Charlie Brooker's Dead Set keeps the undead alive

Big Brother just entered a new realm of horror thanks to Dead Set's sharp and bloody satire

Ever since Danny Boyle revitalised zombies for the 21st century with 28 Days Later, the hordes of the undead have been shambling (or sprinting) across our screens with increasing regularity. We've had remakes (Zach Snyder's Dawn of the Dead), sequels (28 Weeks Later), comedies (Shaun of the Dead), soft porn (Zombie Strippers) and the disappointing return of an old master (George A Romero's Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead). Just like their inspiration, these films refuse to die, no matter how much damage the critics inflict on them.

So it's difficult not to feel a bit jaded at the prospect of Dead Set, Charlie Brooker's new five-part horror thriller for Channel 4. The good news is that its absurdly high concept - zombies lay siege to the Big Brother house in the style of 24 - seems to have been translated to the screen with real confidence and skill. And Brooker's wit, so snarky and electric on the page, has made the journey intact too.

It helps that the concept isn't only a neat fit for the mechanics of a zombie film - a protected enclosure and a group of disparate characters - but also uses its media backdrop as a sly dig at society. It might be the first zombie film since Romero's Dawn of the Dead to successfully pull off satire. These blank, voracious, unthinking shells are a powerful metaphor in the right hands and in the right context, and just as Romero's choice of a shopping mall all those years ago skewered consumerist America, Brooker's convincingly nasty reality TV complex nicely draws attention to our vicious urge to see celebrities and non-entities tearing each other apart on the small screen.

It's full of wicked little episodes that neatly channel the spirit of Brooker's scathing television criticism - the fictional producer of Big Brother using an employee in a wheelchair as a shield against one of the flesh eaters, Davina McCall having her throat bitten out, the look of fear on former contestants' faces when confronted with a wave of screeching, blood-crazed corpses or the housemates misinterpreting the screams of the Big Brother crowd outside as hysterical adulation.

It's also a perfect example of the benefits of aiming low. A lot of the mechanics of the plot are familiar from its many predecessors, but the new context and the care lavished on it holds the attention. A lot of the weight falls on Jaime Winstone's shoulders, and she pulls it off with aplomb, bringing just the right blend of vulnerability and strength.

But one of the most encouraging things about this first episode is that Brooker's desire to challenge the quality and intensity of 24 has been realised. From the cinematography to the editing and the production values, Dead Set has a zip, conviction and style that feels a million miles from the parochial shambles of something like ITV's Wired. It might only be genre television, and it's ambitions may be limited in some ways, but this first taste of Dead Set offers confirmation that, with the necessary will, we can make television that stands up to the high water mark of slick American television.


Chris Moran

The GuardianTramp

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