The new zombie television drama on Netflix, Black Summer, is a cornucopia of overused tropes combined into a contrived terror porn concocted for violence junkies.
As a fan of Z-Nation, well a superfan really, I was distraught at the show’s cancellation. My only consolation was the promise of a prequel series, which even though we were informed would be very different, still seemed like something to staunch the flow of tears shed knowing that 10K would never get to 10K. After an intense binge watch all I can say is – UGH!
Black Summer is flat and lifeless in almost every sense. Even the visual style that worked so well for Z-Nation, that washed out bluey look, just made Black Summer as visually unappealing as its plot, characters and motivations. Filming in the washed out sunlight of Canada’s northern latitudes probably did not help, either. Neither did the sound design or score do anything to make it stand out or give it some aesthetic and emotional texture. It is not that it looks and sounds bad, but that it is merely serviceable, and I prefer bad-because-of-budget-constraints over merely-mediocre on pretty much any given day.
Comparisons to Tarantino, due to the gratuitous overuse of violence combined with a thin plot, are apt. Even more so, the comparisons to Netflix’s Bird Box are spot on. The timing and pace and constant sense of dreaded urgency are nearly identical. However it might have taken a cue from either aforementioned styles by breaking up the ultra-linear plot to develop the characters and their world. Instead it reduces everything it borrows down to its most superficial essence – tension and violence.
The characters are two dimensional. They are the NPCs of zombie cinema. The only facet of the characters that seems to have underwent any development is their particular kind of impulsiveness. We see what they do when backed into a corner by horrific circumstances, but we have almost no idea who they were before this, (besides generic roles like job, parent, etc.), and we are given zero information to make them appear as real people rather than conveniently empty plot devices.
As for motivation, it comes down to ‘family’ and ‘survive’, the two most overused motivations, not just in zombie media, but in media in general. Morality and ethics are only explored in the most shallow sense, seemingly just to cue us into who is Good and who is Bad. Black Summer takes place in a black and white world with the complexity of cartoons made for 2nd graders.
The plot is centered around the most embarrassing cliche of all – the unbreakable bond between mother and child, and a mom who will do whatever it takes. Snore. Out. Loud. Zombies for mombies. Demographically, I guess, it is easy to appeal to a majority of viewers with this sort of platitudinous parenthood pandering, but it has been done so many times that feels forced and contrived. And the SURVIVE-AT-ALL-COSTS theme is not just overspent, it contributes to one of the most pervasive and destructive attitudes of modern westerners.
Forced and contrived pretty much sums it up. Black Summer is like a product, not of the imagination, but of marketing experts who did exhaustive research in order to stack tropes for maximum return on their investment. It is masturbatory violence that leaves you feeling anxious, and eventually, just tired. Terror for its own sake.
Not since the torture porn of the 2000s have I been so disappointed by a work of cinematic horror, and I dislike Black Summer for almost the exact same reasons. Where once the zombie trope was a vehicle for exploring deeper issues about our humanity and environment, Black Summer empties it of all complexity and depth in order to force you into emotional discomfort. The masochistic viewer will find plenty of entertainment value in its superficial torment, but if you require any kind of substance, do yourself a favor and skip this one.