This is probably a simplification, but let’s say the zombie genre has evolved in the following way: genesis (White Zombie), refinement (Night of the Living Dead), mastery (Dawn of the Dead), experimentation (Zombi 2), revival (28 Days Later) and parody (Shaun of the Dead). Forgive me for excluding your favourite deep-cut, but you get the picture. A genre is born. It grows. It circles back on itself.
John Hyams’ Black Summer
By Alex Vuocolo
With that in mind, I’d argue that the zombie genre has mostly run out of creative runway. Its themes are played out. The viewer is all too aware that the real zombies are us; that society is one cataclysm away from tribalism and violence; and that the cause of our flesh-eating apocalypse is technological overreach or some vague civilizational hubris or sin for which we must now repent. Worst of all, even the genre’s cheap thrills are losing their oomph. The blood and gore are less tactile and more digitized, the survival-thriller plotlines increasingly predictable.
While homages and parodies dominate the genre categories of streaming platforms, the occasional self-conscious subversion makes it onto the indie circuit to less and less acclaim or interest. In a way, the zombie genre itself has become undead. Drained of life, its haggard corpse shambles across a wasted landscape of D-grade content, invoking but never matching the ferocity and cleverness of its best efforts.
Yet all is not lost. There is another path toward genre renewal that, while hardly revolutionary, is likely to please long-time fans, and that’s what I call intensification: the crude principle that more and better are sometimes enough, which is exactly what the series, Black Summer, offers.
Directed in large part and produced by John Hyams, the cult action director behind direct-to-video sequels such as Universal Soldier: Regeneration and Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning and the acclaimed 2020 thriller Alone, the show is an exercise in pure concentration. All the elements that make the zombie genre effective are condensed into a series of nearly wordless vignettes, featuring a shifting ensemble of characters who are just trying to stay alive. The social commentary is muted to non-existent, and any exposition about the why of it all is tossed aside in favour of blunt thrills delivered at a breakneck pace.
This is not to suggest that the show lacks emotional stakes. Watching these characters scramble for safety again and again, as running-speed zombies nip at their heels, their faces appearing increasingly agonized, creates a sense of intimacy that is almost painful. It’s the kind of action-led storytelling that fell by the wayside as shows like The Walking Dead relied on endless scenes of half-whispered dialogue to fill up the runtimes of undercooked episodes.
I’m aware, of course, that George A. Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead is a dialogue-heavy chamber piece, but it’s also filled with incident and suspense and a pervasive paranoia, even when its characters are holed up in an old farmhouse. In addition—and I’m sorry to say it—not everyone is a Romero, who was a visionary with an incredible sense of how people behave under duress, and all the social implications that come with that.
When I’m not in the hands of a master like Romero, or one of his worthier successors, I prefer stories that are more interested in the plot mechanics of the genre, and how they stem from its basic premise: there are zombies outside. You can stay inside, for a while. But eventually, you have to move, and when you move, you have to avoid them or kill them. It’s really a rather elemental idea, as powerful in its way as the vampire or werewolf myths, and when it’s done well, it still gnaws at my brain.
This is the mode that Hyams and co-creator Karl Schaefer thrive in. They relish the straightforward logistics of survival in a world that’s rotten with vicious carnivorous monsters. Each episode is a little bundle of setpieces, which are themselves broken up into mini-chapters separated by title cards and an always-jarring auditory thump set into the score. It’s a bit like watching your top-three favourite scenes in a feature-length zombie movie plucked out and reassembled as a single 30-minute sequence.
They relish the straightforward logistics of survival in a world that’s rotten with vicious carnivorous monsters.
Hyams’ background in direct-to-video action movies seems key here. He knows the art of not mincing words, of playing it straight and delivering the goods, because the goods are what’s being sold here. Add in his patient camera and editing style, and the overall effect is some of the most entertaining and economical action storytelling around.
The zombie-infested universe of Black Summer essentially becomes a sandbox for Hyams and company to try out different types of action filmmaking. Some episodes are more propulsive, with fast-paced chase sequences or stunning tactical shoot-outs between rival militias. Others are like mini-horror movies, in which the viewer is anxiously searching the frame for the next big surprise—and my, are they compelling frames. Hyams, son of journeymen director and cinematographer Peter Hyams, has a knack for dramatically hiding and revealing information on-screen.
Is new ground being broken here? Perhaps not. But what I enjoy most in Hyams’ intensified rendering of the zombie genre is that it belies a basic love and affection for its mechanics—the hyper-specific nightmare scenarios that make up its most compelling moments. Rather than subverting the genre or spiking it with irony or lazily rehashing its formulas, Hyams executes it perfectly and then amps it up to 11.
I have to believe that at some level, the genre-masters of yesteryear (Cameron when he made The Terminator, Spielberg when he made Jaws, or Carpenter when he made Halloween) intended to do just that—up the ante on their favourite kinds of stories, and see what it looked like.