Zombie movies — and now, zombie television shows — are as ubiquitous as McDonald’s. And if you’re counting the writing on Fear the Walking Dead, they’re almost as bad for you.
But back in April, Netflix quietly released Black Summer, a stellar new zombie series from the creators of Z Nation, which just so happens to be another zombie apocalypse show. Z Nation initially aired on Syfy though can now be found on Netflix as well. (The credits state that Black Summer is based on Z Nation, though I went in to Black Summer unencumbered by not knowing anything of the Syfy origins.)
Black Summer stands above the rising heap. It creates something that all of the Walking Deads and many recent horror films wish that they had: a true, ulcer-inducing sense of dread.
Each episode opens with a title card, cards which continue to appear throughout in order to divide the rest of the episode into vignettes; these scenes last fifteen minutes at the most and contribute heavily to the fast pace. By the end of an episode, you’ll feel as out of breath as the characters. The chapter titles, if you will, offer only the vaguest of descriptions of what will take place. In one instance, the word “Dog” appears in an episode where K9 is on the screen for mere seconds. Each of these vignettes ends with a dark, blank screen, and perhaps more jarring is when each episode just cuts to black as an ending. It takes several seconds before any credits roll, leaving viewers to sit in shock and try to process what they’ve just witnessed.
As if the short — often unresolved — survivor vignettes aren’t discombobulating enough, Black Summer does another thing well: it successfully creates environment that feels realistic for the story it’s telling. Anything not needed to propel the plot is stripped away. (Most episodes are finished in under forty minutes.) This isn’t a show where characters sit and talk. As in what I can only assume is true apocalyptic fashion, people are running for their lives. There’s no melodrama as one sees in The Walking Dead and no action heroics as one may find in movies like World War Z.
The first episode of Black Summer opens with a mother being separated from her preteen daughter, who manages to board the military truck ostensibly bound for safety but is gone from her mom. It’s one of a parent’s worst nightmares. The tension builds exponentially from that opening point. The series feels a lot more like a metaphor for catastrophic disasters as a whole than any sort of monster movie and it’s there that the show excels. Like true calamities, the zombies here aren’t avoided: they run — not walk — with speed and only look different from anyone else up close. (They do still have a classic zombie sound, though, for the purists out there.) If you run away, they’re already running. If you lollygag, they turn instantly. If you climb a fence, the undead very well may follow. If you jump on a car, that’s as bad as falling. If you have a gun, you’d better be a good shot. In some instances, a bullet to the head doesn’t fully stop them. One of the more haunting scenes in the first episode is when a little, old lady is attacked; as all others, she quickly changes to zombie, yet now starts running with the vigor of a spry child. Of course, the living marauders are just as dangerous. People losing humanity and behaving inhumane for the sake of survival plays here as more of a realistic touch rather than dramatic flair.
Black Summer is fraught with tension and intensity, from it’s simplified plot to the frenetic, handheld camerawork that finds the point of view spinning around the room from character to character to push the grounded feeling deeper. The long tracking shots do nothing for the audience holding their breath too long.
All of the characters are well played by actors who will be more familiar in years to come. Nothing from them, though in an exaggerated world, felt overdone. My particular favorite was “Spears,” played by Justin Chu Cary, who reminded me of a younger Mahersahala Ali with his onscreen poise.
None of this is original, of course. The show owes a large amount to Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, particularly the look of the monsters. But you may want to dispense of any notions of the zombie fluff that’s become standard: this show feels as much Black Mirror (especially their episode “Metalhead”) as much as it does Dawn of the Dead.
It’s easy to binge this one and even seems particularly best that way, but be forewarned: you’ll need some time to catch your breath.