It’s time to take your lockdown to the next level. If you missed the horrorthon screening of Charlie Brooker’s five-part zombie classic Dead Set on SBS VICELAND on 2 May, never fear. The full box set is now streaming at SBS On Demand.
Mixing horror, satire, gore, and the fun of seeing annoying reality TV contestants leave the show (and the land of the living) one by one, Dead Set is an edge-of-your-seat thrilling ride that paved the way for Brooker’s ground-breaking series Black Mirror.
It’s just another eviction night at the Big Brother house, and people all across the UK are glued to their television sets. Which is probably a bad idea, as a zombie apocalypse is also sweeping (and devouring) the nation.
Big Brother production assistant Kelly (Jaime Winstone) has something else distracting her from the job at hand: last night she slept with a co-worker and now her boyfriend Riq (Riz Ahmed) is on his way to the set demanding to know where she was. Hopefully the zombie hordes will stop him from asking too many questions – and meanwhile, there’s a house full of contestants who are starting to suspect something strange is going on. It turns out that the Big Brother house is the perfect compound for keeping zombies out… until it isn’t.
Before Brooker was making television, he was criticising it with a column in The Guardian and the BBC series Screenwipe. Big Brother was a regular target for his ire, so expect a lot of very dark humour as a group of contestants especially selected to get on each other’s nerves have to work together if they’re going to stay alive. Not that the real Big Brother had a problem with the series: not only did Dead Set film some outside scenes using the Big Brother sets, but some of the actual contestants and the show’s then host Davina McCall make an (often bloody) appearance.
Brooker’s experience on both sides of the media gives this series an especially sharp edge. Zombies have always been used for social commentary, but Dead Set broke new ground by dropping the walking dead into the world of 21st century media, where reality television means the cameras keep rolling even when reality takes a turn for the worse.
In many ways Dead Set is a dry run for the creepy predictions Black Mirror would come to specialise in. The idea of reality TV continuing on with the show while the world outside collapses could easily have been an episode of that series’ insightful and sometimes darkly funny look at where technology and the media is taking us.
And if you don’t think a series about a reality show where the contestants are unaware of a plague running amok outside predicted the future, then you must have missed the recent news about the German Big Brother house. There the contestants – most of whom entered the house in early February – had no idea what was going on until they were told (live on air, naturally) by the show’s resident doctor. They took it relatively well: only one contestant burst into tears.
It’s not just Black Mirror that Dead Set inspired. In 2013 Brooker himself signed off on a segment on the UK’s Big Brother where the housemates had to deal with a (fictional) viral outbreak, while Netflix’s upcoming series from Brazil Reality Z owes a heavy (and acknowledged) debt to the UK original.
As Brooker said at the time, “Just as a shopping mall was the ideal setting for the original Dawn of the Dead back in 1978, so the Big Brother house seemed fitting for a TV zombie epic set in the 21st century. Dead Set isn’t an out-and-out comedy, but an unashamedly populist horror-thriller with blackly comic undertones. Think 24 with zombies. And housemates. And gore.”
The box set of all five episodes of Dead Set is now streaming at SBS On Demand:
Follow the author here: @morrbeat