Dead Set (2008)
Reviewed by Phil Newton
Starring Jaime Winstone, Andy Nyman, Adam Deacon, Kevin Eldon, Raj Ghatak, Kathleen McDermott
Directed by Yann Demange
Love it or hate it, reality television has become a staple fixture of the channel schedules over the last decade. As a rule they're cheap, easy to produce and there's always a long line of willing participants ready to do anything to grab their moment in the spotlight. In the US the biggest success is "Survivor" whilst here in the UK it's "Big Brother", which will celebrate its tenth anniversary next year. Four months every summer the nation tunes in to watch the exploits of a group of strangers, thrown together and confined to a house, their every move documented and controlled by the show's production team. For these few weeks the housemates are afforded celebrity status, their antics dominating the tabloid newspapers and gossip magazines. Yet for all of its fans, there's an equally vocal bunch of people who abhor the show and would like nothing better than to see these idiots wiped from our screens.
Enter Charlie Brooker ("Nathan Barley"), columnist for The Guardian and the writer/broadcaster of "Screen Wipe", the sharpest, funniest programme about television on television. Amazed at the increasingly preposterous nature of "24", one of his favourite shows, Charlie joked that Jack Bauer might just as well be up against a horde of zombies. This gave him the seed of an idea. Then, as he was watching "Big Brother", it all fell into place - what better place for a siege than the Big Brother house, somewhere that's already secure from the outside world? Thus Dead Set was born.
We join Dead Set halfway through a fictional series of "Big Brother" as the remaining housemates sit around the house either bitching or having banal conversations with one another. It's Friday evening which means one thing - it's eviction night. Over in the studio, the production team are preparing for the evening's broadcast; producer Patrick (Andy Nyman of Severance) oversees the live feed and barks orders to his "minions" whilst host Davina McCall is in hair and make up and runner Kelly (Jaime Winstone of Donkey Punch) escorts some former housemates to the Green room, fending off calls from her boyfriend Riq (Ghatak) whom she cheated on the night before. As showtime nears Patrick worries that they're going to get bumped due to breaking news of rioting spreading across the UK - "Why do people riot anyway? It's not the eighties, they've got distractions, they should stay in and watch telly."
Meanwhile, outside one of the other show runners is ferrying the mother of one of the potential evictees to the studio when their car is attacked. With the driver badly injured they continue towards the compound in seek of medical assistance...
Being a horror-savvy audience, we know what's coming next, it's just a matter of when. We don't have very long to wait. Pippa (McDermott) is evicted and is having her live interview with Davina when all hell breaks loose. There's a great juxtaposition as mayhem erupts around the compound and inside the studio as the zombie infection rapidly spreads, whilst inside the house the remaining housemates dance around to Mika's Grace Kelly track, totally oblivious. It's a superbly constructed scene which builds to a poetic finale with the demise of Davina herself. As the first episode comes to a close, Patrick finds himself holed up with Pippa whilst Kelly breaks into the Big Brother house and is desperately trying to convince the surviving housemates that she's not a new contestant in the reality show.
Dead Set offers a familiar but effective story. With its main characters all in place after the hour long set up, the remaining thirty minute episodes chronicle Kelly's efforts to keep the group alive, a job not made any easier by the fact that few of the housemates get along. With one of their group bitten they're forced to venture outside to seek medical supplies and there's also a mission to the studio in order to rescue Patrick and Pippa from the marauding zombies. Meanwhile, out in the countryside, Riq has teamed up with Alex, a female vigilante, and is making his way to the house on a rescue mission of his own.
Charlie Brooker's script is a delight, with a few nods to genre films (Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue, Ginger Snaps) that horror fans will appreciate, and he gets that delicate balance of humour and horror just right. With Channel 4 and Endemol's backing, all of the "Big Brother" stuff is totally authentic right down to Marcus Bentley's Geordie voiceover. It makes the satire that much more effective and there are some hilarious exchanges that could have been lifted wholesale from the real thing. The fictional housemates fall into the traditional "Big Brother" stereotypes (cocky, slut, sensible, camp, stupid, loud, loner) and each actor adopts their character trait perfectly. Best of all is producer Patrick, an absolute monster who sneers and spits bile at everyone. Needless to say he gets all of the best lines - "No one said it was going to be a genteel parlour game you titted fucking idiot!"
The level of violence and gore comes as quite a surprise for something that's been made for television, it certainly doesn't pull any punches. After a largely humourous beginning the show soon gets darker and bleaker in tone as the severity of the situation takes hold. This year's favourite motif - the stoving of a head using a fire extinguisher - gets an outing, and there's plenty of feasting and evisceration on display. Taking its cue from 28 Days Later, the zombies here are the modern running type, which suits the drama and keeps things pacy. Action scenes are visceral using the same hand-held DV technique favoured by the likes of Saving Private Ryan - vivid, jarring and hyper-real. For something with such a modest budget it's all credit to director Yann Demange and his team that they've crafted something that feels cinematic throughout. In fact, if anything the show works better on DVD where you can watch the whole thing back to back without breaks.
The ensemble cast, largely culled from British films and television, all play their part and their enthusiasm for the project is clear to see on screen. Who would have guessed that Davina McCall could make such a terrifying zombie? Of course a special mention should be given to Andy Nyman who totally nails the role of Patrick and in doing so gives one of the most memorable performances I've seen on television all year - honestly, Dead Set is worth watching for his performance alone; it's that good. Credit too to Jaime Winstone who produces her best work to date and really makes Kelly a three dimensional character incorporating all those strengths and flaws which make you really connect with her as the drama unfolds, and in turn makes the ending so much more effective.
If I've one criticism then it's the time line, which feels a little erratic in places. On the second day of the outbreak as night falls we see Riq and Alex abandoning their stricken car and fleeing to a nearby country house. The action then cuts to Patrick who is having to piss in a bucket, much to Pippa's disgust. Maybe I'm nit-picking, but surely one of them would have needed to relieve themselves at some point earlier in the day? We then shift to the housemates who are urgently discussing the need for medical attention, yet there then seems to be a long break before they act, as the next scene happens in daylight. I don't know, maybe it's a fault of the editing, maybe I'm being over-critical, but that's the one aspect that jarred with me while I was watching the programme. That aside, otherwise the attention to detail and plausibility of the whole thing is pretty much spot on.
As a piece of television E4 should be applauded for having the balls to commission something so fresh that genuinely pushes the boundaries of taste and decency. As the ratings have proved (1.2 million viewers, one of the highest ever for the channel) there is an audience out there that wants to see this type of drama, and as Charlie Brooker rightly says, if you can't show the "money shots" in a zombie film then why are you bothering at all? If you're a fan of the zombie genre then this really delivers on all counts and if you're a fan of "Big Brother" too, well I guess that's just a bonus. Unmissable television here in the UK, Dead Set is now available to buy on R2 DVD and comes highly recommended.
4 out of 5
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