Charlie Brooker first made an impact with TV Go Home, his online spoof TV listings magazine. The most notable recurring programme was Cunt, a documentary that chronicled the life of Nathan Barley, a young, rich idiot obessed with being cool. It struck a chord (even with the people it was parodying). Barley became an instant shorthand for a type of person, place and attitude and spawned a TV show (which Brooker co-wrote) and even, if you believe some, a subgenre.
TV Go Home also acted as a calling card for Brooker and when the peerless Jim Shelley stopped writing for the Guardian Guide, Brooker took over his column as TV critic. He quickly developed a popular and recognisable style which basically consisted of creative swearing in the cause of ranting at banality and stupidity. (He is probably best known in the US for his column suggesting that the assassination of George W Bush would be no bad thing.) This popularity has lead in recent years to a TV version and an additional “speak your brains” column in the paper proper which more or less follows the same formula. As he puts it in a recent column:
One drawback—or possibly advantage—of being known as an easily riled automated curmudgeon is that people tend to hurl recommendations my way. “Here, look at this,” they chortle, holding something irritating under my nose. “You’ll hate it.”
So it was a happy accident that his tenure as TV critic coincided with the rise of reality TV—the apogee of curmudgeon-baiting televisual banality—and, in particular, Big Brother. Brooker clearly has a bit of a love/hate relationship with these shows—they may fill him with rage but they also provide him with limitless material. They are a scab he can’t stop picking. He has even (improbably, he admits) become friends with Big Brother contestants. So the fact that Dead Set, shown on five consecutive nights and released in an approximation of a feature-length DVD, is a zombie drama set in the Big Brother house is not as surprising as it might at first appear.
What is slightly surprising—and must reflect well on Brooker—is just how much Channel 4 (the UK home of Big Brother) have embraced the concept. This isn’t just a parody reality TV show house, this is the actual Big Brother house, complete with logo, music, Geordie voiceover bloke and Davina herself. Kelly (Jamie Winstone) is a runner for the show, working for Patrick (Andy Nyman), an impressively vile producer. Inside the house the usual selections of horrors take part in the usual screeching drama, along with the token bloke who seems quite sensible, Space (Adam Deacon). Outside there are reports of rioting, but Patrick is only concerned with these insofar as they affect the airing of his show. We ease in slowly, getting to know our heroine and her environment; the petty bitching and shouting of the house reflected by the same petty bitching and shouting in the studio. Then the zombies appear.
There was a default assumption before Dead Set was broadcast that it would be a satire. This was a bit worrying, because reality TV is essentially post-satire. How can you satirise a programme which has Jade Goody as a main character? Luckily, Brooker has instead written a black comedy that generally playing it quite straight. The few bluntly satirical lines stand out rather baldly and even, in one scene I will mention further down, surreally. There are certainly scenes where the zombies eye the remaining humans on the ever present television monitors, literalising the idea that Big Brother viewers are braindead but (as mentioned above) Brooker is surprisingly sympathetic to the whole concept and the zombies are much less metaphorical than flesh-eatingly real.
There is only one zombie story: stay alive. After the first wave of violence, and the sight of most of their colleagues being slaughtered, Kelly hides in an office and Patrick in a toilet. They then separately re-group with the contestants before all taking shelter in the house. As you would expect there are many near misses, gory deaths, moral dilemmas and group tensions along the way. Oh, and shitting in bins. It does show that the mixing of zombies with Big Brother is an inspired choice: they both involve people being locked in a room and cracking under the pressure whilst outside crowds bay for their blood. As Patrick says whilst trying to work out an escape plan: “think of it as a task, if that helps.”
Despite this extra resonance, it is still hard to make a distinctive zombie film, and striving to be distinctive sometimes produces a schizophrenic effect in a show that really just wants to be about zombies. On a brief excursion to the supermarket to pick up supplies the police turn up and rather than helping they hold Space at gunpoint until one of them recognises him: “Aren’t you that bloke off Big Brother? The sort of black one?”
In the end they decide he is guilty of looting but let him off with a caution, “given the circumstances.” It is a weird scene which achieves the goal of giving our protagonists access to weapons but at the cost of juddering us into a different sort of programme than the one we have been watching to that point.
There is also a subplot involving Kelly’s boyfriend trying to make his way to the studio which feels a bit tacked-on. It does, however, feature Brooker’s partner, Liz May Brice, as another survivor with the classically alluring combination of sour face, firearm, attitude problem and thrusting bosom. Of the rest of the actors, Winstone is good as the everywoman heroine—although by its nature it is a fairly anonymous role—and Kevin Eldon puts in a good performance as one of the contestants, cruelly referred to by the others as Gollum. (Eldon is the go to man for playing socially inept perverts.) It is Nyman who steals the show though. Brooker has a misanthropic streak a mile-wide which is a hallmark of his column but is held in check for most of Dead Set. No one is even called a cunt for the first three episodes. But it is with Patrick that Brooker gives himself full rein, and Nyman relishes the opportunity to display spectacular rudeness and distain for those around him. This reaches its apogee in a glorious, sustained scene during which he hacks up the body of dead contestant to use as bait while keeping up a crazed monologue extolling his can-do attitude—a brilliant blaze of seemingly coke-fuelled bile. If he is going down, he is going down swearing. It is the sort of thing Brooker excels at and it is a shame there wasn’t a bit more of it.
Finally, a few words on velocity and the z word. Simon Pegg, writer of Shaun Of The Dead, wrote an article for the Guardian in the wake of the release of Dead Set about the fact zombies shouldn’t run (Brooker later replied.) I have a lot of sympathy for Pegg’s view:
Another thing: speed simplifies the zombie, clarifying the threat and reducing any response to an emotional reflex. It’s the difference between someone shouting “Boo!” and hearing the sound of the floorboards creaking in an upstairs room: a quick thrill at the expense of a more profound sense of dread. 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.
I may have used the word zombie throughout this review but that is only in deference to the creator of the work. Although they are used to tell essentially the same survival story, zombies and the infected—the term seems to have stuck, even if it nowhere near as evocative—are fundamentally different beasts. As my earlier review of 28 Weeks Later for Strange Horizons makes clear, the speed of the infected can bring something new and interesting to a film beyond mere meanness, but perhaps it is time to reclaim the word zombie for actual zombies. Or perhaps that is over-thinking a bowl of brains.