The idea for Dead Set – one of the only TV series ever dedicated to zombies, in amongst a plethora of recent vampire shows – was developed by acerbic journalist and critic Charlie Brooker, a man who has never shied away from expressing his feelings on ‘reality TV’. He often used his Screen Burn column (which ran in UK newspaper The Guardian) to have fun at the expense of Big Brother in particular, a show which has since come to an end but, for ten years, held an enormous – and some might say baffling – appeal for British audiences. Brooker, as a real aficionado of zombie cinema, found himself thinking: what if this isolated, surveillance-crazy, highly secure environment became the last safe place in the country to hide from the zombie apocalypse?
What started as the half-joking germ of an idea became the five-part Channel 4 series Dead Set, a bang-up-to-date pastiche on reality TV which finds a deserved place in the modern zombie genre and really doesn’t skimp on the gore, either. It also enjoyed a close, very forgiving relationship with the real Big Brother series – using the show’s sets, crowds, credits, former contestants and even the show’s presenter (who does a star turn as one of the living dead). It begins backstage on Eviction Night, as a glaring array of stereotypes wait to see who is about to be voted out and a deeply cynical, deeply funny script establishes the show’s tone. Meanwhile, there’s a party for former contestants going on backstage, but executive producer Sophie (Jennifer Aries) is struggling to get back to the studio on time. Meanwhile, runner Kelly (Jaime Winstone) has had to put her personal life to one side in order to fend off the angry, obnoxious producer Patrick (Andy Nyman), who is on the warpath. Things aren’t going to plan this evening – riots are breaking out in UK cities, and escalating so quickly that – shock, horror – the Big Brother special might even get bumped out of its slot.
In a sequence which ratchets up the tension quickly and deftly, a ‘mugger’ enters the eviction night crowds and chaos ensues: people are panicking, some are badly hurt, and by the time the remaining staff realise that this is no normal eviction night, the only safe place to hide is the Big Brother house itself…
The phenomenon of fast-moving zombies has tended to divide horror audiences fairly sharply over recent years, and I have to tell you – the zombies here are runners. However, I think that Dead Set can make even the most staunchly anti-runner audience members forgive this transgression. The pace here is so well-handled; a real sense of urgency and threat builds up, because these people don’t have time to formulate plans, or to really consider their options. They don’t have a chance to work out what’s even happening (and, in a well-written scene, the Big Brother contestants start by thinking the whole thing is all part of the show). Accordingly, the characters here hardly behave like a band of philanthropists. They’re often stupid, pitiable and downright unlikeable (especially Nyman as the selfish, bullying Patrick) but, in the situation they’re in, they’re believable.
Then there’s that Brooker sense of humour – snide, bitter, foul-mouthed and very, very funny. These darkly comic elements twinned with some viscerally-nasty scenes make for a bleak viewing experience, with enough layers both for fans of straightforward splatter and for those who like to see the use of social commentary back in their zombie horror. There is also a host of classic cinematic references for genre fans to spot at their leisure, and, hey, this series also manages to make Big Brother a watchable format…
Smart, sardonic and grim, Dead Set is a must-see series for horror fans, especially those of you who can’t wait for The Walking Dead to hit your screens… zombie TV has finally arrived.
DEAD SET is currently airing on US television for the first time, screening nightly on IFC up to October 29th.