Dead Set (2008)
By: Julian on December 20, 2009  | 
SBS DVD (Australia) . All Regions, PAL. 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 2.0. 141 minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Yann Demange
Starring: Jaime Winstone, Andy Nyman, Riz Ahmed, Davina McCall, Kevin Eldon, Chizzy Akudolu, Shelley Conn, Raj Ghatak, Riz Ahmed
Screenplay: Charlie Brooker
Country: UK
External Links
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Fresh off its debut run on the SBS, Dead Set is the brainchild of Reading journo Charlie Brooker that contemporises the Romeroesque social commentary to tackle the pop culture beast that is reality TV. And although I was critical of Dawn of the Dead's heavy handed and holier-than-thou indictment of consumerist culture (a position I revised somewhat after a bit of exposure therapy when I reviewed Anchor Bay's perfect 4-disc release), I think Brooker and director Yann Demange have done a terrific job with Dead Set, at least in how the concept itself has been executed. Criticisms of the more nit-picky variety will be detailed later on.

Dead Set proceeds like any other zombie story but with a significant twist: the protagonists are contestants in the Big Brother house. There's the usual menagerie of characters, from flamboyant homosexual nurse Grayson (Raj Ghatak) to the cretinous blonde Veronica (The Bill's Beth Cordingly), none of whom are likeable to any degree. On eviction night, with UK Big Brother host Davina McCall playing herself, the zombie invasion strikes. McCall is zombified and spends much of the season stalking the execs and the contestants, a role I'm sure she relished as she prepares to host a tenth Big Brother season. The contestants hole up inside the House, and Kelly, a production runner played by Donkey Punch's Jaime Winstone, and one of the show's vile executives Patrick (Andy Nyman of Severance. Brooker describes him as a caricature, "realistically he's such a cunt that he probably won't be working for five minutes") are trapped in the green room. Kelly, Patrick and the contestants must find a way to survive in the Big Brother house while reinforcing the complex and keeping seething hoards of the undead at bay.

Dead Set is a five-episode television series that first aired late 2008 on the British television station E4. The whole thing runs under two and a half hours and the miniseries format is both a blessing and a curse for Dead Set: Brooker keeps everything very tight and it works generally well in the episodic format, but the multitude of characters makes it (at least for those following on television) a bit of a chore to keep up with. I think, for viewers who only caught it on TV, reappraisal on home video will do wonders. And if you're thinking that its made-for-TV roots makes Dead Set a sanitised zombie effort, then you're wrong: this is staggeringly violent and mean-spirited. In fact, some of the misanthropy here is jarring, particularly when delivered (and most of it is) by Patrick, whose cynicism and effortlessly mordant manner just compound the atmosphere. The fact that most of the characters are about as intellectually bereft as you can get ultimately makes Dead Set very bleak indeed, though I suspect Brooker was playing it up for laughs.

In my review for Zombieland, I spoke a bit about the perpetual running zombie debate. It's essentially a clash between the conservatives and the progressives; those who want their zombies slow, lumbering and actually moving like the dead cadavers they are, and those that prefer a more modern re-animated foe, one that sprints like a madman after healthy humans. In Dead Set, the zombies are runners. In response to this, Simon Pegg wrote an article for The Guardian – "Simon Pegg on why zombies should never run" – and, while praising Dead Set, his tirade on running zombies was hilarious. "Death is a disability, not a superpower", he writes. "It's hard to run with a cold, let alone the most debilitating malady of them all".

True that may be, but running zombies as they appeared in Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead,and even a comedy like Zombieland are far more malevolent movie monsters than their sluggish counterparts. Without over-intellectualising what I think is a genuinely ridiculous point of contention, slow zombies are only successful in what can only be described as an impenetrable, swelling phalanx, while the sprinters can be just as lethal individually. I shall go no further, because I think I've already dedicated far too many words trying to justify Brooker's choice to use zombies that run: if you're going to dismiss Dead Set on these grounds, then you're a purist who cannot be pleased. Some may relish in Brooker's occasional nods to Romero, including a Night of the Living Dead quote and a death scene lifted straight out of Day of the Dead.

I'm unfamiliar with what Brooker's done in his homeland, but by reports from Brit critics, this is a top effort by a master humorist. His motives, as he hilariously describes in a supplementary interview, were generated after watching an episode of 24, in which "the terrorists were so unbelievable they might as well have been zombies. Hey, that's a good idea". Dead Set certainly taps into the savagely comic vein that Brooker is known to mine in his satirical writing but it's the added, darker dimension that I thought made the series. Simply, it's the best TV horror since Masters of Horror and you'd do very well to check it out.
Picture is presented in 16:9 anamorphic widescreen. It's okay, but worth remembering this is made-for-TV so it's not as polished a piece of product as what similar films would be. Personally, I think Dead Set's general vibe benefits from not being that slick. Tat Radcliffe is responsible for the rather dark cinematography, and he's the man to blame if you're averse (as I am) to the grating shaky-cam that presents itself during action sequences.
One English audio track, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. It's fine.
Extra Features
A reasonable set of features is provided here. There's a 7-minute bit on Davina McCall, a 3-minute SFX featurette focussing on the fire extinguisher scene, a 6-minute behind the scenes featurette, a 4-minute interview with director Yann Demange, a 6-minute interview with Charlie Brooker (great value) and a number of deleted scenes.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
A deft blend of corrosive humour (most of it criticising the banality of reality TV) and ultraviolence. Whatever minor complaints I have with Dead Set don't significantly diminish two and a half hours of the best fun you'll have with zombies this year.

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