(141 minutes, 5 parts)
Directed by Yann Demange
Written by Charlie Brooker
2008, UK, Channel 4
Dead Set is a damn good zombie film. Correction: Dead Set is a damn good zombie film in five half-hour parts. Or perhaps more accurately, Dead Set is a damn fine zombie miniseries that could have easily been assembled into a pretty good zombie movie but was kept nonetheless as a miniseries for whatever reason. Either way Dead Set is a pleasure to watch, to use the word broadly. As far as miniseries go, this is on the short end of the spectrum duration-wise, clocking in at 141 minutes including credits and episode recaps. Yet it is quite possibly this economy, this unyielding brevity that accords it such a visceral, brutal quality.
This British series premiered on Channel 4 in the tail-end of 2008, in late October, coinciding with Halloween, one could speculate. In fact, all five episodes were aired successively on the last day of October that year, like a movie. Penned by The Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker, the show itself was met with wide acclaim and Simon Pegg himself, thespian-scribe of horror-comedy gem Shaun of the Dead, wrote a lengthy piece in The Guardian itself in which he praised the series on most fronts while bemoaning the demise of the traditional “slow zombie” immortalised by George A. Romero in his touchstone pictures, replaced now by a speedier, more aggressive breed of undead: zombies on speed, the Running Dead. The kind of rabid beasts seen in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. The Gen Y of zombies. Perhaps this is where Big Brother comes into play.
It is eviction night at the Big Brother house. A crowd of fans is gathering outside and the atmosphere behind the scenes, behind the two-way mirrors, is frenetic. The tubby producer sneers, cusses and dishes insults with relish, and one is immediately certain that this man will suffer a horribly merciless death at some point. A whole host of production staffers, most of whom will be dead before the night is done, put in their best to ensure a successful and entertaining eviction. Real-life Big Brother UK host Davina McCall plays herself and – it must be said – makes for a hard-headed and career-driven zombie. A strained romance is quickly established between a baby-faced young staffer and her boyfriend as they converse over a mobile phone. He is stranded at a train station in the middle of nowhere and the train is nowhere to be seen. She is meanwhile distracted by a co-worker she is crushing on and the work that is at hand. Then there are the volatile personalities at the centre of it all, the remaining housemates, chatting inanely and being generally unruly, none of whom are particularly articulate or respectable, but all of whom are wholly compelling (it must be said that this show cares little for audience attachment).The evictee is named, the tension is broken, and all hell breaks loose.
Little is known about the source of the outbreak responsible for the resultant chaos, and little effort is made to explain or even speculate on it throughout the five episodes. The only thing of importance is that the situation is dire and that survival is key. The protagonist of the show, Kelly, develops from a doe-eyed intern into an utter badass. On paper this sound trite, but Jaime Winstone plays the part with a conviction and intensity forgivable, even laudable, in a genre piece. Her boyfriend Riq, Four Lions’ Riz Ahmed, is at the centre of a parallel and slightly less gripping but still engaging storyline, trekking through zombie infested marshland in order to reunite himself with Kelly, his raison d’etre.
The breed of zombie Pegg bemoans might very well be central to the concept of Dead. Yet, whether or not they are a too obvious comment on the borderline aggression of celebrity culture, the mindlessness of mainstream television programming or the sheer speed and relentlessness of modern popular culture, the zombie has always been an unsubtle allegory and this miniseries follows in that tradition. As would be expected, the housemates living on this island are not privy to the apocalyptic happenings taking place outside the house and their moment of realisation is a highlight of the series, one which underscores the enormity of being a miniscule pocket of humanity in an ocean of inexplicable rabidity. But what makes this show interesting as a genre exercise is its sheer grittiness and naturalism, accentuated by tense and confrontational camerawork. Zombie films tend to exist in a slightly heightened state, possessing an element of the paranormal, however minor. Here, the brutal realism lends proceedings a doubly depressing, doubly disturbing and doubly exhilarating atmosphere. The gore and grime is quite frank, the effects convincing, and the atmosphere saturated with nihilism but also odd ounces of hope. A recent, bleaker English film in a similar vein, though arguably superior, would be Kill List.
Whether or not the ending comes across as affected or neither here nor there, Dead is thoroughly entertaining and a must-see for any horror lover or zombie fanatic. Miniseries or serialised feature, biting social commentary or trite social observation, Dead is great genre filmmaking stocked with colourful characters, wintry English dread and dry English humour, and gore and terror galore for those so inclined. Nonetheless one can’t help but wonder why on earth this thing was produced as a miniseries.
– Tope Ogundare