Shiny Shelf

Dead Set

By Mark Clapham on 29 October 2008

‘Dead Set’ is admirably hardcore. While the premise – a combination of production members and ‘housemates’ shelter in the ‘Big Brother’ house during a zombie apocalypse – may encourage comforting thoughts of ‘Shaun of the Dead’, ‘Dead Set’ isn’t nearly as amiable. There’s humour, yes, but it’s of a particularly bleak kind and only accentuates the sense of an implacably hostile world.
The script for ‘Dead Set’ marks the drama scriptwriting debut of Charlie Brooker, better known as a TV critic and creator of Nathan Barley. There are some of Brooker’s pet concerns at work – the heroine (Jamie Winstone, more convincing here than in Jamie Hewlett future-panto ‘Foo Action’ earlier this year) is a production runner, an underpaid TV industry gopher of the kind Brooker has sympathised with in the past – but the most notable hangover from his other work is the bleak worldview rather than the comedy. On the basis of the first couple of episodes, Brooker and director Yann Demange have managed a remarkable achievement, smuggling a genuine, uncompromised horror series on to British TV screens.
The first, double length, episode effectively sets out the premise and the atmosphere, as the ‘BB’ complex chaotically prepares for eviction night, barely acknowledging news reports of riots and unrest around the country. There’s a certain amount of satire – the production team are almost as isolated from reality by their self absorption as the ‘housemates’ are by their mirrored cage – but more than anything the familiar setting of ‘Big Brother’ is used as an appropriately banal, familiar contrast to the building disaster.
The major set piece of the episode is when zombies inevitably flood into the studio, massacring the crew, former housemates, and indeed Davina herself, to the strains of Mika’s ‘Grace Kelly’, with the current housemates none the wiser. The series picks up the next morning with the survivors beginning to address their predicament, each step a danger as they emerge from their boltholes. The horror comes from the slow, dreadful exploration, of darkened corridors, or a step out into the unguarded open. While it is funny, the jokes are virtually never used as a release – they emphasise the horror rather than relieving it.
While it shares the satirical preoccupations of George A Romero’s zombie films, ‘Dead Set’ opts for the faster, frenetic zombies of ‘28 Days Later’ and Zack Snyder’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’ remake. Aside from the odd full-tilt flight from running zombies, there’s no ‘action’ as such: when violence happens, it’s sudden, confusing and not at all cathartic. When one zombie is dispatched with a fire extinguisher at the end of the first episode, it’s as brutal a scene as ever broadcast on British television drama.
‘Dead Set’ not only feels at home on television, a medium which has rarely done horror or scares of any kind in recent years (at least not in shows primarily aimed at adults), but it doesn’t feel cut down compared to its cinematic counterparts. The effects and cinematography are spot on, and the contained environments and small cast feel like artistic decisions rather than budgetary requirements. ‘Dead Set’ steps into a genre dominated by the big screen, and shows it can compete. Hopefully it represents a revival for the horror genre on British TV, and will encourage others to think as boldly.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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