The cannibal next door: The Santa Clarita Diet (Fresco, 2017)

OK, last week’s cannibal film blog, Dahmer, was a bit grim (even if we didn’t see anyone eat anyone, for a change), so this week something witty and clever, and with lots of people-eating.

I’ve watched 20 episodes now of the Netflix series Santa Clarita Diet, and I’m still wondering: is this even a cannibalism show? Without risking too many spoilers, the protagonist, Sheila (the wonderful Drew Barrymore) is undead, what we sometimes (but never in this show) call a “zombie”. But she’s not the type that shuffles about, rotting bits falling off of her (well, maybe a few) and drooling for brains. She is sweet, witty, strong, loving and over-sexed. And dead. Sorry, undead.

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She just seems so human. Presently human, not just formerly, decrepit, rotting human. I guess there’s room in cannibal studies for the undead human people-eater?

Sheila and husband Joel (Timothy Olyphant) are realtors, living the perfect suburban life-style in sunny Santa Clarita, Los Angeles County. The American Dream becomes more dream-like when Sheila is showing a house to a prospective buyer, but ruins the sale by expelling copious amounts (we’re talking gallons) of vomit on the perfect bedroom carpet, together with a small object that might be her life force or soul or something (later it grows legs, so maybe not a soul). She realises that night that, while she is feeling just fine and dandy, she no longer has a pulse.

And then she gets hungry, and it’s a diet that could only be zombie, or perhaps broadminded paleo. No carbs, just meat. And only one species will do. But, like Hannibal, she will only eat bad people – rude, abusive, Nazis, etc. Can they find a cure? Does Sheila want to?

Don’t you want to be cured?

Of course I do. Although, I do like the way I feel. I have endless energy, and I sleep two hours a night. I get so much done.

You eat people!

I know, it’s just that I’m so much more confident now. And our sex is incredible… And I can parallel park in one move now.

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The dialogue is sparkling and very funny. I can imagine the hilarity in the writers’ room when they were putting all this together. Lines like:

We have to kill someone who won’t be missed. Someone without a family. And someone bad, who deserves it… the prototype would be a young, single Hitler.

I’m feeling a little low energy. Maybe I need to eat people with more iron in their diet.

She gets this look in her eye. The next thing you know, she’s yanking intestines out of these guys, like a magician pulling out scarves! The other day I came home and my kitchen looked like someone shot a person out of a confetti gun. There was a dick in my fruit bowl. The next morning I’m eating oatmeal at the same counter like my life is Leave it to Fucking Beaver!

Inside a shark

Here’s the thing: it’s very funny, and the characters are sympathetic and honest. Barrymore and Oliphant are brilliant, and so is their daughter, Abby (Liv Hewson) and her friend Eric (Skyler Gisondo), the nerd next door who understands both the science and the occult aspects of the problem.

santa-clarita-diet-season-Abby and Eric

I’m asking because last night you saw your mom and dad scrape a half-eaten dead guy into a grave.

Please. I once walked in on my grandparents changing in a cabana. That was intense.

Yes, lots of gore (also vomit in episode 1) but in so much surfeit that it is cheerfully fake. The manicured lawns and perfect houses feel even faker – this is the Stepford Wives gone feral. The neighbours suspect nothing, even when Sheila eats one of them.

If you’re wondering how cannibal movies prepare the flesh, the special effects designer said in an interview:

Drew Barrymore is essentially a vegetarian, so a lot of the methods that we might have used traditionally — sushi, tuna coated with fake blood or ground meat or turkey meat or anything like that — was an absolute no. So we had to find other resources. One of the resources that we went to was gummy bears.

And this is the heart of the Santa Clarita Diet. For one thing, it celebrates the resurgence of the monstrous feminine cannibal. From Sheila, to Justine in Raw, and Melanie in The Girl With All The Gifts, and even the Cannibal Women of the Avocado Jungle of Death, we see women cannibals emerge from their niches in myth and fairy tale to stand their ground, glorying in their power. Sheila says she hunts when she feels “a tingle in her vagina” and tells Joel all about the orgasm she enjoyed while eating a human liver.

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She so did not eat this heart sandwich. It’s a strictly no-carb diet

It’s also a biting commentary on the stories we tell about appetite and about power. Sheila believes she is a good person, who is strong enough to hunt anyone she chooses, and to eat whatever or whoever she feels she needs or wants. And isn’t that the story of every carnivore?

The only things I believe in enough to crochet on a pillow are “I’m winging it” and “all races taste the same.”

 

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