Written by: Charlie Brooker
Directed by: Yann Demange
You know the old saying about teachers – “if you can, do; if you can’t, teach”? The same goes for critics (and we should know). If you need proof, just check out any of the slew of dodgy DTV horror flicks penned by some-bloke-from-Fangoria. However, there are exceptions to the rule, and Charlie Brooker is a shining example. The outspoken TV critic’s first stab at drama isn’t just a “promising debut” or a “decent effort”; it’s one of the best pieces of telly this year.
It’s blessed with a high-concept of such genius that you could kick yourself for not having thought of it first: a zombie outbreak set around the Big Brother house. High-concept horrors often feel like a cut-and-shut job, but not here. In the classic zombie horror template a group of disparate strangers become trapped together, and inevitably descend into bickering - exactly like Big Brother, so the two halves dovetail quite naturally. Brooker also has the advantage of being able to drawn on the audience’s knowledge as he sketches familiar types from the reality show: the pretentious liberal, the cross-dressing exhibitionist, the shockingly ignorant airhead. You recognise these characters immediately.
The presence of Jaime Winstone as resourceful young runner Kelly feels appropriate – there haven’t been many TV shows this unremittingly bleak since her dad was swinging around a sockful of snooker balls in Scum; a pall of ominous grey as thick as a prison blanket hangs over it. It’s also hard to recall seeing anything made for television that’s so graphically violent. There’s a disembowelling that outdoes Captain Rhodes being torn to pieces in Day of the Dead, and a sequence in which someone has their skull pulverised with a fire extinguisher would rival Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible for unpleasantness if the victim didn’t happen to be one of the undead.
Yet there are laughs too - Brooker proves remarkably adept at sudden gear changes. One moment, you’re watching someone repeatedly stabbing a former friend in the head. The next, odious TV producer Patrick, trapped in a green room as a zombie hammers on the door, is shitting in a wastepaper bin. These bizarre juxtapositions add to the sense of verisimilitude, too – even in a zombie apocalypse people need to take a dump, and someone needs to sweep up the fragments of brain and skull with a dustpan and brush.
While the scabrous Patrick is the main mouthpiece for Brooker’s trademark invective, from time to time other characters start talking like him as well – a slight lapse in authorial discipline. But that’s a piddling quibble. With Dead Set, Charlie Brooker has produced a drama that not only matches the movies that inspired it, but surpasses many of them: it’s certainly better than the last two George Romero films. Brooker recently told SFX that he’d love to write a Twilight Zone-style anthology series. Please God, someone commission it now .
Dead Set airs on E4 from Monday 27 October-Friday 31 October.
Click here to read our interview with Charlie Brooker.