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Dead Set – a review

May 28, 2009

Now, where would I never in my life want to be? The Big Brother house, for sure. But for one exception: in the event of a zombie apocalypse.

For those of you not familiar with the format, the idea of the Big Brother tv-show is simply this: a group of more or less ignorant and attention-hungry people are locked up in a small house and every aspect of their fairly dull everyday life is observed through video cameras. Occasionally they’re given tasks to complete, and if they succeed, they’re awarded with something, usually booze. For our viewing pleasure. Every now and then they vote someone out, and the last one remaining wins a cash prize.

I’ll just come out clean and say it: I hate Big Brother. I absolutely loathe it. The entire concept of watching stupid and dull people make fools out of themselves on television is repulsive. Even so, the setup is interesting: how will people react when they’re isolated from society and deprived of news, activities and meaningful social contacts? Against this background, when I heard of Dead Set – a horror mini-series combining Big Brother with zombies – I couldn’t help but to be more than a bit excited. Could the braindead on the inside best the undead on the outside? The idea is brilliant. The BB house is by its very nature closed off to the outside world, isolated and somewhat protected. What better place to spend the apocalypse in?

In Dead Set the zombie catastrophe happens in the UK. True to Romero’s style, the whys and hows aren’t explained. All we know is that in the outside world, society collapses and the undead reign, while in the BB house the contestants remain blissfully ignorant of the happenings. Of course it reaches them eventually, but how and why would be spoiling the story. Along with the contestants, the series also tells the parallel stories of a few members of the production staff and a few other survivors, giving us a chance to glimpse at the outside world. All the people are connected, and the parallel storylines bound together in a smooth natural way.

What in my opinion is crucial to any film and zombie movies in particular is the cast of characters and their interaction. Dead Set excels at this. The characters and their reactions to the strange conditions feel genuine enough. There are no heroes here, just regular (a relative term when talking about BB contestants) people caught up in an awful situation. When this is combined with the authentic Big Brother set and cameo appearances from real-life BB contestants and host Davina McCall, the scenario is frighteningly realistic. In a zombie movie, this is pure goodness. I also feel that this is where British zombie productions beat their modern American counterparts. The characters are more low-key and realistic, making them and the story easier to relate to.

The actors – many of them familiar faces from various British series – pull off their roles well, with especially Andy Nyman delivering a wonderful performance as the rude and obnoxious producer Patrick. Again, this adds to the feel of the story, as the viewer’s immersion is not shattered by that unfortunate companion of many zombie movies, namely frustratingly bad acting.

The story itself is balanced and the tension is upheld throughout the entire show. The structure of five separate episodes instead of a single film probably adds to this, as the story never grows boring or slows down. This is quite an accomplishment considering a combined length of almost 2½ hours. There’s no empty filler here. Dead Set also has a fair amount of humour in it, but it’s woven well into the story and dialogue. The same can be said about the critique aimed at reality-tv and its viewers.

The visuals are fairly standard fare. If you’ve seen 28 Days/Weeks Later or the Dawn of the Dead remake, you’ll know what to expect. Some shaky cam, some groovy filter work etc. This isn’t to everyone’s liking, but I personally have no problem with it.

What about the main attraction then? The zombies are of the running variety, again reminiscent of the two films mentioned in the previous paragraph. They’re well detailed and the makeup is excellent, with especially the creepy milky white contact lenses with a tiny pupil in the middle giving the zombies a truly scary look. Gore is very graphic and plentiful and well executed, with ripping skin, gallons of blood and entrails galore. Definitely not one for the squeamish or those repulsed by excessive violence.

As mentioned before, Dead Set is a mini-series consisting of five episodes, with a combined length of  141 minutes. Yes, that’s almost 2½ hours of quality zombie action. The episodes can be viewed separately, or as one movie.

Overall Dead Set is, simply put, the best zombie thing I’ve seen in years. There’s nothing here to complain about. Seriously, nothing. So if you haven’t seen it yet, get it and enjoy it. Then watch it again and like it even more.

Don’t believe me? Watch the trailer.

Dead Set is available on dvd from Amazon UK, Play.com and eBay (especially eBay UK), among many other places.

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6 comments

  1. I totally agree with every word you said, Mikka. I too, detest Big Brother and I can’t stand Davina McFoghorn (her voice is just like a foghorn!). But here was one Big Brother I just had to watch. Davina was far better than I expected and watching her die not once but twice was a real pleasure! Without spoiling the ending for those who haven’t seen it, all I can say is, a huge thumbs up for its denouement! The DVD is well worth buying as it contains lots of fascinating extras. My only criticism of Dead Set is that a lot of the colour has been deliberately saturated from the film. This is particularly noticable when watching some of the “making of” documentaries and you see everything in glorious technicolour! Hey I’m gorehound, what can I say?


    • Hahah, Bryan, the part about Davina dying twice made me laugh far too long to be socially acceptable!

      You’re right about the saturation. I don’t really mind this, and it appears to be becoming the current zombie-flick standard. I can understand the appeal of brighter colours, but then again the saturation thing makes for a dirtier, grimier look I think.


  2. Thanks for the tip on this series, Mikko. I hadn’t heard of it until I read your fine review. I’m looking forward to checking it out, although I LOATHE Big Brother in all its UK and US incarnations. If there was ever a group of people I LIKE to see turned into zombies, it would be the BB cast!

    I’ve actually been watching the BBC’s revival series of Survivors, which has no zombies but does have a post-apocalypse theme where a plague wipes out 99% of humanity, leaving a polyglot of survivors to make their way in the world. It’s very well-written and showcases some top acting. I’d definitely recommend taking a look if you get a chance.


    • Good to hear that my review has given someone some new info. I probably won’t spoil it too much by saying that your wish will be granted.

      I’ve been watching Survivors too, excellent stuff! I really like how they’ve made it feel realistic and emotionally effective and as you said, the acting is top notch.


  3. I enjoyed Dead Set when I saw it. Charlie Brooker (the writer) is a TV critic who put his money where his mouth was and made an enjoyable satirical drama. Even better, a satrirical drama about zombies 🙂

    Simon Pegg wrote an interesting article about the series a while back.

    It is mainly about the proliferation of the “fast” zombie. Simon doesnt like them. I do, sometimes. Mostly I prefer the slow versions for the same reasons that Mr Pegg suggests, although the occasional fast zombie is fine with me. I dont reckon that the base line for a zombie should be the fast, MTV kind however. Mr Pegg puts it far more eloquently than I ever could.

    Essential reading for anyone with an interest in zombie pop culture I think.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2008/nov/04/television-simon-pegg-dead-set


    • Thanks for the link, it was an interesting article. Pegg has a valid point, and like you, I agree about the fast/slow zombie divide.

      Fast and slow zombies make for very different styles of film. I like both, but for different reasons. Slow zombies are great in that they produce this feeling of anxiety and pending, inevitable doom, whereas the fast variety makes for a genuine sensation of panic. They’ve both been used in newer movies as well. Romero for example won’t probably steer away from his trademark shamblers.

      One thing that bugs me much more than zombies running is zombies thinking. This is mainly what’s always put me off the Return of the Living Dead films, and it bugged me a bit in Romero’s Land of the Dead as well. Bub is one thing, zombies communicating and being led is something else entirely.



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