[This is a review of the Dead of Summer season 1 finale. There will be SPOILERS.]
Following in the trend of TV horror series aimed at teens, Dead of Summer put a new spin on the typical camp slasher movie by adding a demonic entity and antagonist dressed up to look like a Final Girl. Created by Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, the duo behind ABC’s Once Upon A Time and Lost, they teamed with former collaborator Ian B. Goldberg for the Freeform-hosted summer camp horror show. The Dead of Summer series premiere introduced viewers to the staff of Camp Stillwater, including its teenaged counselors and mysterious director.
Throughout season 1, Dead of Summer toyed with classic horror and teen movie tropes, culminating in the reveal during the penultimate episode that Amy – played by Elizabeth Lail and positioned as the show’s Final Girl – was actually a sociopath who welcomed the demon of Lake Stillwater into her soul. The twist was justified through flashbacks, which offered viewers a different look at the death of Amy’s friend Margot – one that revealed Amy killed Margot in order to take her place as a camp counselor.
In the season 1 finale, ‘She Talks to Angels’ – written by Kitsis and Horowitz and directed by Steve Miner – Dead of Summer goes full on campy slasher movie as Jessie (Paulina Singer), Garrett (Alberto Frezza), and Alex (Ronen Rubinstein) must run for their lives from an axe-wielding Amy while figuring out how to kill the demon inside her. The resulting episode is a throwback to classic slasher films of the era in which Dead of Summer takes place, the 1980s.
That said, the nostalgia of the time period is perhaps Dead of Summer’s weakest aspect. The Freeform horror series fell on some back luck, airing over the course of a summer TV season that also welcomed the Duffer Brothers’ love letter to the ’80s, the Netflix original Stranger Things. Dead of Summer was light on ’80s nostalgia even from the premiere episode, playing fast and loose with the balance between ’80s-inspired costumes/set dressings and a modern take on the decade – largely falling on the latter side of the line.
While the ’80s influence was certainly felt at times, particularly in Alex’s costume design, Dead of Summer may have benefitted from the showrunners either choosing to fully immerse the show in the decade – as the Duffers did with Stranger Things, including everything from the technology and fashion to the soundtrack for the series – or use a contemporary setting. Since the ’80s setting doesn’t add much to the premise or plot of Dead of Summer, except perhaps to explain why the counselors don’t use cellphones, it only adds confusion to the season, rather than helping the show toy with horror conventions.
Another weak aspect of Dead of Summer is the show’s use of flashbacks. As with Kitsis and Horowitz’s other series, Once Upon A Time, Dead of Summer’s flashbacks moved away from being used to provide important plot and character context, to simply being used as a means to conveniently explain character motivations or plot development that hadn’t previously been established. In the finale, the series moved away from focusing on one character to giving each of the characters a flashback scene that helped to justify their development throughout the season.
Although Dead of Summer may have been planning these twists and turns in the story and characters since the beginning, this particular story structure of only now revealing them to the audience gives the finale a cobbled together feel – as though the writers came up with an interesting twist late in the game and used the flashbacks as a get out of jail free card in order to make it appear that was the plan all along. So, while the flashbacks feeding into the present storyline helped to elevate certain moments in the season finale, particularly Alex’s sacrifice so that Jessie can escape Amy, they also feel somewhat contrived in the overall narrative of the season.
All that said, the Dead of Summer finale gets a lot of mileage out of the fact that the series hasn’t shied away from killing off more than half of its cast. In the finale, both Alex and Garrett are killed by Amy – though it isn’t revealed Garrett died until the end of the finale. Rather, he dies off screen early in the episode, and his spirit returns to help save his friends, pulling off a Sixth Sense-inspired reveal at the end that he had been a ghost for much of the finale.
As the only twist not explained conveniently through the flashbacks, it holds more weight and shock. Garrett subsequently walking into the light/lake and reuniting with his father also provided one of the stronger character moments of the finale, giving the audience genuine relief as one of the heroes was laid to rest. Unfortunately, the other characters killed off throughout the season don’t get the same treatment, and are relegated to background zombies, evil henchmen of the demon inside Amy, who stand around and look scary until Amy is defeated.
Still, the fact that Dead of Summer was willing to kill off much of its main cast – leaving only Jessie, Blair (Mark Indelicato), and Drew (Zelda Williams) alive at the end – gave the finale real stakes. While certain horror TV series have shied away from killing off major characters, it would be difficult to include a mass murderer or slasher without also including their many victims. So, without knowing who would live at the end of Dead of Summer, the finale attempted to fit into the slasher genre and pulled off a decent third act.
All in all, Dead of Summer season 1 provided a fun and sometimes exciting horror series, with teeth about as sharp as you’d expect of a show aimed at teenagers – which is to say, the series provided certain moments of horror (Cricket’s death in particular comes to mind) while not digging too deep into the emotional toll the murders took on the remaining characters. The series will likely entertain its target audience, but isn’t necessarily a must-watch for any other fans of horror or ’80s nostalgia.
It remains to be seen whether Freeform will renew Dead of Summer for a second season, and what that sophomore outing would look like considering the main characters are mostly dead, while those left alive have moved far away from the camp. However, Camp Stillwater seems to have a mind of its own, so a second season could simply introduce an entirely new cast and further explore the supernatural properties of the lake. But, whether a second season is given the green light is ultimately up to the showrunners and Freeform.
We’ll keep you updated on Dead of Summer season 2 as more information becomes available.
Photos: Freeform/Jack Rowand