I know, I know. As if you didn’t have enough on your plate, with the Raptors, the Women’s World Cup and a substantial batch of new and returning series arriving in June. And here I am suggesting another must-see series.
But, heed me here. This one’s a startlingly different kind of horror series. It isn’t so much summer fun as it is a daring dose of the shivers. And meaningful, too.
Black Summer (now streaming on Netflix) is an unheralded little masterpiece of the zombie-apocalypse genre. Don’t be put off by “zombie apocalypse.” This is not like The Walking Dead or any of its spin offs. It’s formally brilliant, politically loaded, terse and terrifying. No less than Stephen King recently took to Twitter to point to it and called it, “Existential hell in the suburbs, stripped to the bone.”
It is all that. The stripped-to-the-bone element is one reason why it’s breathtaking. Some episodes are 20 minutes long. Others come in at about 45 minutes. Dialogue is often sparse and the pacing is relentless, often using hand-held cameras to speed up the scenes. Sometimes, more is said in the title-cards that describe episodes and sequences than in the full drama that unfolds.
The series (created by Karl Schaefer, who was also did Z Nation), immediately thrusts you into the bland suburbs of the United States just after a zombie apocalypse has struck. The streets are mostly empty and frightening in their deserted blankness. The army is rounding people up, but in a panicky way, promising to take survivors to a stadium where they will be safe. We meet a mom, dad and their little girl. What happens to dad is best left unsaid. Mom Rose (Jaime King) is separated from her daughter. She sets out to get to the stadium and find her. That’s the plot.
On her journey, she encounters various people, some afraid and dangerous, some brave but menacing. The series continually shifts from one group of characters to another. Sometimes, they intersect later, and sometimes they disappear. Don’t start to like anyone on this series, is my advice. To some viewers, accustomed to more formulaic TV storytelling, the terseness is frustrating. Others will savour the sheer panache of telling a genre story in a different way. One episode simply has one guy being chased by one zombie. Barely a word is spoken. One character who recurs, Kyungsun (Christine Lee) is Korean, speaks almost no English and her dialogue in Korean isn’t subtitled.
A standout aspect is how the zombies are presented. These are not the shuffling, staggering-along critters of The Walking Dead and other productions. Once these monsters turn zombie, they turn angry. You have never seen such focused rage. And they are fast, too, speedily chasing a victim with fierce intensity. Given the permission through the infection, they are unhinged in their hostility.
It’s here, I think, the series takes on a larger meaning. While Stephen King talks “Existential hell in the suburbs” it’s also possible to see these monsters as emanations of Donald Trump’s America. They are angry people. They are, for the most part, rather ordinary figures before they are infected. Then they become enraged and exist as pure fury. They are Trump’s base.
And for all the sharp pacing and speed of the action, there is also a subtle meditation going on, perhaps, on the role of the military in American society, on fear of foreigners and on the matter of misogyny. The latter is at the core of one stunning episode in which Rose is trapped in a place where women are preyed upon relentlessly.
Unlike The Walking Dead, which exists as a continuing series of attempts by survivors to establish a civilized society in the face of surrounding horror and the breakdown of normalcy, Black Summer suggests civility is impossible. It’s one narrow escape after another and few people can be trusted. Even fewer are worth trusting. It has the feel of a novel, something like Cormac McCarthy’s postapocalyptic story The Road, but without the tenderness of that novel.
You want chills and no-nonsense storytelling, plus something to think about, you’ve got it in Black Summer. I know, I know. But, you’re welcome.