For a one-sentence pitch (“The contestants in Big Brother have to fight off a zombie outbreak from the Big Brother house”), Charlie Brooker’s satirical splatterfest is admirably versatile: if you hate Big Brother, you can enjoy watching it all being torn to pieces by ravenous zombies; if you love Big Brother, then you’re really going to enjoy watching it all being torn to pieces by ravenous zombies.
If you’re looking for hard-and-fast zombie action, you can comfortably ignore the underlying satire about the metrosexual media – and the public that adores it – feeding on itself; and if you do catch that satirical note, you can then ascribe it to genial self-mockery (Dead Set was made with the very evident co-operation of the Channel 4 reality-show) or an ingenious critical grenade that has slipped through the PR firewall. And any which way you cut it, it still works.
BB runner Kelly (Jaime Winston) is slowly being lured into the hip and amoral social sphere of big-league TV; she’s cheating on long-term boyfriend Riq (Riz Ahmed) with a smooth charmer from the production team, but she’s regretting it and thinking that she might have started off on the wrong career path. Are her regrets over her dissolute life-style enough to save her from classic horror-movie karma…?
Elsewhere, characters are gathering that are just asking to be torn to shreds by the undead: BB contestant Joplin (Kevin Eldon), is the wrinkly intellectual retentive that the producers have thrown in to give viewers someone to instantly hate whilst they are getting to know the serious contenders; known as ‘Golum’ behind his back, he ends up loosely bonding with resident glam-thickie Pippa (Kathleen McDermott), who’s so far below Joplin’s intellectual radar that she doesn’t even know if toes have bones in them.
The rest of the BB household are recognisable fare: Angel (Chizzy Akudolu), the overfed soul-mama with more mouth than Moby Dick; empty-headed Northern hunk Mark (Warren Brown), who’s shafting man-eating glamourpuss Veronica (Beth Cordingly); pseudo-hip South London wide-boy Space (Adam Deacon); and gender-bending motormouth Grayson (a deliciously ripe turn from Raj Ghatak).
It’s eviction day at BB central, and several real-life ex-contestants convene in the green-room to take part in the finger-pointing and tittle-tattle, including Imogen Thomas, Eugene Sully, Makosi Musambasi and Ziggy Lichman.
Over in make-up, Davina McCall is fretting with arch-lizard producer-from-hell Patrick (Andy Nyman) over rumours that Big Brother‘s big night might get bumped for a news update; she’s right, as it turns out – Britain’s major cities are falling to an unprecedented outbreak of rioting and hideous violence, and it’s heading Big Brother’s way…
“Why do people riot?” moans Patrick. “It’s not the eighties. They’ve got distractions. They should stay in and watch telly.”
Before you know it, tearful Pippa’s big eviction broadcast gives way to a frighteningly uninformative ‘Please stand by’. The first zombie has entered the compound; kills are quick and bloody, revivals almost instant and lethal, and soon young Kelly is trapped in a photocopying room with her undead lover trying to hammer down the door to chow down on her. And not in a good way.
Over in another part of the studio, Patrick the Prick shakes his head disdainfully at the zombified Davina McCall he finds feeding on one of his ‘minions’ in a corridor. Just as he’s registered that he’s not interested in trying to shag Davina anymore, it occurs to Patrick that he had better start running. McCall traps him in the ante-room with tearful Pippa. It’s little more than a broom closet, and with Zombie Davina ravening at the door, it looks like these unlikely room-mates will be getting to know each other far better than either would like…
Eventually young Kelly fights her way through the jack-in-the-box zombies loitering in the studio corridors and makes it to the safety of the Big Brother household – where no-one believes a word she’s saying, until thick Marky is dumb enough to let in the zombie that has been tracking Kelly, which leads to an astonishingly brutal head kill with a fire-extinguisher.
“The head.” Says Kelly. “You’ve got to get them in the head.”
Broadcast over five nights, Dead Set is effectively one very long drip-fed zombie movie; episode one suggests that Brooker isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel here, and nor should he; the ‘slow zombies’ contingent will already be moaning about the speedy undead that chase our anti-heroes through the studios of Channel 4.
In its reliance on formula packaged with a ‘twist’, zombie movies are more like porno than any other genre, and tonight’s extra-length opener doesn’t dawdle too long before delivering the genre’s own ‘money-shots’: gobbled guts, torn-out throats, shattered skulls and rampant survivalist violence.
If Dead Set is not original (Wrong Turn 2 having stolen the march on injecting reality TV into genre horror), it is nonetheless gripping, and a quantum leap in quality for E4. Brooker has gnawed off the best parts of countless zombie movies and strewn them through his script, sometimes digested (the ‘wheelchair zombie’ is a nice wrinkle) and sometimes not: the reference to The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue is nicely elliptical, although Marky’s aping of a scene from Night Of The Living Dead rather dents Brooker’s portrayal of a world that seems to have no zombies in its entertainment culture.
Ultimately Dead Set is likely to engage even Big Brother-haters in the very rubber-necking they protest in the show itself, but now with a protective cushion of fiction. Prickly, world-hating Patrick is obviously being set up for a ‘Rhodes special’ from the original Day Of The Dead, but – like the original – it mustn’t happen until the end; he’s the only one who can really see the guts of the situation, his acidic cynicism impervious even to zombie onslaught.
The cast give first-rate performances, with Ray Winston’s daughter demonstrating the family quality, but special mention must go to Davina McCall; she’s okay as herself in Dead Set, but really quite a revelation as her undead alter-ego, and I’m guessing she needed very little persuasion to take the part. Hopefully her now one-dimensional character won’t be getting the fire-extinguisher treatment too soon…