Davina of the Dead
Or, “Day Twenty-Eight in the Big Brother House…”
Or, “Diary Room of the Dead.”
Charlie Brooker’s zombie TV show Dead Set is billed as a drama, which puzzled me when I heard the concept, especially given Brooker’s track record as a humorist. It’s basically a British zombie apocalypse movie centred around the reality TV show Big Brother, and I worried that it followed too soon on the heels of SHAUN OF THE DEAD to succeed as a comedy, while having an in-built satiric point that would prevent it from functioning as serious horror. If the besieged humans are in the Big Brother house, then the slavering hordes outside must be us, the viewing public, right?
I was also somewhat wary of using Big Brother at all, for any reason. I regard reality TV much as the butler in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS regards poverty: “It is to be avoided, even for purposes of research. it is to be shunned.” Even by talking about Brooker’s show about Big Brother I feel uncomfortably close to providing the oxygen of publicity to something that should really by locked in a vault and allowed to quietly asphyxiate in the dark.
This, after all, is a show that began life in Holland with a first run that drove the least popular contestant to suicide. For future series, a psychiatrist was employed to prevent anyone suffering fatal emotional damage — anything less than fatal being not only OK but essential to retaining viewing figures. This touching faith in psychiatry was somewhat dented when contestant Shahbaz Chauhdry suffered an emotional meltdown live on air, proving to be exactly the kind of vulnerable character the show had pledged to avoid exploiting. In reality, anyone volunteering to appear should be regarded with some clinical suspicion.
(I met Shahbaz at a party in Glasgow, years ago. And was snogged by him. He was going around kissing all the straight-looking men. I guess I qualify as straight-looking, by virtue of my sartorial incompetence. His fun-loving full-on attitude masked insecurity and and a need to provoke those around him, which the BB headshrinkers were no more able to spot than I was.)
Brooker has a long history with BB, having reviewed it extensively in his other job as TV critic. He’s obviously fascinated by it, repelled and attracted in equal measure. And when you gaze into the abyss of reality television…
(Can’t embed it, but you can follow the link.)
But the show is good. It is funny, and it is effective as drama. I’m rarely scared by zombie films, although Romero has successfully pulled the odd “Boo!” on me. But I find them compelling as tales of survival (or its opposite) and as visceral meditations on decay and dismemberment and all the ills that flesh is heir to. Brooker’s zombiethon does all this, and avoids too many comparisons to SHAUN by going with the oft-disparaged fast-moving zombies of the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake, and 28 DAYS LATER and its sequel. One sequence, a prolonged chase in which the undead pursuer shows no signs of ever being likely to tire, actually makes this conceit interesting for the first time.
We also get a wheelchair zombie, which I believe to be first. And a vivid demonstration of the fact that many disabled toilets are way too narrow for wheelchair users, alive or dead, to actually use.
Visual style, courtesy of director Yann Demange (can this be a real person?) is dark and very shaky, with occasional moments of more classical framing. While this looked likely to be distracting/annoying at first, it turned out to be easy to get used to, and basically worked for the show. A few moments devolved into incoherence, and this look is never going to be my favourite visual style, but it was well enough done. The half-hour episodes feel a little short to allow us to get into the story, but I’m looking forward to the feature-length episode next week. Not sure if it’s a compendium or a standalone or what, but I reckon it should work better.
Stop press — have now watched the compendium episode, which ran the whole series together and actually worked better than the episodic approach. The apocalyptic ending is probably the most blood-soaked drama ever made for TV, and outside of BRAIN DEAD one of the goriest things of any kind ever. And where Peter Jackson’s antipodean splatterthon gaily splashed on the crimson, this show ventures further into the abject with dark, grimy and squalid zombies that you can practical smell through the screen. The show more than justifies its billing as drama by moving outwith the comedy comfort zone of even the most hardened Mansonite, into a vaguely depressing, nihilistic Nookie Hut of despair.
The cast of fleshbags dangled before the snapping jaws of the unwashed provokes an engaging mix of sympathy, amusement and horror. What’s quite touching is how some of the housemate characters start to emerge from their jerry-built media personae and reveal actual human traits and feelings, prior to their dismemberment and consumption by the undead hordes, of course. This is not true of fictional BB producer Patrick Goad, played with gotch-gutted aplomb by Andy Nyman, whose furiously articulate hatefulness marks him out as a sort of Brooker self-portrait gone very rotten, and whose belching, pissing and shitting (his attack of diarrhoea during a zombie attack by BB host Davina McCall may qualify as the most horrific moment in any zombie movie) drives home the show’s Albigensian horror at our physical being.
Davina, playing herself along with various former housemates (including Brooker’s unlikely chum Aisleyne Horgan Wallace), makes an effective man-eater. Davina, who may for all I know be a charming person in real life, always struck me as a weirdly aggressive and mean personality as presenter, so I tend to avoid her. The addition of zombie contact lenses does nothing to soften her mad staring eyes.
The rest of the performances are convincing and even affecting, with Ray Winstone’s female mini-me Jaime very strong in the lead, the actor Kevin Eldon making good use of the queasy alarm he displayed in Chris Morris’ seminal series Jam, and everybody else generally putting DIARY OF THE DEAD to shame as far as horreur-verité goes.
What’s grimly effective about the show is how it plays to our contempt for the braying masses who uncritically eat up reality TV (it may play differently to those masses, I don’t know) but then carries the joke too far, so that laughter not only dies in the throat, but resurrects to go on a decomposing rampage.
Big Brother is watching you…you…you…