The best part of any zombie story — film, television, book, etc. — is always the early days of a breakout. When the world is caught in that chaotic space between normalcy and its eventual end. It’s often terrifying in its familiarity and the ease with which it demonstrates the apparent fragility of human existence. Whether it’s Night of the Living Dead, The Walking Dead, or Shaun of the Dead, the escalation from bizarre occurrence to dreadful realization to total pandemonium is paramount to what makes the horror of these stories universal; it capitalizes on the understanding that everything could end horribly in a moment’s notice.
That’s the concept of Netflix’s Black Summer, a white-knuckle horror-drama set at the beginning of a zombie outbreak. The story follows a group of disparate and desperate characters struggling to come to grips with the reality of their situation, while also struggling to survive their increasingly violent circumstances, as society and the rule of law crumbles around them in real time.
Black Summer stars Jaime King as Rose, a mother separated from her daughter while attempting to seek shelter with the military. Things go horribly wrong for her, her child, and her husband in the blink of an eye, leaving Rose to fend for herself and, eventually, place her trust in a stranger, Spears (Justin Chu Cary), a man with plenty to hide. Though King is the biggest star attached to the series, Rose is part of a much larger ensemble and her story is but one piece of a multi-pronged narrative in which smaller stories intersect with or overlap one another in ways that gives the audience a comprehensive view of a town (and, presumably, society as a whole) collapsing as a result of a terrifying outbreak.
The series hails from Z Nation producers The Asylum, making it easy to think of Black Summer as a prequel to SYFY’s offbeat and recently canceled zombie series. Tonally speaking, Netfilx’s new series bears little resemblance to its ostensible predecessor, as director John Hyams presents this story as a more somber, deliberately harsh illustration of how the world might come to an end. With its steely blue color palette, relentless pace, and cynical view of humanity on the brink of collapse, Black Summer has more in common with Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead than it does the often bizarre cable channel zombie show to which it’s technically related.
Black Summer’s greatest strength is its structure. The pilot episode spends nearly 60 full minutes introducing the main cast of characters, a random selection of frightened, mostly suburban dwellers with little or no training to survive the situation in which they find themselves. The hour is comprised of a series of short segments, each devoted to a particular character, beginning with Rose. From there, the hour introduces Spears, Lance (Kelsey Flower), Kyungson (Christine Lee), Barbara (Gwynyth Walsh), and many more. The introductions are remarkably spare in detail, foregoing the usual backstory or explanation of an individual’s circumstances. The approach works, in that the aim of Black Summer is to start off with its foot firmly pressing down not the gas pedal and to not let up through its eight-episode run.
The mileage most viewers will get out of such relentlessness may vary, as although the episodic structure and pacing of the series helps it to stand out — especially when compared to the likes The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead — Black Summer soon walks well-trodden genre territory with its depiction of the violence the living inflict upon one another. To counteract the familiarity of that survival-of-the-fittest scenario, the series attempts to up the ante, so to speak. That leads to the inevitable run-in with gun-toting survivalists drunk on their own power preying on the weak, or at least the less well equipped. The second episode features a lengthy sequence in which a trio of survivors in a minivan are pursued through the streets of a suburban neighborhood by a black pickup truck (pro tip: pickup trucks in these situations are almost always shorthand for aggressive a**holes looking for a fight). The confrontation goes on much longer than expected, and is told exclusively from the point of view of the three frightened individuals in the minivan.
The distance the show takes from the perpetrators in question gives them an almost inhuman quality, one that exacerbates the tension of the road battle and underlines the rapid decline of civilization. But it also sheds too little light on the characters the audience is expected to form an emotional connection with. The outcome of the suburban Mad Max showdown makes it clear that Black Summer fully buys into the idea that in order for a zombie story have stakes (you know, beyond the whole end of the world thing) any character must be able to die at any time. This is, again, a common trope among such shows, and while it keeps the audience on their toes, it underlines the degree to which every character introduced is really just fodder for the narrative’s bloody, gaping maw.
Nevertheless, Black Summer succeeds in delivering a relentlessly paced zombie drama that never stays in one place long enough for things to get stale. That’s helped by the fact that the season is only eight episodes, which is probably longer than it needs to be, but still doesn’t feel like its overstaying its welcome. For those who still can’t get enough of zombie outbreaks, Black Summer will be a fulfilling binge.
Black Summer season 1 streams exclusively on Netflix starting Thursday, April 11.