At least all he could stand of it…
Netflix’s series “Black Summer (2019)” feels like a film school project, which, if you looked at it in that light, made its flaws and annoying tendencies completely acceptable. And if I were viewing it in that light, I would be kinder. As a student film, I would have more empathy with the challenges of creating this series and understand why certain decisions were made regarding the tone and tenor. But, if you are on Netflix, I like to think a movie producer, of which this film has eight, would be a bit above the “I filmed this on my iPhone” crowd and expect them to have hired someone who could write and direct. While the direction isn’t terrible, the script is. Alas, Black Summer does NOT deliver the zombie chills I signed up for.
Written and produced by the creators of Z Nation (2014-2019), a tongue-in-cheek drama/comedy/zombie/post-apocalypse series which just ended its five season run on SyFy, Karl Schaefer and Craig Engler. Z Nation and Dark Summer were both produced by The Asylum.
Unfortunately, while Black Summer may share some of the DNA of Z Nation, it has none of the characterizations, nor over-the-top storytelling. It feels more like an attempt to tell a more realistic depiction of a zombie apocalypse on what appears to be a strict budget. Created by John Hyams and Karl Schaefer, with other writers including Craig Engler, Daniel Schaefer, Delondra Williams, and Abram Cox, Black Summer never manages to generate any heat, nor convince me to care about any of its participants or about the apocalypse in general.
I came to “Black Summer” via an ad which said it was a “gripping tale of the zombie apocalypse.” I thought to myself, “yeah, another zombie show where people will do stupid things, run away from zombies, die horribly and generally waste my time.” Sigh. Then I think: “But if I don’t watch one episode, I am just another hater who won’t give new things a chance.”
So I did.
The first episode wasn’t terrible. In fact, the initial premise was intriguing. A series of events which, told out of sequence, made for an interesting means of collecting our protagonists. We open on an evacuation of a small town in the middle of suburbia, people running to an evac point with one bag on their back, no luggage – a bit curious because no one drove.
No zombies are seen but the people seem uniformly freaked out. They have a good herd formation with everyone pulling each other along. Fear. Good, good. We even learn they left old people who couldn’t run behind. Nice touch, I think to myself. They reach the checkpoint and then a sequence of events begin which establishes the only good premise I could see in this entire three episodes.
The established protagonists could die at any time. Don’t get attached. Okay. I am ready now. Kinda psyched, even.
As is the common practice these days, we never learn of the source of the infection, or why people are coming back to life. Not a complaint, we have grown used to this since The Walking Dead so in this way, it establishes what has become a standard trope of the track-star zombie. We meet a bunch of people along the way and we learn that Humans appear to be completely crazy six weeks after a zombie apocalypse which has what I dubbed “track star zombies” – zombies who run, rather than stagger along hoping to bump into some terrified Humans who can’t manage to run away from them ala 28 Days Later; Zombies who reanimate or transform the living in under a minute after death, no matter how you die ala World War Z. Stakes raised; fast Zombies, fast transformation, high transfer rate. Oh boy, this should be good.
The best part of the series, thus far, is now over.
Having pinched a bit of zombie lore from across the last two decades, you have to wonder why the story slows down so much. It bogs down with lots of unnecessary shaky-cam, and the camera work becomes less interesting. In my mind, they had been doing so well up until this moment, keeping the atmosphere by not having much, if any background music, and keeping us distracted by switching the point-of-view and clearly demarcations between characters.
However, at this point the character IQ’s plunge and they begin to engage in “get the f— outta here … no one is going to be THAT stupid” kind of moments. By the time we meet the Lost Boys in the third episode, I was done with it. It’s the end of the world. It’s every man for himself. People are eating other people. Dead people are eating other people. How much has to go wrong before you realize you’re no longer in Kansas?
Between the bouncing camera (which we are not given any indication as to why it was necessary, this wasn’t a lost footage kind of story so it’s just distracting) and the stupid behavior of the characters, I just figured it wasn’t worth the effort.
Let’s keep it real: One of my main complaints is, in the first three episodes, outside of Spears (not his real name) no one ever picks up a weapon. We establish the premise as something unspeakable happens. Something so terrible no one even names it. You know something is wrong enough to consider leaving town during a military evacuation. Yet you don’t arm yourself at all. No bats. No machetes, no golf clubs. Sigh. Why don’t they just wear a sign for the zombies: “Slow food. Eat here.”
You counter with: They were told (off-camera) to not carry weapons to the evac points. But if you know there are man-attacking zombies running people down in the streets, are you going to listen to the authorities? No. You will be carrying whatever weapon you can cobble together. Remember, they have had six weeks of this going on, surely there were news broadcasts and the like before people started sheltering in place.
And yes, you will be leaving your weapon behind once you reach the checkpoint, but so what? In between your house and the evac point there was quite a run. There should have been a pile of weapons there being left behind. To make matters worse, we never see a zombie horde in the first three episodes. They must be saving on makeup since we never see more than one or two zombies at a time. Get a stick, make a spear. What happened to Human innovation? It’s sickening. All of these people are sheep and deserve to get eaten. Not the stance you want to take as a viewer of a disaster of these proportions.
After the third episode I was disgusted with the complete lack of sense evinced by nearly every character in this series. I could tell who was going to be important by the amount of nonsense spouted by the characters and how often they escaped improbably circumstances brought on by their lack of functioning cognitive capacity.
I admit to not recognizing ANY of the primary actors except at an intuitive level. Two of the presumed leads (based solely upon the cheesiness of their lines and screen time) Jaime King (Rose) hadn’t been seen since 2009 in My Bloody Valentine and Justin Chu Cary (Spears) had been in a number of movies and series I hadn’t seen including Blindspotting (2018) and the TV series SWAT (2018).
I can admit to recognizing Sal Velez Jr. from his appearance in the television series Zoo back in 2016. All of the other faces were relatively new talent, including Christine Lee, (Kyungsun) who spoke only Korean, yet managed to have the most emotional delivery of the entire crew. I happened to enjoy
Gwynyth Walsh as Barbara before her untimely (but completely avoidable) demise. Kelsey Flower (Lance) delivers the best nervous breakdown of the crew as he comes to grip with the reality of being prey in the new world order.
But you only watched 3 episodes…
Or so my wife chides me. I consider going back but there are probably a half a dozen things I can do before wasting another 40 minutes on the next episode. I can say the first two episodes were a strong start, but by the third, the middle story sag had already set in. Maybe it finishes strong but I doubt it. I don’t like any of the characters and I can’t abide a zombie story where the only thing the characters do is RUN as if they had never even considered a zombie apocalypse in the story-telling world.
While we are at it, what the hell happened to the idea of shooting them in the head? I thought it was pretty much an established trope that everyone knows. See a zombie, aim for the head. Spears wastes ten bullets before he took down one zombie. He deserves to be eaten as quickly as the law will allow. Bullets are at a premium in the apocalypse, along with medical care. Yet these characters appeared to do everything in their power to lower their chances for survival.
Nope. Now that I think about it. I am DONE. Only watch Black Summer if you don’t have anything you would rather be doing, like having your teeth cleaned or listening to nails dragged across a chalkboard or watching paint dry. Those would be preferable to this scattered but well-meaning mess. Trust me. I made it to the end of episode three. I just couldn’t stand any more.
I charitably rate it a 3 out of 10 on the Answer-Meter. Yes, they got someone to green-light it. They found actors willing to participate in it, but they forgot to hire anyone who could write believable responses to the end of the world as we know it.
Rumor has it that it will get better right before it ends. I hear dying’s just like that, too. My wife will probably want to watch at least two more to be sure. If she says anything noteworthy, I will add my rebuttal in the comments.
Thaddeus Howze is an award-winning writer, editor, podcaster and activist creating speculative fiction, scientific, political and cultural commentary from his office in Hayward, California.
Thaddeus’ speculative fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary journals. He has published two books, ‘Hayward’s Reach’ (2011), a collection of short stories and ‘Broken Glass’ (2013) an urban fantasy novella starring his favorite paranormal investigator, Clifford Engram.