Black Summer, a brief and lean zombie-apocalypse series that surfaced on Netflix earlier this year, might have passed almost unnoticed into the great morass of streaming back-catalogue if it hadn’t been for the plaudits delivered on Twitter by Stephen King.
“Existential hell in the suburbs, stripped to the bone,” he called it, and justifiably: Black Summer is about as far from the overwrought affectations of The Walking Dead (with its characters perpetually wallowing in that strange mixture of self-pity and self-congratulation) as you can imagine. “No long, fraught discussions. No endless flashbacks, because there’s no back story,” as King observed.
It is rather far from King’s own style, too. The characters are not just ordinary but almost bland, seemingly only sketched by the scriptwriters, with the actors left to fill in their humanity; and although space and distance are fundamental to the show’s power, there is little sense of place as such. If the people are everyman, the location is anywhere.
Set in the early weeks after the appearance of zombies, Black Summer eschews the picturesque, weed-infested collapsed-civilisation aesthetic of many such shows. It was mostly shot in Calgary, a large but nondescript city in western Canada (I am allowed to call Calgary nondescript because I grew up in Edmonton, its arch-rival to the north), and its very first images give us a taste of the atmosphere to come: as a government warning siren sounds in the background, we see uncomplicated, unfussy shots of an ordinary residential street on a bright day, deserted and so still that they might as well be photos.
This is the real horror in Black Summer: the fact that the streets which should be full of dog walkers and suburbanites’ cars and kids on bikes, which should be accompanied by TVs heard from windows and shouts heard from back yards, are so empty and silent. The fast-moving zombies are well thought-out and unnerving, but they are not Black Summer’s focus. What is truly disturbing to its characters, and therefore to us, is the utter up-ending of normalcy, the way that everything which provided security is so suddenly gone, just like that.
It is not far, perhaps, from the bleak horror toward the end of Frank Darabont’s King adaptation The Mist, when Thomas Jane’s protagonist accepts that the monsters have won, and the survivors are doomed. It is certainly a good deal more genuinely chilling than any number of leering, hammed-up sadistic supervillains.
From those empty streets, Black Summer (which comes from many of the same people as Z Nation but has nothing else in common with that show) takes us through eight episodes — each divided into several, individually titled acts — that track a small number of survivors, notably a mother separated from her daughter and a criminal posing as a soldier.
These recurring characters, and their quest for a stadium where (supposedly) the authorities have established a safe haven, give shape to the series. But it is not afraid to leave them for a while, or to dawdle along the way, sometimes reflectively, sometimes in action sequences of great tension.
Two of the most effective passages in the series, for example, are sidelines like this. In one of these, a character is trapped briefly on top of a school bus by a pursuing zombie; this is gripping, with a real feeling of peril (something that’s much enhanced in Black Summer by the way that none of the ensemble cast is an obviously unkillable star).
In another, the same character encounters a dog, and tries to persuade it to stay with him. The guy is lonely (yes, that happens during zombie apocalypses too), and it’s desperately poignant.
These quieter moments — and there are many of them — along with the sparse, naturalistic dialogue make the action sequences all the more impactful when they do erupt, often filmed in handheld style with unremitting motion and urgency. But they are never large-scale, in terms of people or geography: Black Summer conveys much better than most works in the post-apoc genre just how small and vulnerable the survivor groups are, and how moving even short distances can be fraught with danger.
And in many of its best set-pieces, notably one in a school (episode 3, with Lord of the Flies overtones) and another in a diner (episode 5, perhaps the highlight of the series), it makes outstanding use of confined locations, too. The sense of being trapped by a few walls, as much as the daunting empty world beyond, conveys the impotence of the survivors.
Underlining all this is a fine score from the prolific but little-known Alan Puro. Often there is silence, often Puro provides no more than a hint of sound, but it escalates to a noisy, formless intensity at crucial points, as uneasy and uncomfortable as the characters’ new environment. Smart and subtle touches — for example slight hints of vocalisation, or the way that the music almost blends with the zombies’ moans for a moment — add to the eeriness.
Just as the score is expressive without being explicit, and the action-led sequences are full-on without being melodramatic, Black Summer is not, as King noted, big on grand speeches. Dialogue is limited and mostly functional; indeed, one main character can barely speak English, while another is deaf.
Most of the time, they’re too scared to wax eloquent, yet this — coupled with consistently fine performances — makes them all the more believable. Even if we can never deeply identify with them as individuals, we can imagine ourselves in their plight, and it’s not pleasant. But it is compelling, haunting, and human.
This review first appeared in print in Phantasmagoria magazine.