Review: Dead of Summer 1×1-1×2 (US: Freeform)

So much 80s it hurts


In the US: Tuesdays, 9/8c, Freeform
In the UK: Not yet acquired

I thought we’d got over the 80s. I thought that the advent of shows like Hindsight meant that we had moved on and were looking at the 90s and beyond. But now we have Dead of Summer, which is almost pure, distilled 80s, with 80s in every shot in a way the real 80s never was. Indeed, it feels like a show invented by someone who had almost no memories of the 80s beyond watching some 80s movies, but doesn’t care because he knows the intended audience wasn’t even alive in the 80s.

Riffing off another (hopefully dying) trend for remaking old horror moviesDead of Summer takes that hoary old US horror staple, the summer camp, and revisits it with a thin sprinkling of the almost 80s’ Candyman on top. It sees a diverse (in a modern sense) group of attractive young people trying to help Lost‘s Elizabeth Mitchell to set up a new summer camp where they’ll be camp counsellors. Except wouldn’t you know it, the summer camp is built on an old burial ground or pentagram or something, and soon the dead are popping up in videos, pretending to be imaginary friends or just generally scaring the crap out of people, their number being added to in practically every scene as the bodies pile up. You don’t even have to say ‘Candyman’ for it to happen – Tony Todd will pop up without any provocation as the silent, pointing and probably well paid ‘The Tall Man’ (just to confuse fans of Phantasm, I presume).

Created by Lost/Once Upon A Time writer Adam Horowitz, the show is a veritable cornucopia of 80s references, with mentions of D&D, The Empire Strikes Back and more popping out of people’s mouths without any real cause every minute – almost like they’re possessed by the spirit of the 80s. There’s even a direct and actually quite impressive visual rip-off of one very famous scene from Poltergeist in the second episode, just to make it clear how much the show is set in the 80s.

But so quickly does the show get through all the references to 80s horror movies and trends in the first episode that by the second episode it’s practically run out of them, so decides to start mining other genres. Weirdly, the show decides the best way to give its characters backstories is using Lost flashbacks and presumably deciding to emulate The Americans, makes one of the camp counsellors a secret Ruskie (or ‘from the USSR’ to be exact). What’s his secret mission? He plays the long con all episode before finally closing his trap to obtain his ultimate prize… to have access to clothes from a dry cleaner. 

Yes, that does all play out as stupidly as it sounds.

It’s hard to tell how knowing some of this is. Are we now post-Scream and taking horror seriously again or post-post-Scream and playing it for laughs? I forget. But there’s a slight chance all the shallow teen romances, “who’s next?” guessing, deep dark secrets et al are designed to be amusing rather than scary, given there’s a Satan-worshipping heavy metal fan called ‘Damon Crowley’. Maybe it’s a bunch of 40somethings have a laugh at 20somethings’ expense, without the 20somethings realising it (“They actually think it was like this! Can you believe it? Quick, put in something about a 2d20! They’ll lap it up!”)

More probably, it’s merely aimed at people who have seen a lot of 80s movies and wish there were more of them than were actually made in the 80s. It’s hard to tell how much such people are concerned by correct period detail: most of the fashions seem to come from the entire 80s, not just 1989 when the show is set; I’m not entirely sure the general public knew what a serial killer was in 1989; I doubt more than seven schoolgirls ever played D&D in the whole of the US in the 80s; and I’m pretty that someone in their early 20s would try not to be so openly and self-admittedly ‘super gay’ (was that even a phrase in the 80s?) in the somewhat repressive atmosphere of the late 80s US, let alone at a summer camp where they would be put in charge of children and risk getting fired and/or lynched.

This is the 80s for people who’ve seen The Breakfast Club and assume that everyone acted and dressed like that all the time, all decade.

The Ruskie backstory was bonkers enough that I might want to watch more of Dead of Summer, just to see if they do a tribute episode in which Airwolf flies over and blows up the camp. The sight of Tony Todd popping up every half hour to point silently behind people like he’s just spotted a rare Crested Caracara and doesn’t want to disturb it but definitely wants you to look at its beautiful plummage? That never gets old either.

But as a show, Dead of Summer isn’t scary or innovative, the teens are quite dull, and Elizabeth Mitchell isn’t in it anywhere near enough, so I won’t be watching it for anything more than sh*ts and giggles if I do.

Here’s a trailer and just in case you have 45 minutes or so to waste, the whole of the first episode, too.