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Musings #38: Netflix’s Black Summer: A Bitter Disappointment (#amwriting)

Most days I would start any sort of review or critique with a positive but today is not that day. Let’s get right into Black Summer, a new zombie flick on Netflix which is set in the Z-Nation universe (but darker and grittier.) Here might be spoilers.

Let’s just gnaw on a few things, shall we?

Deaf and Hard of Hearing People are Nincompoops

Why do movies do this!

I want to see “all the people” in flicks and movies from all walks and all abilities. It is still mind-boggling that it’s still rare to have script-writers create authentic characters who are well rounded and their nature and abilities (or challenges as the case may be) affect their course of action but isn’t all they are.

Say what you will, but I was pleased to get thrown in Ryan’s POV. When the music cut off and all sounds stopped, it was jarring. I’d go so far as to say terrifying. My heart raced (that is hard to do people) because the character was distracted by an authentic human interaction with a dying stranger. What a great way to introduce a character without a long monologue of explanation!

At first, I thought it was strange that Ryan didn’t use more sign or be more emphatic with movements (hello, horrifying situation and panic) and basic frickin’ awareness. However, I suspended my judgment because traumatic shock can alter your behavior in unexpected ways.  The problem was…hold on I will need a list for this:

  1. Ryan displayed zero interest in self-preservation. To be fair, only two characters displayed any sense of wanting to survive but we will get to that later. He made no effort to fashion a weapon, didn’t use his other senses to do things like, I don’t know, WATCH FOR THE RABID ZOMBIES.  He acted like he’d never seen a kettle drum before or understood it vibrated.  He constantly lost companions and he took a long blissful sleep as if it were a Sunday afternoon in Ponyville
  2. Hello? Does anyone try to talk to Ryan? I’m not going to dump this all on Ryan who was, if nothing else, compassionate. His survival buddies were idiots, too. One person made a lackluster effort to communicate. It could have been a much smoother exchange of rudimentary language, but it was something. Ryan made very little effort to communicate or even pay attention.  I am not saying he would understand everything that was said to him (lip reading is super hard), I mean simple efforts to convey information or engage with the people standing next to him. The only time Ryan didn’t have a dazed expressions was when he saw that unhinged, creepy brat and suddenly was signing with emotional range.
  3. Ryan Who? Other characters seemed oblivious to his presence or, worse, treated him like a toddler without a brain. At first I thought that Ryan, perhaps, had been suffering from shock. Nope, that wasn’t it. Had he been written him as mentally impaired for some reason?  Nope. There were no logical reasons for any of his actions or lack thereof.

 

Survivors Think Guns Are the Only Weapons but Don’t Have Any

One might think it is perfectly natural to fashion weapons with whatever is handy when in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Even if you are incompetent the first day or two, surely within the first week you would understand the basic defense characteristics of knives, pipes, sticks, and even the stabbing potential of a toothbrush. Here let’s observe some examples of good instincts and using the environment:

Survivors in Black Summer strolled around with no weapons of any kind except for the dude with one hand gun with limitless ammunition.  People in houses were not armed with cleavers, shivs, or chef’s knives.  No hammers, pipes, or other bludgeons. No broomsticks, baseball bats, rocks, or twigs.  I wasn’t expecting a MacGyver duct-tape and glass cudgel, just something. Furthermore, mot one person armored their most vulnerable areas with multiple layers of protective clothing.  Fire wasn’t even used until the final act, and by then I’d forgotten the people could even make it.

In the diner scene, I was aghast that only one person grabbed a cleaver.  The frying pan and meat tenderizer two characters selected were okay choices, but I yelled at the screen: “YOU HAVE TWO HANDS, PICK UP A KNIFE FROM THE PRISTINE KITCHEN.” The scene after this was quite good, but I was too flabbergasted to enjoy it to the fullest.

Guns were a sought after commodity, yet very few people had any until the climax when inexplicably everyone and their uncle appeared with high-powered weapons. Thankfully, though, they were all bad shots and going for the chest rather than the head. It makes sense because the zombies were fast moving targets and no one had had time to properly practice shooting. Death by friendly fire is understandable. However, those who were proficient marksmen kept.missing.the.head.shot.

Supplies? Why Do We Need to Keep These Safe Again?

No less than three times did characters have access to a wondrous bounty of supplies and medicines. This they squandered by not picking up a damn backpack into which said items could be placed. Oh, look, I am starving and there is an immaculate, unlooted grocery store. Let me not secure the door, dick around forever, and not get to eat (or pack) a damn thing before the zombie sniffs me out.  While I’m at it, I won’t look for any frickin’ weaponry or medicine.

 

Lord of the Flies?

I’m not going to fault a flick for going the route of people doing messed up shite in a crumbling society in the throes of a zombie takeover. Group mentality can amass for good or for ill. Scared people can do messed up things to survive. Hot decisions can lead to very serious consequences. Mental stability breaks down. People unravel. Traumatic events shape people in unpredictable ways.  However, you still need a logical reason for children to go leaps beyond Lord of the Flies and engage in cold, calculated serial killing.

I am not saying that children can’t be taught to cold kill. Child soldiers are not fantasy.  The difference there is that sort of behavior is cultivated and molded by older leaders.  At minimum, an Isaac (Children of the Corn) influential and charismatic leader brainwashes them.  Children (and in general your average person) doesn’t go murder and mayhem in a few months. Rash and reactive, yes.

What children don’t do is take over a school and turn it into a trap to ensnare adults for some fun executions and Thunderdome parties. While I was impressed that they had fashioned an assembly line to make an arsenal of makeshift spears thrown into a pile, they were armed with exactly one gun.

My husband and I agree that I would probably die sooner rather than later in an apocalyptic event. I would likely help an innocent child, especially a very young one and most especially if I lost one my own. It would be my undoing if I were to encounter a child used as bait. What I would not do is to tell my gun-wielding companion to give up our only weapon to a bunch of scrawny brats with one gun. Take cover and shoot at their asses, I’d say.

My husband was incredulous that a group of adults couldn’t seem to deal with non-zombie children. He snarled at the television too, “Why are you standing there? You have a box cutter. Cut their *@!ING speaker wire and video feed!”

American film has a problem with offing children (even zombie children). It makes no sense when you think about all the ways people in these movies meet their ends. I don’t mean make light of it, but to be logical within the character’s environment.

 

Stupid Is As Stupid You Deserve to Die

Rose is one of the first characters we meet in Black Summer.  Like most characters we don’t know much about her. She’s a mother and we are led to believe that she is devoted to her family.  So, this family travels to an evacuation checkpoint and tries to smuggle (the obviously sick and dying) dad onto the waiting truck.  It goes sideways and Rose stays with her husband rather than with her ten-year-old daughter.

I know what you are thinking. It must have been the chaos. The fool soldiers weren’t engaging in proper crowd control procedures, picking fights, and being antagonistic. Things got out of hand and the truck drove away while the mother was being held back.  Okay, sure, I thought that, too. Benefit of the doubt in a volatile situation.

Rose insists that her husband and she will get to safety together and find their daughter together despite his bleeding, infected wound. They have no antibiotics. He’s feverish, pale, and can barely walk. He collapses. She insists everything is going to be alright.

I know what you are thinking again. Denial is part of that trauma process. Yes, it is.  The problem is not that Rose is making horrible decisions and is in the throes of “nope this is not happening I will not acknowledge it”, it is that she consistently makes bad choices and NEVER gets smarter. She doesn’t grow as a character, doesn’t adapt, and learns nothing except how to shoot people. And she also doesn’t carry any weapons at all until the guns at the end. ARRGH. Come on! Not even a nail file?

People Do Not Communicate Like Humans

Bilingual characters are aplenty in Black Summer (Yay!). The dialogue, though, is stiff and…not good but it is nice to have those layers. Kyungsun speaks Korean, and we are left to assume that she has not been in the country for very long. Her English is very poor and below beginner basic in oral speech. A vacationer perhaps, but we never find out. That’s okay, but it is confusing as to why she seems to understand English almost fluently.  Not an impossible situation, but still rather unusual without rudimentary speaking words. Anyway, the Spanish-speaking William can’t seem to pronounce her name and doesn’t even try after the third attempt (it’s not that hard!), and she says to call her Sun (many feel your pain sister). Sun doesn’t seem to have a problem pronouncing Barbara’s name. I will let you chew on that for a moment.

In a normal situation, if people who speak different languages come together they will make an attempt to strike a simple conversation after some initial awkwardness. In a situation where survival depends on communication, it is natural to put in a lot of effort. Language acquisition is in our blood. That’s why pidgins form so easily between adults who speak different languages, and why the first generation children of pidgin speakers turn it into a grammatically sound creole. We are hard-wired to communicate. That’s right, our non-serial-killing kids are masters of language creation.

Even myself who has tried and failed many time to acquire a second language would fare a lot better if I were immersed day in and day out in a new language. Effort would be mandatory, the constant feedback would solidify learning. The two groups like in Black Summer should have been picking up basic, useful words from each other: English-Korean-Spanish and English-ASL.  Neither group would be able to discuss the deep philosophy or scientific theory, but they’d be able to chit-chat, ask questions, exchange important information, and give commands.

People are Unintelligent Cowards Who Always Choose Death

Yes, yes, most of us would soil our pants before we got eaten. The problem in this movie is not that some people are callous, cold, cowards, but that everyone seems to be even when it comes to the people they care about. There’s not much variation or logic in why people in Black Summer do things or put everyone else in dangerous situations. Here are a few highlights:

  • Entering rooms without checking for ZOMBIES
  • Not securing doors with the perfectly working locks
  • Failing to observe zombie behavior
  • Being excessively noisy
  • Not carrying weapons (have I mentioned that yet?)
  • Ramming a minivan into a Dodge truck to make the truck stop
  • Not putting on your seat belt while the minivan is ramming
  • Failing to secure supplies, water, and medicine when they appear
  • Staying out in the open…a lot

And why on this earth, would a bunch of drug thugs continue to make drugs in a world without currency value? They have random people with no means or use gather in large numbers in a secure warehouse to dance to techno and do drugs. My thoughts? How are they feeding all these people? What about the plumbing and the water situation? What if someone overdoses and dies? The doors are all locked!

I won’t even get into the asinine weapons heist.

The Ending.

W.T.F.

 

What the Black Summer Got Right

I’d say this contribution to the zombie universe is a solid five out of ten. While there were a mass of problems, issues, and maddening script choices, several things were done well.

1. Fast-moving rabid zombies. They don’t have to be large to be scary. Fast, tireless, and relentless make for a heart-pumping amount of thrill-scares. These zombies are hard to kill and tough to outrun. They sprint, jump, latch, and bite. If you don’t cut their legs or put a bullet between the eyes, they keep coming.  It is hard to bludgeon in a skull. Very hard. It is physically tasking and this film showcases that fact.

2. Lance. He was not enjoyable because he was strong, smart, or capable. He was a standout character because he was a scrappy, lucky, ordinary Joe. He did make several stupid decisions (where is the common sense in this world?), but mostly he ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. His chase scenes were authentic and frightening.  Us normal humans don’t have combat experience and we’d be spending our days running, fumbling our way out of death, and hiding.

There is one scene where he misses killing a zombie because his weapon got hooked up on something. It was so like him (or any one of us clumsy folk) and so well timed that the watcher feels compelled to blame the weapon for the failure!  He is the only character other than Kyungsun displaying behavior that is illogical due to trauma, but then is overrun by fear instinct: he finds himself in a library, tries to read a book and ignore new zombie noises, he shakes, he sweats, he curls up on the floor, he cries, and then he runs. Yes. That’s real.

Lance was everything Ryan could have been and should have been. As a matter of fact, the series would have been better off combining the two characters into one.

3. Everyone is Dirty and Their Hair is a Mess. Finally! I could almost smell the stink through the screen. Most of the men have beards. Not nearly unruly enough, but a start.  And, as far as I remember, all of the women have on full-sleeved shirts and long pants (just like the men) even in the heat of summer because zombies have teeth and you don’t want to scratch yourself while you are running and die. I will even let the shaved pits go in that one scene where we see armpits.

4. A character says “Shoot Me”  and another character shoots without hesitation because they are getting overrun by adrenaline zombies and he is obviously not going to make it. Please and thank you.

5. Silent Earl and His Dog.  So random and just about the only spark of hope for humanity the characters get. I dug it.

6. Having to get to know the characters by action and choices. The characters are strangers to each other and to the audience. This makes it difficult to know who to trust and when the audience knows a bit of information the character don’t, it does make you question whether your own judgment is sound. This didn’t work quite as well as it should have because of the numerous issues with character development and behavior.

7. Diverse cast.  Things could always be improved but it is nice to seen tv and movies move in a direction that represents a more whole population and collection of characters. There are still obvious issues with cliche’s, stereotypes, 1D and 2D personalities, and the yo-yo depictions of women.  Although we could not understand her words, Kyungsun, was the most well rounded female character. We could see her suspicion and determination, sadness and hopelessness, frustration and annoyance, fear and anger all in her face, action, and posture.  Kudos has to go to the actress on that.  Carmen was moving in that direction, but didn’t have as much screen time to capitalize on it.  Rose was the lead character with the most screen time and she just didn’t have that depth because she never grew or learned.  When she failed at a second chance to saves someone, it had little effect on her overall.  Julius (aka Spears) probably had the most curious character background. Too much was hinted at in a generalized way that he couldn’t fall into the unreliable or true category. He was left in a sort of “don’t care limbo”.  Did he have a change of heart or was he always fairly decent?  Likable family-man William fell into the same trap, but mostly because his dialogue interactions with a particular protagonists went so far out of how his character was drawn from the start that you wondered if he’d been chewing lotus flowers.

Final Thoughts

Thumbs up for scary zombies about as intimidating as 28 Days Later and Train to Busan, Lance, and Kyungsun.
Thumbs down for the aforementioned problems.

The vignette style of storytelling is quite interesting which felt much like chapter character POVs in a book.  If you are a zombie flick fan, enjoy it for the chase, the thrills, and jump-scares. Those are brilliant.

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