Monday, 12 January 2009

DVD Review - Dead Set

Dead Set was a show created by Charlie Brooker for E4 and first broadcast over the week leading up to Halloween in 2008. The show was recently repeated on Channel 4 to coincide with the latest edition of Celebrity Big Brother so I thought now would be a good time to take another look at it and review the DVD.

Charlie Brooker is famous for being a curmudgeonly TV critic. Charlie has a show called ‘Screenwipe’ on BBC Four which is used as a platform for his insults and the occasional praise of current television. He also uses the show to educate his audience about elements of television, such as reality TV show construction, advertising, and moral outrages/TV crusades. Anyway, this review isn’t about Screenwipe (which is an excellent show) but rather this is to give you some background on the writer of Dead Set and the expectations of certain members of the audience. You see, Charlie is a TV critic and now he’s become an object of criticism by writing a TV show. Many of his fans expected Dead Set to be satirical and rich with Charlie’s misanthropic views on life and his gift for foul language. Did they get what they wanted? Well, yes and no.

Dead Set focuses on the cast and crew of a production of Big Brother and their efforts to survive a zombie apocalypse. The opening episode opens innocently enough with the production crew focusing on broadcasting a live eviction night episode of the show and the Big Brother housemates argue about eggs. The first episode introduces the threat of the zombies gradually, first via background hints and images, then suggestions of zombie attacks, before finally unleashing them on the protagonists. The Big Brother house soon becomes the only safe haven in the country…

What’s surprising to me as a viewer is that Brooker managed to create a show that wasn’t an outright snark fest or unsubtle satire. Brooker created a zombie film first and foremost. This is clearly the work of a fan of the zombie genre, from the dialogue tributes to other films (“She’s got a face like a Manchester morgue.”) to the familiar construction of the narrative. The zombie story itself is not groundbreaking, there are no twists on the zombie menace, no new theories on their origins or scenes that you haven’t really seen in other zombie films (well, apart from someone creating zombie ‘food’ or ‘chum’). What’s impressive about Dead Set is that Brooker has managed to create a drama that is compelling despite containing largely unlikeable but naturalistic characters. Jamie is the protagonist but although she’s bright and capable, she’s cheating on her devoted boyfriend Riq. The housemates conform to certain Big Brother contestant stereotypes, The Chav Couple, The Flamboyant Gay One, The Streetwise Kid, The Nice But Dim One, The Old Intellectual, and The Gobby One. The stereotypes are convenient narrative shorthand to create a believable Big Brother cast and an appropriately hostile atmosphere. Charlie saves his best dialogue for Patrick the producer (played with gusto by an excellent Andy Nyman) who spends his time insulting everyone within earshot and defecating into a bin. Patrick is an exaggerated character and he’s used to deliver Brooker’s patented tirades and insults to great effect, his rant about reality TV contestants in the penultimate episode is pure Brooker.

The show is shot well; director Yann Demange does a fantastic job of making the best of limited resources. The director has washed out the colour of the film giving it a naturalistic but bleak look and there’s frequent use of hand cameras during action sequences but without the frequent and choppy editing in modern cinema. It’s clear that some scenes suffered due to lack of budget, a car breaks down spontaneously rather than suffering a crash, and there’s a dialogue reference to the engine being covered in skin and blood despite no outward damage to the vehicle. The location shooting is obviously limited to the Big Brother studios and immediate surroundings and there are no ‘money’ shots of deserted city streets or scenes of zombies roaming vast urban areas. Despite these limitations the apocalypse is conveyed through background images, static TV screens and deserted outdoor locations.

The DVD contains a lot of short extras that don’t outstay their welcome. There are interviews with cast, crew, Big Brother host Davina, and Brooker himself. The interviews are all entertaining and never dull, Davina relishes her part in the show and Brooker explains his inspirations for the show. There’s a tour of the Big Brother house that was specially created for the show and there are some fun sequences involving the special effects guys and their gore effects. There are also a few deleted scenes that were originally cut for time.

I have one gripe about the DVD though, the episodes aren’t cut together as one long movie. Although Dead Set was transmitted as 5 separate episodes, it was later broadcast as an omnibus edition. It’s tiring to have to skip the ‘Previously on Dead Set’ recaps before each episode when you’ve selected ‘Play All’. As there are no end credits until the final episode, surely they could’ve cut the end title and the recaps from each episode for the ‘Play All’ feature? Still, it’s a petty gripe but one that annoyed me.

In conclusion, Dead Set is a fine addition to the zombie genre. It’s an entertaining series that captures the dark humour and spirit of Romero whilst using the modern, running zombies of 28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead remake.

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