interesting to me.”
Her pitch was, ‘You need to make her the next Buffy, the next Veronica Mars.’
His version of the undead exists in a more grounded universe, in which zombieism is an affliction that stands for what Thomas calls “the worst quarter-life crisis ever.” He sees Liv’s journey as the story of what many Gen Y-ers are going through: the curse of the lifelong achiever who arrives in the real world and discovers that it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. “They’ve kept their heads down and done the right things — gone to school, gotten good grades — and then they discover there are no jobs out there for them. Liv is this star student who met the perfect boyfriend, then she looks up at 26, 27 and has all of that taken away from her. She’s a zombie…and now she needs to figure out where she’s going to go from here.”
Thomas had a challenge finding the perfect Liv, but knew he had found what he was looking for when he saw McIver. “I saw about 100 actresses, and Rose was literally the last person I saw,” Thomas recalls. The New Zealand actor (whose past credits include Masters of Sex, The Lovely Bones and Power Rangers R.P.M.) immediately clicked with the script when she read it. “In pilot seasons, I think often you get diluted versions of shows that have worked really well the year previous,” she says. “And suddenly I read this script which…I hadn’t come across anything quite like it. It had its own voice.”
It also had plenty or brains, both figuratively and literally — the latter being Liv’s snack of choice, all of which are made out of a type of coconut gelatin called agar-agar. “My God, I am so sick of gelatin,” McIver says with a laugh. “It was kind of okay to begin with, but [in] every episode I’m eating brains. We have a good laugh about it on set. And we have a great spit bucket.”
It’s likely that a lot of viewers will be coming to iZombie for the creative team behind it — namely, Thomas and his co-producers, who were all also part of Veronica Mars. Fans of the much-loved teen sleuth show will notice that Liv shares some basic DNA with Veronica: a wry sense of humor, a knack for getting to the bottom of things and a traumatic event that changed the course of her life. But Thomas stresses that this isn’t a series that lives or dies over cracking cases. As the show goes on, he says, the story will delve more into what’s behind the undead outbreak. “Early on, I think the balance might skew a bit toward the murder mystery of the week,” he says. “What I think that we discovered, however, is that there’s more fun in the zombie mythology stories. It’s the dessert. And we start giving the audience more dessert as we go along.”
Ultimately, though, he’s most interested in detailing how Liv goes about finding her way in the world — in what kind of quality of life she can have even if she isn’t technically living. “By becoming undead, she ultimately becomes more alive,” Thomas explains. “The zombieism gives her a mission. It has opened up her eyes, it has changed her fundamentally. It has the strange effect of opening up her world in a big way.”