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…

17 Responses to “Davina of the Dead”

  1. Is it me, or does Davina look a little bit like Mrs. Thatch?



  2. I absolutely agree — a surprisingly straight zombie apocalypse story, with none of the satire that I was expecting. In retrospect, that was probably a good thing, as everyone probably thought of all the satirical points that could be made from a big-brother-meets-dawn-of-the-dead yarn as soon as they heard about it.

    It didn’t do anything particularly new with the genre, but it did it all much more effectively than anything I’ve seen for a while.

  3. I detest reality tv with every fiber of my being. It is a cancer that will destroy all(very few) remaining vestiges of humanity.

  4. I gotta say, David, you never cease to amaze me. You’re pretty much all over the map when it comes to source material for your blog, but in your case that’s definitely a good thing, because more often than not it works. Seeing that frame of Davina’s face at the beginning of this entry definitely got my attention. My feelings re. reality tv aren’t quite as strident as Arthur S.’s, but for me life’s too short, you have to pick and choose, so I choose not to be bothered. Since I reside here on the other side of the pond I don’t have access to Dead Set, and your YouTube clip is “no longer available”. When you mentioned the accelerated pacing of the zombie’s actions I thought of how diametrically opposite they were to those of White Zombie or I Walked with a Zombie. And all that gore you speak of, unless I saw it and could judge for myself, it’s either gratuitous or appropriate in context, I may never know which. This whole thing having to do with bodily functions does sound like something humorous, but apparently as you’ve related it comes across as anything but. This is unrelated, but I’ve been revisiting HBO’s Deadwood these past couple weeks. If you haven’t seen it, I’m wondering as to what your take on it might be. I’ve mentioned before how Ian McShane is a central player as brothel owner Al Swearengen. In the second season Al comes down with a case of the gleets, which I believe is the more archaic term for kidney stones. The Doc, played by Brad Dourif, has to go in with a catheter and try to fish them out. All this comes after Al has fallen from a balcony into the mud of the street below. The writing of this show is very rewarding, echoes of Shakespeare and Dickens abound. I just acquired the first two seasons in trade, so I’m a happy camper. Swearengen is just that, a “swear engine”, an incredible amount of profanity issues from the mouths of most all parties involved. This is not your mother’s or your father’s Lovejoy.

  5. not enough people refer to him as ‘the actor kevin eldon’. though really, too few refer to him at all.

  6. Davina is apparently looking to reinvent herself as an actress. Her TV commercials were vile but her zombification was pretty convincing. Thatcher might be a good role for her. I had an idea for a Mrs T show once that would tell her rise and fall as a gangster movie. But I’m not sure the world could stand another British gangster flick.

    The satire is there in Dead Set, but it’s not foregrounded, any more than it is in Dawn of the Dead et al. The bowel catastrophe IS funny, but it’s more repulsive. I like slow zombies. It just seems more interesting to make a threat out of something slow and shambling that becomes frightening through sheer numbers. But it was neat they used fast ones here, simply because imho there hasn’t been a good movie with fast zombies before.

    Deadwood is something I’m definitely interested in seeing, and when Battlestar Galactica and lost finish, I might be delving into that and The Wire.

    The actor Kevin Eldon rocks.

  7. I was very pleasantly surprised by Dead Set, though I love Charlie Brooker’s ScreenWipe series so I should have guessed that it would be good. I also agree about the pleasantly large amount of gore at the end – seeming to be remaking the ‘choke on ’em!’ ending of Day Of The Dead!

    I’m not a big fan of running zombies – somehow to me it just seems more plausible (!) that if dead and decomposing bodies were brought back to life you’d be shambling around like a confused old person rather than sprinting like an elite athlete!

    I agree with Diarmid – Dead Set didn’t exactly do anything new with the genre, and didn’t really push its satirical targets beyond the basic premise (though I liked the nod to Dawn Of The Dead in the shopping mall at the end!), but it is certainly one of the most effective of recent zombie films.

    Of course I don’t apply this to 28 Days/Weeks Later due to the stealthy subsitution of ‘infection’ for ‘reanimation’ to get around the problem, but I have found this my main stumbling block to all the zombie films that have followed (and if I’m being uncharitable they use fast zombies to get around the problem of having to show the ghouls in full make up and detailed gore scenes, instead reducing everything to a fast blur of movement and a brief scream from the victim!)

    I liked Kevin Eldon too (though I hope likening him to Golum isn’t going to stick too much in people’s mind and affect future roles he’ll be offered!) – it reminded me a little again of 28 Days Later: the opening scene in the animal testing lab in which one of Armando Ianucci’s comedy partners from his Friday Night Armistice show, David Schneider, appears as one of the well meaning but ill-fated animal lovers! Perhaps it didn’t affect most people in the same way (particularly outside of the UK) but his appearance almost threw me out of Danny Boyle’s film as I began to expect a dark comedy instead of a straight horror!

    I think Kevin Eldon is much better used in Dead Set because most of the satire is ever present in the Big Brother house location anyway, so the addition of a well known comedy player doesn’t really detract from the show, and in a way adds to the satire, since he’s playing the ‘loser’ character and was the only recognisable face in the cast of housemates!

    I’m not sure about Davina as an actress since it was not as if Dead Set gave her that much to do to prove her thespian skills – present the Big Brother show as you normally would; briefly make a ‘wanker’ gesture to your assistant while speaking to the slimy producer (that must have been cathartic!); have your throat ripped out, and then spend the rest of the time banging on a door and growling!

    She did it with gusto though and there’s obviously no ill will felt towards Mr Brooker for the mention of Davina’s adverts for hair care products in his annoying adverts feature! ( http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=ik7bDGQ4uO8 )

    “Is Davina’s mum in the room or in her head?” “The last time I heard someone talking to their mother like that it was Norman Bates”

    Since in ScreenWipe Brooker had done a reality television segment featuring one of the Big Brother contestants, Aisleyne, and since he shows a reunion of a number of real contestants from the series including her in the green room early in Dead Set, I was hoping that she would turn up near the end as an ass-kicking Milla Jovovich type character! Sadly I think the satiric potential of her and the other real Big Brother contestants (as well as Davina) wasn’t really fully exploited, though that might be down to Dead Set being created in conjunction with the company that makes BB.

    In the end the hostility seemed to be equally shared out between the zombie hoards of the general public who watch the show religiously, the almost equally braindead characters inside the house (one of the great things about the series was that it suggested that the only difference between the two groups really was that at least the zombies could work together for a common goal!) and the horrible producer exploiting the idiocy of both parties to stay on top of the ratings. Like Big Brother, it seemed that Dead Set liked to have its cake and eat it too, rather than fully condemn any one party in a satiric way.

    The only major issue I’d have with the series was the one you allude to by talking about how well it worked in its omnibus form. Having seen the nightly version I was left with a strange feeling that some of the scenes were rushed to fit everything in while other scenes felt like padding. I’d have liked to see more of the search of the farmhouse and time spent in the Big Brother house to get to know and feel at home in those locations – ironically something the real Big Brother series manages through simply having hours and hours of tedious live footage of the compound – before the characters make their fateful decisions to leave their security, or before their isolated idyll is invaded by the undead. This was something that the original Dawn Of The Dead managed to do beautifully, and Night and Day for that matter, and something that I don’t think a zombie film has captured to the same extent since.

    On the other hand why did we need all that comic stuff in the green room with the two characters trapped by Davina and having to defecate into buckets? It felt as if that particular thread of the action was artificially held up until it worked for the show for them to actually tackle Davina and escape that location.

    However I thought the final episode did the whole ‘slide into anarchy’ finale of zombie films brilliantly. It even created a good reason for Eldon’s Joplin to have let the vile producer Patrick go: because all the other housemates were bitchy scumbags. If the only people left alive in a zombified world is a bunch of Big Brother contestants, who treat you with disdain, wouldn’t it be better to open the gates and kill ’em all? (At least that was the message I was getting from the ending of the programme – they all deserve to die – even if Joplin doesn’t really intend for that and just panics, letting all the zombies in) I think that also plays in to the actions of our heroine at the end of the show – stay trapped safe but alone in a tiny room, lamenting the loss of her boyfriend and starve to death, or go out in a futile fight and join the masses as an unthinking zombie?

    I especially liked in the final attack the one way mirrors that vibrate with the blows of the ghouls and then the zombies smashing through them into the house, finally violating the rules of no outside contact with housemates imposed by the makers of the reality TV show – “the audience is coming to get YOU!”

  8. Just found out that the Pippa, the evicted Scottish housemate who gets stuck in the green room with the vile producer and says things like “I don’t like it” “You can’t do that in here!” and “You killed Davina!” after the undead hostess is destroyed, is played by Kathleen McDermott, who played Samantha Morton’s friend in Morvern Callar!

  9. “the actor Kevin Eldon”. Lovely. Someone else watched This Morning With Richard Not Judy and Fist of Fun as well (Mr Tony Blairs, the Curious Orange, moon on a stick …).

    Arthur S is right about Deadwood. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this magnificent drama.

  10. The only trouble I have with long-running series is when I think of the number of movies I could watch in that time…

    I knew McDermott must have done something before.

    The director’s main credit was Diary of a Call Girl. I wouldn’t have hired him based on that glossy crap, but he got great performances and the incoherent shaky style actually worked better than usual, so I take my hat at least halfway off to him.

    HATED 28 Days Later. Agree that David Schneider’s appearance at the start is distracting, but not as bad as the scene itself. Listen to the commentary and weep as screenwriter Alex Garland ponders, “I was a little worried about how to get the exposition in, so I thought I’d try to get as much of it out the way as soon as possible.”

    NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Exposition is only effective if it happens in response to a dramatic need, and the hero’s wandering a deserted London would have played much better without knowing what had happened.

    Danny Boyle on the commentary track: “Initially we had the empty London scene without music, just eerie silence, and then when he leans on a car and the alarm goes off, everybody had a fucking heart attack. So we put this song on so that wouldn’t happen.”

    NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! It’s a horror movie, stupid (but supposedly it’s NOT, showing that these chumps don’t even know what genre their doing), the audience getting a fright is a GOOD THING.

    Those idiots didn’t deserve a hit. The fact that they got one is down to the fact that they worked in a very popular genre and had a slightly fresh angle. And they spent all their publicity trying to persuade the audience it wasn’t a zombie film. Lucky for them the public wasn’t fooled and went to see it anyway.

  11. Heard something interesting today on National Public Radio, today the day before the election. Both Obama and McCain cite HBO’s The Wire as their favorite TV show. My take on these extended cable series is this: One, it’s a lot like reading some sprawling saga of a novel (not that I read many of those), and Two, I find them to be just as satisfying if not more so than a great many films I’ve seen in my time. There’s quantity and there’s quality, and sometimes there’s both in combination. I’ve never subscribed to Premium Cable, everything I’ve watched is on DVD. I no longer have television. I HAVE a television, but I refuse to pay for cable of any sort. Too much for too little. Two of the actors on The Wire, two of their main players, were Brits portraying Americans. I didn’t discover this until I heard them speak off the set in interviews. The creators made a deliberate decision to use East Coast and British actors as opposed to hiring anyone from Hollywood/The West Coast. I thought that was pretty cool.

  12. The British thing is bizarre! But we do seem to be producing a lot of actors who can fake the accent amazingly well.

    Yes, the big shows are like 19th century novels or something. Or Pynchon! And there are different satisfactions possible when you have that broad a canvas. I always feel that Les Enfants du Paradis achieves something unusual, in that you can feel nostalgic for the first half while still watching and enjoyong the second. And that’s just three hours. 26 ought to provide even more scope!

  13. You might also be familiar with Kathleen McDermott from her bathtime shenanigans in Peter Mackie Burn’s short ‘Milk’, coincidentally a film that also ruminates on corporeality.


    I enjoyed Dead Set, but I’m curious about one minor thing – as with all previous Zombie films (that I’m aware of anyway), the characters in Dead Set remain entirely oblivious to the extant canon of Zombie works. It’s all new to them.

    I find this somewhat ironic, particularly given Brooker’s penchant for arch media commentary. Has he missed a trick?

    Perhaps he couldn’t figure out a way to build dramatic tension into the characters’ possession of this knowledge. Or It could be something as mundane as copyright clearance issues.

    Or he just couldn’t be bothered.

  14. I quite like Milk. No story, no development, really, but a nice moment with some appealing actors.

    The “We’re coming to get you, Barbara,” line suggests a character has seen Night of the Living Dead, but they don’t play on this much. I think it was best resisted — Scream etc have played with the idea of characters who have seen horror movies. Having somebody say “This is just like a Romero movie,” would be obvious and wouldn’t get you anywhere much.

    The best version of that is probably Return of the Living Dead, where they try destroying the brains and find it doesn’t work the way it didn in NOTLD. “You mean the movie lied?” asks a tearful, betrayed young American.

  15. Could you please contact ken@1800blogger.com

  16. Yes, it seemed as if 28 Days Later was a film that succeeded despite rather than because of its creators (see also the three or four alternate endings!), as if the public were in desperate need of a bleak drama of fantastical devastation to death with a world beginning its ‘War on Terror’. An example of the times choosing, and elevating, a film rather than the film actively making an effort to hit a cultural nerve through its own research. It seems obvious that the celebrated opening sequence is a remake/rip off of the novel of The Day of the Triffids, rather than any response to modern terrorism etc, seemingly made innovative by the way it had not been properly portrayed before.

    My big criticism of Dead Set is that it similarly didn’t do anything innovative with its location beyond the early Big Brother gags (zombies watching the housemates on TV! How droll!) – I’d have hoped something more could have been added to the situation than I as a viewer already brought to it with my own sense of the ironic and gags about being trapped in the BB house during a national emergency that I’d built up over the years watching the show itself! And I’m sure I’m not the only person who had to think up different scenarios to fill the hours of tedious bitching that the show presented as entertainment, even before I swore off watching the last three series for the sake of my sanity!

    So I enjoyed the show much more for the way it ‘preached to the converted’ and played out all those gags rather for anything novel or shocking it did with the premise.

    “I always feel that Les Enfants du Paradis achieves something unusual, in that you can feel nostalgic for the first half while still watching and enjoyong the second.”

    That is also similar to the way I feel about Dawn Of The Dead – I feel similarly nostalgic for the shopping centre that our heroes went to great lengths to seize, and end up siding with them and hating the bikers for doing what basically amounts to the same thing just in a less classy manner(!)

    However I also consciously realise that the shopping mall itself was an illusion of a society now gone and needed to be abandoned, as well as enjoying the glorious chaos of the final sequence! That dichotomy is what makes Dawn stand out as a great film for me.

    I agree on Return Of The Living Dead being a great zombie film – I especially like the escalation of the whole situation and the admirable focus more on the older guys trying to dispose of the evidence that the zombie-fodder teens!

  17. The teenage stuff in Return is a little embarrassing, I think. More Clu Gulager is always welcome. And the older guy in the morgue is really good.

    What struck me as fresh with Dead Set was maybe just the fact that it basically played things straight. The dialogue was funnier than in most zombie films, but what I kind of appreciated was the fact that it was just a really good zombie film, that made OK use of the BB setting but didn’t fundamentally rely on it. It relied on good situations and characters and acting and all that nice classical stuff. Plus unbelievable amounts of blood.

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