There is not a lot of variation in the basic rules when dealing with zombies: they have an insatiable appetite for human flesh, and to kill them you have to destroy the brain.
Yet it is a genre that affords endless possibilities for storytellers, which is perhaps why it has so eagerly been embraced in recent years – from The Walking Dead and iZombie to Ash Vs Evil Dead and The Returned, to name but a few.
The latest spin on the idea takes a decidedly upscale approach. Santa Clarita Diet, from Netflix, is set in the sunny, picturesque, middle-class suburbs of the titular California town. Joel (Timothy Olyphant) and Sheila (Drew Barrymore) are husband-and-wife property agents leading vaguely discontented lives until Sheila wakes up one day and says, “I can’t feel my heartbeat”.
This dramatic change sends their lives down a rabbit hole of death and destruction … in the nicest possible way.
Gradually, over the course of 10 half-hour episodes, Joel and Sheila get to grips with her “undead” symptoms, as her primal instincts take over and she develops a craving for human flesh.
“This woman who is undead is really going through a rebirth,” says Barrymore. “She just wakes up and sees things around her that she was blind 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.”
Santa Clarita Diet comes from the mind of Victor Fresco, the showrunner who also created Better Off Ted, a critically acclaimed but ratings-challenged sitcom that ran for two seasons on ABC until 2010, and Andy Richter Controls the Universe, a Fox sitcom that starred Conan O’Brien’s sidekick during his hiatus from the talk show.
TV Guide magazine put the latter on its 2013 list of shows “cancelled too soon”.
“This series started with a question,” says Fresco. “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.”
Olyphant agrees that despite the extreme situation, the show is grounded in the real-life struggles we all face.
“You take out the fact that my wife and I are killing and eating people [and] it feels like a family show. It feels like a show about a marriage and a family, a real teenager with real teenage problems.”
Barrymore, 41, has certainly done her part to preserve the cachet around her revered acting family, which includes her grandfather, John Barrymore, and grand-uncle, Lionel Barrymore, both Hollywood legends.
She got her own acting start as an infant in TV commercials and, at the age of 6 in 1982, was picked by director Steven Spielberg to co-star as Gertie in ET: The Extraterrestrial.
After a slew of child-star roles – including Firestarter, Irreconcilable Differences and Cat’s Eye – she successfully navigated the treacherous path to adult stardom in a diverse range of films, including Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You, The Wedding Singer and Scream, and also started producing her own hits – including Never Been Kissed, Charlie’s Angels and 50 First Dates – through her company, Flower Films.
Olyphant, 48, is best known for his roles as the tightly wound sheriff Seth Bullock in Deadwood, and old-school US marshal Raylan Givens in Justified, the acclaimed FX series based on an Elmore Leonard story. More recently he had a recurring role on The Grinder opposite Rob Lowe, for which he won a Critics Choice Award as Guest Actor on a Comedy Series.
Notable guest stars to look out for in Santa Clarita Diet include Nathan Fillion (Castle, Firefly) and Andy Richter.
“I grew up in, like, the ET world, and we shot in places and landscapes just like Santa Clarita, so for me, it has this very familiar and nostalgic place in my heart,” says Barrymore.
“And it does play a part in our story: everybody lives very close to each other and knows each other’s business.
“The things that are being said in this show … I can’t help it, I just giggle. It’s fun – and it’s just not your normal fun.”
• Santa Clarita Diet will be available on Netflix from February3