As I was watching George Romero's last zombie movie a couple of weeks ago, I was convinced that I never wanted to see another zombie film. Not that it was bad (it was better than I expected); rather, I'm just sick of zombies. And yet, as another October comes to a close and another Halloween recedes into the past, I'm confronted with the fact that zombies are here for good. And even though it seems absurd at this late date to be discovering new variants on Romero's zombie mythos, let alone revivifying new interpretations, that's exactly what I got for Halloween this year. Dead Set, a 2008 mini-series directed by Yann Demange for Britain's Channel 4, was completely off my radar, so I was totally bushwhacked by it. This is even more surprising to me, actually, because it does so many of the things that I hate about recent horror cinema that I'm shocked I responded to it as well as I did. Or at all, for that matter. It's a shaky cam nightmare, chock full of running zombies and unpleasant characters and stereotypes, but, my god, it's well-written (by TV critic Charlie Booker, who seems to be taking a bloody ax to television here). Good writing often trumps style, and it trumps it hard in this case. This is the movie that 28 Days Later should have been, but wasn't. It brings the lumber.
The premise is brilliant. It's set in television, around the production of a season of the UK's version of Big Brother. To this end, it even brings in some of the principles of that show, including the show's hostess, Davina McCall (who the filmmakers murder and zombify in a bravura scene at the end of the first episode. I presume that they used the actual Big Brother sets, too, and they certainly create a facile forgery. The setting itself is ripe for the kind of social satire pioneered by Dawn of the Dead--and don't think the show doesn't go there, because it goes there with a vengeance--but something else is going on here, too. The first episode gives a hint of it, detailing the moral dilemma of Kelly, one of the show's production assistants, who has had an unfortunate dalliance with a co-worker. Kelly, played by Jaime Winstone, is the audience's point of reference, the protagonist if you will, but she's as morally compromised as any of the twits in the Big Brother house. An American film would never put a character like her in the lead. Her moral transgressions would pretty much guarantee that she's zombie chum. She sets up an interesting parallel with her producer, the venomous Patrick, who is portrayed as a right monster for most of the show. He gets the best lines, does something absolutely monstrous near the end, but is it more monstrous than what the rest of the cast, led by Kelly, plans when confronted with Patrick's intractability when it comes to his own authority? I say not. This is another one of those zombie films where the zombies aren't the real monsters. This is made explicit early when the show's riotous fans are shown to be not much different from the raging zombies. This element makes good use of the flash cut shaky cam style. It's surprisingly effective.
The character development is what sends this film over the edge. Its fun watching the Big Brother housemates--stereotypes all--shed their stereotypical roles once they realize that the zombie apocalypse is upon them. This process is pretty slow, given that the premise of the reality show is to isolate them and foist manufactured dramas upon them. They initially think it's all a prank. Once the "reality" sets in, though, they become real people with real hopes and dreams and foibles that haven't been manufactured for reality television. The series assembles these people, selected specifically for their incompatibility, and puts them in the crucible. I should mention that the event that convinces them of their situation is one of the nastier pieces of grue I've ever seen, one that isn't thrown away as the whole thing shifts into the second episode.
One of the things this gets exactly right is the moment when the machine stops working, when the infrastructure starts to go tits up, and when the old institutions crumble (leaving, interestingly enough, television to entertain a land of zombies). This is part of the zombie apocalypse that gets short shrift lately, which is a pity, because in a lot of ways, this is the whole point: stripping away the planks of civilization that give us a platform above a pit of seething chaos. The way it eases into this is wonderful, starting with random newscasts, followed by rail service that has stopped and cell phones that no longer work. This sort of thing goes beyond the grue and tickles something in the hind-brain.
Also to the series credit, it's not just concerned with delivering forty whacks to reality television (though that's obviously its primary motivation). There's an interesting dynamic at the end when white male privilege and authority forces its way into the proceedings and promptly fucks everything up. This is a pretty funny turn of events, I guess, given that the show makes a point of killing off its minority characters early. I suspect this was planned. This is also, perhaps unsurprisingly, an entry into the cinema of voyeurism. One character watches another shower, for instance, in a creepy, Norman Bates-ish fashion.
Did I mention the grue? This is one of the more violent zombie movies I've seen. I can't believe this ever aired on television anywhere in the world, but Europeans often surprise me along those lines. This doesn't spare the zombie gut-munching or decapitations or head shots, though it leavens it all with just enough black humor to make it tolerable. In some ways, the run and gun style aids this by hiding the deficiencies of the special effects while showing plenty. It also adds to the visceral impact.
Individual moments are indelible: The scene where one character laments, "I liked our farmhouse." Patrick's every, scabrous uttering ("She's got a face like Manchester Morgue."), his inversion of the Romero gut spilling trope at the end of Day of the Dead, followed by an over the top re-staging of the same trope in its original form with value added (and then some). The scene where Grayson (Raj Ghatak) sheds his queeny queer persona to establish his bona fides as a medical professional. The scene where our heroes leave behind a wounded cop to satisfy the pursuing zombies. All of this would put this into the forefront of zombie cinema, but what REALLY shades this series into the territory of horror masterpiece is the final montage, in which the filmmakers go back to the first principles of zombie filmmaking found in Night of the Living Dead, and then make something relevant and caustic out of it for the new millennium. I shan't describe it. Best that the viewer discover it on their own.