FULL BLEED: THIS AIN'T NO FOOLIN' AROUND
Spoilers for BLACK SUMMER follow, though they're pretty oblique.
EDIT - And since I call out the cinematography and lighting, lemme credit where it's due. Yaron Levy and Spiro Grant were responsible for the cinematography, Yaron Levy the lighting. I'll get this right sooner or later.
If you've known me for any length of time, you have probably figured out that I'm a sucker for zombie movies. I've watched, well, a lot of qualitatively bad movies in my time, hoping that there's a flash of something new or a composition or a shot or even writing that injects some new life into shabby walking corpses. I'm the guy who can see something interesting in RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD III, for crying out loud (though it is...uh...problematic at its incept, to say the least.) WORLD WAR Z was nice in that it inverted things and went from the global to the personal at the end, even if it ended up bearing little resemblance to Brooks' structure, and it was nicely shot (which is not a given these days.)
Zombie TV, a lot less so. My issues with THE WALKING DEAD are legion. The first episode, however, remains a stand-out in the genre, at least until he gets to the department store full of people yelling at one another. But I watched several seasons because what else are you gonna do when you're on the elliptical. FEAR, I watched out of misplaced duty to a story idea I had (which would draw inevitable comparisons.) I shouldn't have. Once it got past initial days of outbreak, it became tedious and a replication of everything I disliked in its parent show. Z NATION is okay, but I'm rarely in the mood for it. It's just there. I know, sorry folks. You work hard on the show and everything, but it's not my cup of tea.
I am, however, a pretty big fan of John Hyams. His UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING was a bone-breaking and sparse reimagining of the physical action spectacle. Throw in a healthy dose of PKD in the storyline and it was a goddamn delightful surprise. Which led to heightened expectations for BLACK SUMMER. I was going to see it anyways, given my weakness for zombie visual entertainments, but this was a kicker.
I'll be honest. The first couple of episodes of the show were a disappointment. Not in quality or atmosphere. Those both delivered in a way that TWD has honestly forgotten how to, depending solely on viewer investment at this point. BLACK SUMMER sweeps all that away, dropping you into the collapse immediately, without explanation or backstory or anything. We see only what we're shown of these characters, sometimes given conflicting backstory, sometimes misled by other character's reactions or intimations. The cinematography was lean and did a great job in making familiar landscapes alien and threatening. (More on that later.) The writing was taut and I figure that you were either into it or not (and a number of correspondents I chat with weren't.)
My disappointment, for lack of a better word, stemmed from running straight into the arms of zombie cliche, of the instant apocalypse. Ultimately it presented a world where survival was the only goal and the only sin was to fail in that effort. Okay, perhaps overstating it, but you get the picture. I had hoped for more, some carving out of a different psychic space or illumination beyond nasty, mean, brutish and short. Part of this is a choice to start things at perhaps the moment that things really fall apart (when for me, it's the time before then that's where the money melon is to be found: how things stress-fracture and unravel before snapping straight to LORD OF THE FLIES.) It's not my business to tell Mr. Hyams what to do. (The only person that can possibly apply to is myself). He had his story to play out his way.
Once I got over myself and understood that, practicing radical submission to the work, I could appreciate *how* Hyams was pulling off what he was. Minimal (but never feeling cheap or artificial) sets, a handful of props to spell out the unfolding disintegration, contrasts of suburban and brutal, consistent and muted colors with punches (particularly in the underground club/heist sequence), messy and chaotic fight sequences (as opposed to the touches of MMA/balletic choreography of UNIVERSAL SOLDIER), all these felt like the stuff that I really liked in UNIVERSAL SOLDIER (which I won't shorten down to US because well, you know). The zombies are fast and bestial, which leaves very little opportunity for (misplaced or not) empathy that TWD mines and has been a hallmark of Romero since '68.) Again, not my first choice, but is right for Hyams' kinetic sense.
The characters, as mentioned before, are sketched out cleanly, but briefly. The writing is pretty lean, as lean as I've seen on a television much less Netflix gig in a long time. This is not a slam, by the way. Less is more. I try to stick to that in my own fiction/scripting. Leave some space for the viewer to put themselves in or fill it out. That's great. Let's have more. But it is a risky move, particularly in the era of prestige streaming where episodes run long more often than not. BLACK SUMMER sidesteps this completly by simply giving you what you need as a viewer. Do a little work. It's not hard. I'm sure that this feels under-written to lots of folks, but not me.
Hyams and crew also broke out of the whole 40-60 minute episode framework as well, which made things feel a lot more immediate, and dare I say it, "fresh." By going brief (think of it like a wedge: first episodes more traditional 40-ish, tapering down to 20 or so for the last half of the series) BLACK SUMMER doesn't bog down in soap opera subplots or the psychodrama that drives TWD. Yeah, the comparison is unwelcome, but we're also pretty limited in apples to apples options, so bear with me. All of this functions to serve the shifting ground that we're stuck on as viewers, particularly at the start. And the show chooses to have some fun with the structure at the opening, setting up multiple threads and characters, some abandoned until the very end, some short and cut off quickly.
A lot of what goes on is driven by what we don't know. Which is a difficult tightrope act for zombie stuff to walk. There's a lot of close reading as to how the oubreaks start, what the transfer mechanism is, how the zombies are and how to fight them. Which is straight thrown out the window. They're there and they're in your face, running you down. Even one zombie is a threat, enough to send characters running. Two is enough to pin five people down in a location indefinitely. Immortality has its advantages. But there's no dissection of zombie physiology or trying to tease out clues as to how to defeat them. Just surviving is all that can be managed.
A quick return to some of the lighting/cinematography. A common complaint of mine is that folks often don't know how to set up and record digital images. Really grinds my gears when I click on an indie thing and it's all "well, we just set up outside and didn't light this and it shows." BLACK SUMMER does not do this at all. It's got a consistent look and feel, particularly on the interiors, which feel like they're naturally-lit (but I know they took some time to do setups and it shows) but never distracting or artificially so. The lighting is motivated. Now, this is less so in the exteriors, but they feel like this is a deliberate choice and not because the cinematographers just let stuff rip. The reality of the show feels lived-in and inhabited, not just thrown-together, and the lighting is a critical part of that.
Ultimately, BLACK SUMMER isn't as much about zombies as it is about life during wartime on the streets of anytown, USA. It's a precipitous descent from a shaky stability into urban warfare against an enemy that can't be stopped more than momentarily. We move from bunkered suburban families eagerly running to military convoys for assumed safety to streets ruled only by those insane enough to step outside into the black zones and ultimately into a downtown and refuge that is anything but. Distant bombs and gunfire, screeching overflights, an ineffective remnant military, fatigue and shellshock, boredom and hyperactivity, planning and chaotic reactiveness, all these things swirl together in a slow whirlpool that rushes you right through the disintegrating heart of the US.
As I said before, I'm always looking for a transformative moment in these crises, where something can be born past relentless brutality and calculation. That's what I pursue in my own work. BLACK SUMMER doesn't deliver that, and it's probably unreasonable for me to expect it to. It does, however, break the mold in some interesting structural ways and ends up feeling more like a long episodic film than a bloated season of television. I got over myself and enjoyed it a lot. I can't tell you what you will do with it.
EDIT to add that I should probably work on a completely separate piece about art and submission and criticism/critique (not the same things) and how personal expectation is something best left behind. I only briefly touched on it here. And no, I can't get over myself when it comes to a lot of things, so when I can, I'm glad.