The hectic first episode of “Black Summer,” Netflix’ new zombie series, looks like ambitious stuff — it plays like a hybrid of “28 Days Later” (2002), “Pulp Fiction” (1994) and “24” (2001-2014). While it seems unlikely that this show can emulate the greatness of those classics, “Black Summer” still gets off to a damned good start. I’d rate the first episode an 8 out of 10 for being a pretty lean and mean start to a decent zombie series.
Part of the episode’s appeal is its frantic vibe and format — something that seems like a deliberate contrast to “The Walking Dead’s” slowly placed, methodical epic. The viewer is plopped down into the middle of a heartland neighborhood evacuation effort, three weeks into a zombie epidemic. With a series of lengthy, real-time tracking shots, we race beside a collection of unconnected characters who are desperately trying to reach United States Army pickup point.
The zombies are few in number. But they are the “high-speed zombies” that most modern horror viewers associate with Danny Boyle’s film, so the arrival of even one imperils the fleeing families. The makeup effects are good, the transformation process is effectively rendered, and the show is satisfyingly scary. The show makes this even more interesting by filming each character’s dash individually, and then showing them as discrete vignettes that are out of chronological order.
The story is weakest when it slows down enough to allow its characters to talk. The dialogue is truly bad, even if the quick action sequences make up for it. (Has there ever been a more generic bribery offer, for example, then the one we see here?) But this weakness doesn’t much affect the overall quality of an episode that follows so much action.
I was even more surprised that the episode works when I googled “Black Summer.” The Netflix series is produced The Asylum, the film company notorious for “mockbusters” like “Dead Men Walking” (2005), “Snakes on a Train” (2006) and … sigh … “Transmorphers” (2007). What’s more, “Black Summer” is intended as a prequel series to The Asylum’s “Z Nation,” the lamentable horror-comedy zombie series that ran for three seasons on SyFy. (It was so bad I couldn’t get through a single episode.)
It’s a weird world.