TV Reviews

Pilot Report: Dead of Summer Zigs When You Expect It to Zag

Dead of Summer is just the latest in an increasingly long line of TV shows most people will never find the time to watch. It airs on a network with a bullshit name (Freeform, formerly ABC Family) and a very specific audience (18 to 34-year-olds the network execs like to call “Becomers”). At this point, it is the fourth slasher series to hit TV in the past year, following MTV’s Scream, Fox’s Scream Queens and Super Channel/Chiller’s rather unimaginatively named Slasher. If not for Slasher‘s unmistakable Canadian TV production values, Dead of Summer would easily look like the cheapest of the bunch. It’s not especially scary, unless we’re talking about the quality of some of the acting. It’s…

Actually, it’s not half bad.

No, seriously. I could very easily continue on being snarky about this show, but the pilot won me over, largely for one simple reason: it doesn’t quite do what you expect it to. There’s just enough of a curve beneath the seeming familiar surface to earn your attention, probably more so if you’ve come to it as a fan of the horror genre and have some patience for inevitable teen romance shenanigans (one episode in and there are already  two love triangles set up).

Here’s the important stuff from the pilot:

Premise: It’s 1989, and a haunted summer camp is nearing its grand re-opening. Eight counselors, almost all of whom once attended the camp together as kids, use the three days before the opening to mostly flirt and haze the new girl, but then a dead body pops up. Ki-ki, ma-ma, right?

The Cast: Alex (Ronen Rubinstein), Blair (Mark Indelicato), Jessie (Paulina Singer), Joel (Eli Goree), Cricket (Amber Coney), Blotter (Zachary Gordon), Drew (Zelda Williams) and Amy (Elizabeth Lail) are the counselors, and Deb (Lost‘s Elizabeth Mitchell) is the mysterious new owner. The murder case draws in the local deputy (Alberto Frezza) who has some surprising ties to the camp.

Tell Me About the Cast For Real This Time: Yeah, a mere listing of actor/characters names does virtually nothing for you. Basically, there’s a black kid constantly recording everything with his video camera, an openly gay kid everyone happily accepts, a quiet stoner, a newly hot black girl who’s virtually unrecognizable from her pre-makeover self and the white girl who used to be her best friend, a white jock and his sycophantic buddy and the shy new girl.

The Issues: This might be set in 1989, but the character drama seems to have been mailed in from 2016. There’s an older female-younger male romance in the works (back in a time when the term “MILF” didn’t exist yet). One of the girls turns out to be hiding some serious gender identity issues, and another girl is clearly battling insecurities over her body. I wouldn’t be surprised if a future episode reveals one of the kids to be a survivor of school bullying. If so, the most obvious candidate would be the openly gay kid, even though everyone at camp loves him and accepts him without question.

Exactly How 1989 Is It?: If you’re old enough to remember 1989 you’ll see plenty of familiar fashion trends (neon colors, pulled up collars, acid washed jeans) as well as old-fashioned TVs and giant boom boxes. You’ll still notice more little inaccuracies than you would if you were watching something actually made in ’89, like the first season of Saved By the Bell, but you’ll at least appreciate the effort on the part of Dead of Summer‘s costume and research departments.

The songs are all taken from the general era as well. For example, the closing montage is set to Guns N’ Roses’ “Patience,” and another montage showcases Document-era R.E.M.

The absolute funniest tell-tale sign of 1989, though, is the way one of the girls is repeatedly seen reading a gigantic issue of Rolling Stone (it’s bigger than her entire head) with a cover story hyping Michael Keaton’s forthcoming role as Batman.

How It’s Just Like Friday the 13th: The opening scene establishes that something terrible happened at the camp in the past, and now it’s re-opening. All of the characters initially seem like 80s slasher movie cliches, instantly recognizable by their behavior and dress as fitting into a specific stereotype (e.g., the jock, the stoner, the cheerleader, the slut, etc.). There’s a spooky old man who warns them of impending doom, and a virginal main girl who clearly functions as the final girl candidate. There’s also a scary story moment of all the counselors sitting around a fire.

POSTER-FRIDAY-THE-13TH-VARIETY-ADVERTISEMENTHow It Differs From Friday the 13th: For starters, the year’s all wrong. By 1989, the slasher genre had played itself out. Jason and Freddy respectively starred in their lowest-grossing films that year (…Takes Manhattan and Nightmare on Elm Street 5). However, it’s not actually clear if Dead of Summer takes place in a world in which those movies exist. The kids joke about The Wicker Man, but they never reference Friday the 13th or any horror film of the era.

That’s kind of a neither here nor there thing, though. It doesn’t really matter. It’s just something that will jump at you if you know your slasher history. There are other, more substantive ways Dead of Summer departs from Friday, such as its far more diverse cast.

The more notable point of departure, though, is that by the end of the pilot Dead of Summer is still lacking a central baddie. Tony Todd’s tall man from the cold open flashback will surely have a say in things by the end, but not in the same a Jason Voorhees would. That’s because Dead of Summer probably shouldn’t even be called a slasher story. Instead, this is like a haunted house movie that just happens to be set at a summer camp.

Here’s how Ian Goldberg described the show in a THR interview:

It’s a show about identity. There is a supernatural component to it and a lot of the scares come from the secrets that these characters are bringing with them to the camp and how those secrets manifest in really creepy ways. The way we talk about it is like how people go to the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. There are real demons there and there are also your inner demons that manifest. We just thought there’s kind of an audience expectation when you do a summer camp horror show or movie that it’s going to be Friday the 13th with a killer in a mask who’s just going to be hacking people up. We wanted to take that expectation and twist it and do something much more character-based and unsettling from a psychological point of view.

This is accomplished in the pilot through Amy, the new girl whose awkward attempts to make friends with the counselors is echoed in the flashbacks to her starting her senior year at a new high school and struggling to fit in. By the end of the pilot, the flashbacks pay off with a tragic ending, and the resulting ghost is now haunting her at the camp (or we think…no one else sees it but her). Similarly, another one of the counselors sees something for a moment which no one else does, and various bombs are dropped in the final moments, heavily hinting that Amy’s not the only one with a tragic backstory which will be filled in through flashbacks.

The trick is ultimately whether or not you care enough about these characters to stick around to see them turned into something more than mere cliches. Either way, I’m betting that once the entire season has aired Dead of Summer will make for a fun, mindless binge watch, one which causes you to think, “Wow, this freakin’ show just keeps getting crazier and crazier.”

I left out the most important part, though. Considering Freeform’s target audience, the most crucial thing to know about Dead of Summer is probably this: Cute boys! Especially that deputy who has a thing for Amy.

DEAD OF SUMMER - Freeform's "Dead of Summer" stars Alberto Frezza as Deputy Sykes. (Freeform/Tyler Shields)
DEAD OF SUMMER – Freeform’s “Dead of Summer” stars Alberto Frezza as Deputy Sykes. (Freeform/Tyler Shields)

So dreamy (while also seeming a tad dangerous). Eat your heart out, Skeet Ulrich.


  1. Well, I think you should probably have led with “cute boys”, as the most important part of the storyline, because no matter how old I get, (well beyond the 18-34 demographic) my brain always seems to latch on to that.😊

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