Riz AhmedLiz May BriceBig BrotherDavina McCall
Dead Set
Medium: TV, series
Year: 2008
Director: Yann Demange
Writer: Charlie Brooker
Keywords: Big Brother, horror, zombies
Country: UK
Actor: Chizzy Akudolu, Shelley Conn, Raj Ghatak, Jennifer Aries, Cavan Clerkin, Drew Edwards, Elyes Gabel, Madra Ihegborow, Maxi Moffatt, Rachel Ogilvy, Jaime Winstone, Kyle Summercorn, Andy Nyman, Kelly Wenham, Riz Ahmed, Liz May Brice, Warren Brown, Beth Cordingly, Adam Deacon, Kevin Eldon, Kathleen McDermott, Davina McCall
Format: 5 episodes (one double-length), 141 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1285482/
Website category: Horror modern
Review date: 1 November 2011
It's Charlie Brooker's "Big Brother with zombies" mini-series for E4. The TV company that produced it, Zeppotron, is part of the same Endemol group that makes the real Big Brother. It's also much more violent and scary than I'd expected, outdoing any TV horror I'd seen before and indeed having a stronger impact than most horror movies.
(I still haven't seen The Walking Dead, though.)
As with all the best zombie movies, we begin with the subtext and this could conceivably be the best one ever. If reality TV is about holding up a mirror to modern society, followed by millions because we're watching ourselves, then apparently the human race is so stupid and vacuous that it almost deserves to get eaten. It's an intelligent person's nightmare. When the apocalypse comes and it's the end of the world, mankind's last representatives are going to be Big Brother contestants. Of the characters who survive even as long as episode two, exactly one of them seems intelligent. The rest are variously selfish, narcissistic, self-caricatures or so breathtakingly stupid that it's a wonder she remembers to keep breathing. Some are admittedly quite nice. Others though are scum, psychos or worse, Andy Nyman in particular playing such a monster of egotism that halfway through I was laying bets with myself that he'd end up cheating the zombies. He'd get killed by his fellow survivors instead.
There's less symbolism than I'd expected (e.g. zombies looking into TV screens or cameras), but there are subtler touches. Note the zombie who's obsessed with his reflection in a mirror, for instance. Note also that it's Davina McCall who's trying to eat her producer and an evicted contestant. The idea is brilliantly symbolic, but once you actually start watching it, the series never feels as if it's pushing its point. Shaun of the Dead was much more explicit in its themes. Instead they're simply doing a zombie apocalypse in a Big Brother setting and inviting you to draw your own conclusions from this very loud juxtaposition, should you want to. Charlie Brooker talks about this in an interview on the show's E4 website.
"In choosing the Big Brother setting, are you satirising reality TV, or is it just about the fact that it's quite a good setting for a horror series?"
"It's kind of in-between. In the original Dawn of the Dead, which was sort of a model for this, the setting has obviously got satirical undertones. I would say the same about this. But while you could spend your time watching it thinking 'Mmmmm, yes, a satirical point', most of the time you're going to be thinking 'Help! Here come the zombies!' It's kind of a scary romp, first and foremost. It's not a chin-stroking exercise."
Mind you, there are occasional cute dialogue references, not to mention exchanges like the following. The house's self-styled intellectual, Kevin Eldon, has been theorising about the Book of Revelation and how this could be God's judgement on our culture. He's smiting us according to our deserts. "Why be such a cunt about it?" is the response from someone who probably thinks he's one of the good guys, but this is someone who's obnoxious even to hysterical blood-covered women and has been directly responsible for getting his housemates killed. File that under "questions that answer themselves".
As a horror epic, it's impressive. It's 141 minutes long and it never drags. Episode one in itself covers as much ground as I'd been expecting from the entire series. There's something Wyndhamesque about its deserted post-apocalypse British landscapes, like the opening of 28 Days Later but more extended. It's also scary. Even if you watch horror regularly and you're normally blase about it, expect this to get to you once or twice. Zombies are the scariest movie monsters, I think, and here they're doing them properly, with gore and intensity. Mind you, I could have lived without the shaky-cam, which is confined to the action scenes but in those gets so extreme that often you can't see what's happening. There's no need to look away from the violence because the cameraman's doing it for you. However I'll accept that it's a legitimate choice from the director and it does add its own kind of atmosphere.
A few horror nerd points. Firstly, these are running zombies. I'm a traditionalist and I like my Romero shamblers, but I have to admit that running zombies are scary too. They work. I'm happy to have both kinds in the world.
Secondly, there's some pretty bone-headed behaviour from our heroes. This is partly because they tend to be boneheads and partly because they've never been in this situation before, but even late in the day there's some rank idiocy. Why didn't Riz Ahmed climb out when they were in the lock, then? As for Jaime Winstone, she's competent in later episodes but in part one is "scream at the screen" stupid. This is someone who'll back through a door, close it and then stand looking at it for several seconds without turning around. It's undeniably scary, though. Winstone alone in the TV centre is not comfortable to watch.
Thirdly, people tend to be suspiciously good shots. Is it really that easy to fire a gun? Also this is Britain, not America.
Judging it as Big Brother... well, I'm not the best person to say. However I understand they worked hard on being authentic and the fans seem to think they succeeded. Given the fact that both shows were made by the same production group, it would be surprising if they hadn't. Apparently there were discussions on the Digital Spy BB forum about which actual housemates each "Dead Set" housemate was most reminiscent of. In addition they filmed an eviction with a real Friday night eviction audience (Big Brother 9), while as well as Davina there are real ex-housemates doing cameos.
Overall, it's really good. It's harder, bleaker and bigger than I expected. It's playing on the level of a feature film and easily outdoing the majority of them. They're doing it properly, both with the zombie horror and with their range of frequently appalling characters. Andy Nyman with his sexist attitudes and 1970s porn star moustache is a loathsome human being and for him no death could have been sufficiently disgusting. Mankind here deserves to die. When the world ends, the last thing on television will be the blind idiot feed of Big Brother, even when there's no one left alive in there.
"Does this mean we're not on telly any more?"