Serialised over a week on E4, then glued together into an epic-length omnibus, this takes a high concept which might have done for a comedy sketch (what goes on in the Big Brother house during a zombie apocalypse) then delivers a surprisingly straight, if wickedly barbed zombie saga which (like the slightly broader Shaun of the Dead) could easily be dovetailed into the universe of George A. Romero’s zombie films (and, in this case, Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake). I’m sure fans are out there thinking like Sherlockians who sort out an internal chronology for Holmes’ cases or Trekkies who map Gene Roddenberry’s universe, trying to devise a definitive history of the Living Dead outbreak which reconciles the visions of every single Night of the Living Dead derivative. Romero’s films were always a mix of gross-out horror with social satire, so writer Charlie Brooker and director Yann Demange are actually restoring a vital element of his worldview which has tended to get lost in simple action rubbish like the Resident Evil films or many, many low-budget gut-spillers which mistake hectic misanthropy for engagement with the ills of the world. There’s humour here, mostly in the depiction of truly ghastly folks who demonstrate their unworthiness to survive before the zombies chomp on their heads, but the gore is vintage style (much of it funny, but more in line with Tom Savini’s splat-sick than the cartoonish funny stuff of Return of the Living Dead or early Peter Jackson) and there are suspenseful moments, action scenes and an early-morning melancholia which demands to be taken more seriously than you’d expect.
Just before Big Brother and Survivor broke internationally, I wrote a story about ‘reality TV’ (‘Going to Series’) inspired by what I’d read of the original Dutch Big Brother and glimpsed of The Real World, The Villa and other now-forgotten precursors of the trend – a side-effect of doing this was that by the time the whole country was gripped by BB, I was through with the idea and didn’t feel any need to watch the show to see if my worse-case scenario predictions were on the mark. This is a roundabout way of admitting I’ve never seen more than a few seconds of the actual Big Brother and have little or no knowledge of the celebrities who have spun off from the program – which means I miss a lot of the references in Dead Set (I didn’t ‘get’ the Doctor Who Big Brother episode either). I caught up with most of what I needed to know over the course of two and a half hours, even if a few elements of the set-up which the rest of the country know all about remain mildly puzzling to me. The long opening sequence (originally, an extra-length episode) is all set-up, dominated by a funny, awful turn from Andy Nyman as Patrick, the arrogant and spiteful producer of the show, who proceeds to become the equivalent of the out-of-control maniacs who endanger the group in Romero’s films. Nyman gets some of the funniest grue moments — after he has skewered the brains of zombified presenter Davina McCall (gamely playing herself) with a light fixture, he snarls ‘I hired her, I can do what I like with her’; his demise is a riff on the ‘choke on ‘em’ death of the military asshole in Day of the Dead, though Patrick crudely tells the zombies chowing down on his bowels that they are eating his shit. Making the crass establishment baddie a TV producer rather than a middle-class father (Night of the Living Dead) or mad army officer (Day of the Dead) indicates that Dead Set is locating the evils of a world which deserves to is be eaten in useless media triviality rather than the patriarchy or military baddies despised by the 1960s and ‘70s counterculture. As it happens, Romero’s films are full of jabs against TV news and those who try to distance themselves from the disaster by hypocritically exploiting and commentating on it (Feeding the Masses, one of the many recent Dead tie-ins, develops the argument) so again this is more squarely in the tradition than a parody of it.
Dead Set picks up the gag in Shaun of the Dead whereby vital news bulletins are always being turned off, and shows us a TV production team who would barely notice the stories coming in about ‘riots’ around the country except for the fact that there’s a possibility that tonight’s ‘eviction’ will be pre-empted by a special news bulletin that never comes. The remaining idiots in the house – vividly written and horribly played – have an excuse for being deprived of word from the outside, but the malicious idiots making the show are just so narrow-focused that the world ends while they are obsessed with something else. The typical Romero role of ballsy heroine is taken by Kelly (Jaime Winston), a researcher-minion who has just been sucked into the pretend-world of television and had an unwise one-night stand with a co-worker. Over the course of the show, she evolves into a zombie-fighting tough gal but also becomes the de facto producer of the show (telling the last survivor ‘you have won this year’s Big Brother’) and ultimately zoms out in an eerie sign-off shot in which she resembles the Little Girl Ghoul from NoLD and the podded heroine of the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
The original serial presentation means some sub-plots are strung out, with cliffhangers thrown in: Riq (Riz Ahmed), Kelly’s devoted boyfriend, spends some time with an intense survivor woman (Liz May Brice) he meets on the road, trying to get to the studio to be with Kelly. As in 28 weeks later and Survivors, good use is made of England’s often-overlooked waterways to get through an infectee-overrun countryside – unlike Lucio Fulci’s shark-fighting zombies, these can’t swim. A key character – Joplin (Kevin Eldon), the creepy outsider in the BB house – doesn’t come into focus until the finale, where his inadequacy and the others’ cruelties prompt a suicidal action which dooms everyone. As in real reality TV, we get crass, unpleasant, self-involved folks arguing for a lot of the time – I’m not qualified to say how exaggerated their apallingness is, but Pippa (Kathleen McDermott) wins points as perhaps the most useless person ever to appear in a zombie movie (she complains that an irritated Patrick will use up the oxygen in a non-sealed room by huffing) and there are cheap, but funny gags about the macho stud (Warren Brown) distracted from looting by a cover feature in Heat magazine or the snippy girl (Beth Cordingly) who reacts angrily to a suggestion that this is Judgment Day with ‘if this is about Iraq, I didn’t agree to that’.