Almost an entire episode of Black Summer, Netflix’s new slow-burn zombie thriller, is about a single character on the run from a single zombie. The entire half hour is brimming with terrifying anxiety. It’s an unusual format but the doggedness of this drama will make it stand out from the horde of TV shows about the undead.
That doesn’t mean it’s for everyone. It caters specifically to fans of the genre who will patiently wait for Season 1 to put together its many puzzle pieces over time while providing sufficient gore as a reward.
It comes at a time when zombies are already dominant on the small screen. Game of Thrones has icy ones, Santa Clarita Diet has humorous ones, and The Walking Dead walkers continue to drone on in their ghastly glory.
Z Nation used to be part of the group but SyFy cancelled it after 5 seasons in 2018. Black Summer is its prequel but shares no other DNA with it. The original was more of a horror comedy whereas this one is pulsating with suspense.
Set on the precipice of the apocalypse, Black Summer doesn’t look to provide a history of what caused it. Each episode is divided into multiple acts that start with a label like “The Heist” or “Follower,” a baseline precursor for what to expect. The only thing we learn about the living survivors is that they’re on the run, trying to reach a stadium where the military is helping them evacuate.
The closest we come to a character backstory is Rose (Jaime King), a headstrong mother who gets separated from her teenage daughter in the chaos. King is very effective in her performance but the standout is Christine Lee as Kyungson, who is desperate to find her mother and escape this nightmare. She is an intelligent woman who only speaks Korean, emotes emphatically, and quickly became my favorite character to root for.
But Black Summer’s doesn’t want to give you too many impactful, benevolent characters. It prefers digging into the roughest parts of the human psyche, the one that knows it’s about the survival of the fittest. Everyone’s morality falls under a gray area as they face off against monsters, both dead and alive.
In one scene, a few people trapped in a diner debate on whether or not one of them should be zombie bait and die while the rest escape. It gets dark.
Don’t expect a high value to be placed on friendships like The Walking Dead often does. This is not a show about finding your community after the world has ended. It’s about how we, as a society, would horribly deal with the apocalypse if it happened right now.
This concept has potential but Black Summer doesn’t fully deliver on it. The characters aren’t well-developed enough for me to care about them if (when) they die. The pacing lags quite often. Plot points are skipped over as a “smart” narrative choice but it comes off as confusing, more so towards the end.
What’s different about it are the zombies. They are surprisingly fast, dangerous, and unlike anything else we’ve seen recently. It’s actually what ups the thrill factor of the show, especially in the aforementioned episode where one of them single-handedly chases Lance (Kelsey Flower) for the entire duration.
But despite some remarkable assets like fantastic camerawork, emphasis on isolating characters as a scare tactic, and a fairly decent cast, Black Summer isn’t ‘instant classic’ material. It doesn’t delve into its own zombie lore nearly enough, giving us tiny morsels of how they came to be or how they might die.
It’s great if all you’re looking for some mildly riveting jump scares and the tension we’ve come to expect from the zombie genre, but if it’s in-depth storytelling you want, this doesn’t make the cut.
Black Summer Season 1 is now streaming on Netflix.