Tonally opposite of the TV series it was initially designed to be a prequel for, Netflix’s Black Summer is a charged, immersive and shocking trek through the frenzied beginnings of a rabid zombie apocalypse. Created by Karl Schaefer and director John Hyams, as a companion series for Syfy’s tongue-in-cheek Z Nation, Black Summer plays nothing for laughs. It’s bare bones and brutal. It’s no-frills zombie carnage, taking the most harrowing elements of the genre and executing them superbly.
One could argue there’s an inherent emptiness to zombie survival – Black Summer is all about survival and not much else, but the series’ commitment to frantic unsentimental chaos combined with a chef’s kiss of twisty, turny audience contempt makes this one of the most intense rides you’ll ever experience.
There’ve been a lot of firsts, and upgrades, in undead horror. From its masterful genesis under George Romero to its level-ups under Zack Snyder and Danny Boyle to the deep dramatic dive of The Walking Dead, the zombie genre has maintained an impressive climb in quality and/or variety. Black Summer takes all of this, cherry picks some of the most harrowing elements and then drops you in the eye of the hurricane. Director John Hyams executes a ton of impressive “oners,” including one that kicks off the series and lasts a good six or seven minutes, in an attempt to make you feel like part of the scared swarm of survivors trying to scatter to safety.
Watching Black Summer is probably the closest you’ll get to seeing a Telltale game unspool as a TV series. In fact, its structuring is a lot like the 400 Days DLC. While Jaime King is the most notable name on the series, it’s hard to pinpoint her as the “star.” It’s an ensemble with unpredictable drop-offs. The episodes run anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes and are broken up into smaller titled chapters, which themselves can run anywhere from one to 10 minutes. Some focus on a single character, others a single predicament, others a location. Nothing is ever what it seems and no one is ever as important as you think.
Characters who you meet at the outset might not last long. And then secondary characters within those first characters’ story might carry on as the new focus. Needless to say, the band of warriors you wind up with at the end is a far cry from who you might have placed bets on in the first few episodes. And no one gets a hero’s demise. No one goes out on top. Major characters get dispatched quickly, almost in an “if you look at your phone for a few seconds, you’ll look up and wonder where someone went” kind of way. Again, this is all done to bring a desperate realness to the crucible, creating an unnerving and unsettling experience.
Regarding the “type” of zombies we’re dealing with here, these bastards are tough-as-nails. Tenacious, fast-running, juggernauts who can learn – given enough time – to get to where you are. And the specific virus involved makes it so people turn instantaneously. So when someone dies – bam! – they twitch a few times, and you’re toast. It makes for some really interesting scenarios. One chapter, in particular, involves a character named Lance (Kelsey Flower) trying to evade the same damn zombie for approximately 15 minutes of real time.
Speaking of Lance, you’ll meet a bunch of memorable characters here – one standout being Christine Lee’s Sun. In fact, with Sun, Black Summer adds on the layered terror of being in a zombie virus breakout and not being able to communicate with others, as Sun only speaks Korean. We also experience this in a similar-but-different manner with Ryan (Mustafa Alabssi), a hearing-impaired character. And then there’s the aforementioned Lance as, basically, a shlubby coward who represents all of us at our weakest. But also the kind of guy who’ll usually survive somehow because he’s operating on a supremely potent “me first” wavelength.
Black Summer is cruel, but never in a way that pushes you out of the story. We’re in the throes of single-mindedness here. Survival and family. Narratively, nothing is guaranteed. It’s as if the show’s side-eyeing The Walking Dead a bit, asking “Hey, what if Rick Grimes never found his wife and son?” It’s not cinema vérité, but it does take the world falling apart at face value. Black Summer is cold-blooded, but also beautiful, and kind of honest in its ferocity.
Black Summer may be about nothing but a few people trying to survive a few days in a zombie hellscape, but its immersive and unnerving Short Cuts-meets-Telltale style creates a palpable playground of snap decisions, moral quandaries, and desperate feral instinct.