Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on the new internet machine.
I’m not sure when zombies became such a “thing.” It was George Romero, of course, who turned “zombie” from being an undead servant created by voodoo into a reanimated flesh-eating corpse, but it took some time before what he created in Night of the Living Dead became such a massive subgenre. Was it Shaun of the Dead? Was it, actual zombie film or not, 28 Days Later? Could it have been the Dawn of the Dead remake? I don’t know. All I do know on this front is that zombie films seem to be everywhere. You can’t swing a cat, dead or reanimated, without hitting one. And in 2008, British television produced Dead Set, a zombie-themed miniseries that has one stand-out premise that makes it initially interesting.
Dead Set posits a zombie outbreak during a season of the television show Big Brother. That’s it; that’s the entire premise. The plague happens outside of the Big Brother house, but most of the story takes place inside the house. What makes this particularly interesting is that the show, at least as far as I know, involves cutting the people off from the outside world completely. And so, the realization that something terrible is going on in the outside world takes some time to settle in. On top of that, also as I understand it, the type of person who tended to be involved in Big Brother was exactly the sort of idiot who would walk directly into a zombie attack. There’s a moment when one of the characters declares that humanity will win because they can still reason, but the contestants are exactly the sort of fame junkies who can’t actually reason.
Dead Set doesn’t spend a lot of time setting up the zombie plague. It also doesn’t require any actual knowledge of Big Brother. I never watched a minute of that show, but I was able to understand exactly what was happening. Things open on an eviction night—someone is being booted from the house. Currently still in the house are Pippa (Kathleen McDermott), Joplin (Kevin Eldon), Space (Adam Deacon), Angel (Chizzy Akudolu), Marky (Warren Brown), Veronica (Beth Cordingly), and Grayson (Raj Ghatak). Inside the production booth, Patrick (Andy Nyman) runs roughshod over his crew, particularly Kelly (Jaime Winstone). The current fear is that some unrest outside might preempt eviction night.
The unrest, is the zombie plague, of course, and the zombies show up at the studio and start ripping through the gathered crowd of Big Brother fans. The plague spreads very quickly, and soon enough the studio is being overrun. Evicted person Pippa and Patrick end up in a reception room (and actual Big Brother presenter Davina McCall has been zombified and is trying to kill them) while Kelly manages to get inside the Big Brother house itself. Meanwhile, her boyfriend Riq (Riz Ahmed) teams up with Alex (Liz May Brice) to reach the studios.
Dead Set was broadcast over five consecutive nights in 2008, and it does have the feel of a serial. The first episode runs about 45 minutes, with the subsequent ones going between 20 and 25. We get cliffhanger endings in a few of them, and each one does feel like an actual episode of a television show.
Where Dead Set excels is in the overall feel of things. The plague spreads quickly, and people reanimate mere moments after dying. The undead themselves are very quickly covered in blood and have the sort of pale blue irises that have become very popular in zombie movies of late. I like the fact that there’s not a slow build to the world (or at least the British Isles) being completely overrun. When the show starts, the plague is just beginning, but by the end of the first episode, television signals are cut, the entire country is in chaos, and within a day or so, everything is shut down and zombies number in the millions. Dead Set also doesn’t skimp on the gore. This plays very much like an R-rated movie in terms of violence, blood, viscera, and language. It serves as a reminder that British television allows a lot more than network TV in the States.
Where Dead Set falls apart is in the characters themselves. The total length of the show is 141 minutes, and despite this, there is almost nothing known about the actual characters. They aren’t even caricatures. I literally didn’t know the name of the character Veronica until I checked on Wikipedia to make sure I had it right. Kelly is ostensibly our main character, and all we really know about her is that Riq is her boyfriend and she starts the show on the cusp of an affair with a coworker (who quickly falls to the plague). Beyond that, she has almost no personality or traits. Pippa is crushingly stupid and that’s all we get. Patrick is a stereotype of television producer and the type who deserves to be punched. Angel might have 5 lines in the whole thing.
That’s a failing. I don’t care about these characters at all, and while the actual story is kind of interesting and the zombie plague itself is compelling, it doesn’t really matter to me that much in terms of who lives and who dies. In fact, I was more invested on particular characters dying than in other characters making it through to the end. Beyond that, there are issues with who turns into a zombie and who doesn’t—several times, people appear to be completely overwhelmed by the undead, but show up still mainly intact. It seems like that was done for effect rather than to make sense.
Dead Set is a great idea, and the execution of the technical aspects of it is really good. What I’d like is characters who meant more than just an order of who would show up on the menu.
Why to watch Dead Set: Such a great premise.
Why not to watch: Are you tired of zombies yet?