If you read the basic synopsis of Dead Set – a group of Big Brother contestants are completely oblivious to zombies that now roam around their hermetically sealed house – it seems like a brilliant idea that should’ve been developed ages ago. Take an isolated group and follow their struggle to survive as the apocalypse has descended upon Europe, with no sign of abatement. And then make it funny, British style, but make sure the dramatic narrative follows the rules of British Bleakism: everything must eventually go to Hell.
Created by Guardian columnist/screenwriter Charlie Brooker, Dead Set owes a fair deal of gratitude to the makers of Shaun of the Dead (2004), since there really was no feature-length zombie /Britcom hybrid till then. The chief difference, though, is that Brooker and his Zeppotron comedy team veer more towards cultural satire than formal Britcom, although a warm sense of the absurd still rules the lives of the pockets of survivors that ultimately converge in the show’s bare-knuckle finale.
The viewpoint seems to be that we’re a sick lot of bored humans, un-sated by the hours of epically dull reality shows that celebrate the most banal personalities imaginable, and it’s on the night when the latest superficial star, Pippa (Morvern Callar’s Kathleen McDermott), is ‘evicted’ from the Big Brother house by viewers that a flood of suburban zombies swarm on the outdoor festivities around the studio compounds, and pick off the entire employee roster - except lowly gopher Kelly (pouty, punchy, and spunky Jaime Winstone, showing her acting chops after the dreadfull Donkey Punch), and her asshole boss Patrick (Andy Nyman).
Brooker’s basically patterned Patrick after Carter Burke, the corporate shit whose deceitful behaviour convinces Ripley and a crew of U.S. Marines into bringing back a chest-buster instead if wiping out the parasitic race in James Cameron’s Aliens (1986). Patrick similarly sacrifices other people for his own wretched self, but Brooker devised the character as the penultimate producer from hell, spewing truckloads of venomous insults at everyone simply because in the world of commercial TV, he has that much power and impunity when he’s running a television cash cow.
Patrick’s furiously anti-social behaviour goes into overdrive when he’s trapped in a green room with Pippa, and while that escalation determines his magnificently drawn demise (a huge nod to George Romero’s Day of the Dead), it also ensures he’s never more than a cartoon rendition of the Evil Producer. Even Pippa stays daft to the end, since she’s a busty twit whose grand dramatic moment involves whining about Patrick’s need to relieve himself (big and small).
The rest of characters, including the trapped Big Brother contestants, fair much better. Even though the troupe are drawn after the usual collection of annoying reality types – the stud, the drag queen, the tomboy, the old man, the fat girl, and the good guy – the actors seem to have understood that they had to be played naturally, or the whole series would’ve been cartoonish.
Director Yann Demange (Secret Diary of a Call Girl) nicely paces the shocks from flash cuts and cutaways to some astonishingly repulsive images. Flesh is torn, sliced, and munched, and entrails eventually litter floors and streets as more zombies inexplicably converge on the studio compound; much like Romero has his zombies in Dawn of the Dead walk the mall hallways as vestiges of a once fertile consumer body, Brooker has his zombies vaguely remember there’s a grand party to be had at the TV station, and they must go there posthaste.
The zombification process is almost as fast and furious as in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002), and the creatures move just as zippy, too. The stylistic similarities, including HD cinematography, a metallic colour palette and rapid shutter speed are also present, and Dead Set could be seen as a series of character threads that occur right after the release of the rabid monkeys in 28 Days, and just before that film’s story begins a month after the outbreak.
Originally broadcast on Britain’s E4, Dead Set’s episodic structure is very odd: the first part is about 45 mins., and the other segments are about 20 mins. apiece, but if the opening titles, inter-part bumpers, and prior episode recaps are excised, you’d have a fluid feature film, so it’s very easy to watch Dead Set as a straight horror movie. What’s so shocking is the consistency of language, crude behaviour, and astonishingly detailed gore (mostly in a ‘human chum’ sequence) that’s atypical for TV. How Brooker and his team got away with so much violence is baffling, but it ensures the series’ shocks are very potent and cringe-inducing.
Trauma to the head is still the rule for a sure-kill, so heads are skewered, scissored, shot, exploded, light poled, stabbed and axed, and in one fine sequence inspired by Gaspar Noé’s noxious Irreversible (2002), a cranium is conked into a slushy mush by a fire extinguisher. And then there’s the bloody cleanup by hand.
Brooks’ successful formula of mixing satire and horror comes from milking the idiocies of our pop culture slag, and maintaining a strong sense of fear to keep the drama gripping: we have Kelly in one part of the studio, the Big Brother family in their sealed ‘house,’ Patrick and Pippa in another building, Kelly’s boyfriend Riq (Riz Ahmed) at a deserted train station, and a few new faces that help move the main characters towards one final location.
We’re always wondering how the drama will end, and while some may gripe about a few character actions (Kelly could and should’ve done one simple thing to keep the group safe), the final shot brings everything full circle: whether human or zombie, we still like to watch, and be watched.
An amazing apocalyptic series with steaming buckets of bloody chum.
Note: do NOT visit the official website until you’ve seen the series, as there are production stills that are heavy spoilers (including the ending).
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan