January 11, 2009

DEAD SET (Review)


Dead Set (2008)

Created by Charlie Brooker
Directed by Yann Demange

RATING: 4.5 / 5 zedheads'


On reality TV, everyone can hear you scream.

Dead Set is a tense, thrilling, and gory tale of the zombie apocalypse where the only thing more frightening than the ravenous undead is the fact that the only place to hide from them is . . . the Big Brother House!

Dead Set is a five-part miniseries from the UK that first aired on digital channel E4 from October 27 - 31, 2008. The writer, Charlie Brooker, and director, Yann Demange, take their cues from the 28 Days Later franchise, which itself influenced the fast-paced Dawn of the Dead remake, but Dead Set sets itself apart by interlacing intriguing social satire and honest-to-god disturbing moments in a unique take on the zombie apocalypse scenario.

Although the series is supported by a great ensemble cast, the series focuses primarily on Kelly (Jaime Winstone) who works on the production staff for the UK reality show Big Brother. Kelly’s job is menial. She is a ‘go-for’: go for coffee, go for cigarettes, etc. She seems dissatisfied with her life, she dislikes her job, and she is having sex with her co-worker although her long-term boyfriend, Riq, is still in the picture. She’s a runner, a junior member of the television crew, but will soon be running for her life as a fast-moving zombie infection strikes the Big Brother set on eviction night. The infection spreads through the crowd into the production offices until it is not clear who is a rabid fan and who is simply rabid. Soon, most of the victims are undead while the majority of the survivors are contestants living in the sealed Big Brother house, oblivious to the zombies waiting for them on the other side of the two-way mirrors.

Like the best zombie films, it is not the action or the gore (of which there is plenty and should please most gore hounds) that sells the story but the friendships and the conflicts of its human characters. The characters start as stereotypes (the asshole boss, the ditzy blonde, the macho guy, the snob, the flamboyant gay) as is typical of reality TV, but as the series progresses they are either revealed to be more complex and human than at first presented or truly the worst of humanity’s shallow nature. The relationships evolve quite subtlety and naturally. At no point did the plot or characters ever seem forced. Even the asshole producer Patrick (played by Andy Nyman), a roaring storm of profanity and insensitivity behind a bad 70’s mustache, still feels as if he is a real human being. Characters come together and are torn apart as they try to survive the zombies and one another.

The real heart of the movie is its subtle satire of reality TV and voyeuristic visual culture. Without it, the series would be quite redundant. On the one hand, we’ve seen a lot of Dead Set’s conventions before. We’ve seen fast zombies, we’ve seen characters get bitten and then change into zombies, we’ve even seen characters holed up inside unique facilities (Romero did it first with a mall in Dawn, Wright and Pegg did it with the Winchester pub in Shaun of the Dead), and we’ve seen everyday people rise up and become heroes or turn on their fellow man. These are all standard conventions of the genre, but in choosing to set the story in the Big Brother house, Dead Set offers some unique satire.

"604 channels and nothing's on"

My favorite aspect of the zombies is that they appear to be attracted to mirrors, cameras, and screens. There are numerous shots of zombies drawn to their own reflections or to cameras. This sets up some brilliant shots where zombies on the other side of a two-way mirror silently watch the survivors in the Big Brother house. In our current Youtube culture where media is everywhere, we are a culture of watchers. Like the zombies, we don’t just consume goods and material anymore, we consume images. And we consume each other with our eyes. The ravenous horde outside the Big Brother gates are the fans and the contestants. Reality TV takes real people and places them into an ironically artificial environment in which they are objectified into celebrity commodities that are quickly torn down and destroyed in the end. If there is anything we love to see more than a celebrity it is a celebrity destroyed in the eyes of the public (think Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Tom Cruise). Even better if that person is an "average joe." The zombies themselves take the image of the body, with which contemporary culture is so obsessed, and turns it into something base, animal, gross, and dangerous. Thankfully, unlike George Romero’s Diary of the Dead, Dead Set does not beat the viewer over the head with its social message about voyeurism. It is subtle and seamlessly integrated into the thrilling plot. In many ways, Dead Set turned out to be what I had hoped Diary of the Dead would be.

I did not like all the stylistic choices in Dead Set. For one, the zombies all seem to emit animal noises. They hiss like cats, snarl and chew like dogs, and make various other composite animal sounds that make them sound like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. This would not be so bad if the zombies weren't also of the superhumanly fast variety. I like many fast zombie films, but I vastly prefer the slow moving kind. The more you remove the remnants of humanity from zombies the less they become symbols of human failure and simply become monsters. I understand why the zombies are fast moving in Dead Set; they have to be fast and vicious to move the story along quickly and crank up the suspense because the format is restricted. The last act of Dead Set is intense, full of violence and gore, which you would not get with shuffling zombies. On the other hand, I agree with Simon Pegg when he writes:

The absence of rage or aggression in slow zombies makes them oddly sympathetic, a detail that enabled Romero to project depth on to their blankness, to create tragic anti-heroes; his were figures to be pitied, empathised with, even rooted for. The moment they appear angry or petulant, the second they emit furious velociraptor screeches (as opposed to the correct mournful moans of longing), they cease to possess any ambiguity. They are simply mean.

Then again, Romero always had hope for the common man despite the cynicism in his films. Perhaps Brooker is far more pessimistic in his satire about the meanness of life.

I have much more objection to the use of hand held cameras to film the action sequences. When the characters and zombies are running, the camera shakes wildly. I sat through and enjoyed both The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, yet the shaky camera work in Dead Set was distracting, at times nauseating, and always overdone. It took me out of the film instead of making me feel a part of the action.

Despite these minor distractions, Dead Set was an incredibly enjoyable zombie miniseries and probably one of the best zombie productions of 2008. Dead Set is available as a region 2 DVD in Europe but is not yet available in North America. When it is, I'm going to snap it up.