Wednesday, September 7, 2016

What's on Netflix?: DEAD SET

Welcome to another installment of WHAT'S ON NETFLIX?, where we pick out a film currently playing on Netflix and review it for the fans. This week's selection is the zombie apocalypse mini-series...DEAD SET.

Howdy fellow film freaks, Robert here. Yes, I know, I'm technically breaking the rules of this column in choosing to talk about a mini-series, and I know that's not a film as such. I hope the Merc will forgive me, but when I saw that Dead Set was playing on Netflix, I just had to review it. So I'm seizing the opportunity; I'll face whatever music there is later.

Dead Set is a mini-series of five 30-minute episodes produced by the BBC in 2008. It's yet another take on the zombie apocalypse, which, I know, has been run so far into the ground it's halfway to China. But there are good examples of zombie fiction out there, even in film and TV. You just have to look for the ones that try a different take on this well-worn plot device, and I say that Dead Set falls into this group. Also, yes, we will be using the z-word for this review, because that's how I roll.

We all know how the average zombie movie goes. Life is going on in all it's mundane glory, but for the occasional (ignored) news report of violence happening in that distant land known as Not Here. Then the first zombie appears in the immediate sphere of our story and begins making more zombies, and so the tale is ultimately about how the end of the world came to this little corner of the universe. There will be a few survivors, and they'll make a determined effort to continue surviving, but it's generally understood that their days are numbered in very small figures. Dead Set follows this pattern, for the most part, but it gets a few of the more key elements right.

In Dead Set, the zombie apocalypse comes to the reality TV show Big Brother, on Elimination Night, the night when one of the contestants is evicted from the house and goes back to the world to do whatever it is that comes next for a person whose greatest personal achievement is, and likely always will be, losing on a reality show. The area outside the house is packed with crew, fans, and contestants from previous Big Brother series, who are gathered for a reunion. It is a hectic night, to say the least, and no one is thinking about anything more serious than who might be going home.

This contestants' reunion ends up being the vector by which the zombie menace enters our tale. The TV studio is shuttling the former contestants in for the event, and one of these shuttles is running a bit behind. While hurrying back to the set with a load of passengers, the shuttle driver notices a car wrecked by the side of the road. He stops to offer assistance, and I don't need to tell you how that works out for him. Frantically trying to get medical attention for their now badly injured driver, but unable to locate a hospital, the passengers drive the shuttle to the TV studio, and arrive just as the driver starts feeling a whole lot better. And thus begins the mighty sh*t-tsunami that must kick off all self-respecting zombie stories. Dead Set's ambulatory corpses are on the 28 Days Later end of the zombie spectrum (fast, energetic and brutal) so it only takes minutes for the plague to spread through the crowds gathered for the Elimination Night revelry, and then to spread through the Big Brother crew as the zombies go about their work of consumption and conversion. And all the while, in stark contrast to this biblical horror, this song, "Grace Kelly" by an artist called Mika, is playing. Not only does it make for some wonderful juxtaposition to use a peppy Brit-pop song as the soundtrack to wholesale butchery, but the song itself is the perfect theme for the reality TV star mentality.

So we've already been treated to plenty of standard zombie movie tropes and we're not even halfway through the first episode, but this brings us to one of the main points that differentiate Dead Set from similar zombie stories for me. In the typical zombie story, after things have gone undeniably south, the requisite band of survivors have to seek shelter and safety so they can mount their efforts at survival. With Dead Set, most of the survivors are already in such a place, namely the Big Brother house itself, which is cut off from the outside world by design. They are so cut off, though, that when they first notice that Big Brother has gone silent, they think it's part of the game, and don't come around to the reality of the situation until a zombie breaks in and has a little nosh.

I would like to say that Dead Set is the perfect breath of fresh air for the jaded zombie fan who's seen the stock zombie movie formula in all its possible permutations, but that would be a lie. A zombie movie that didn't feature the dead laying waste to civilization like locusts in a wheat field would be like a Godzilla movie where no buildings got destroyed; the story demands certain details by its nature. I can say this, though: Dead Set exists for the right reasons. A properly done zombie story is a work of social and societal commentary masquerading as a horror movie, as George Romero showed us with his 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead and its sequels. In Romero's movies, the dead represent some threat or social issue, such as the forces of Communism (Night of the Living Dead), Consumerism (1978's Dawn of the Dead), foreign animosity exacerbated by an overly militant foreign policy (1985's Day of the Dead), or the glorious hordes of "the 99 percent" (2005's Land of the Dead).

Dead Set tries to make a similar point about the public's obsession with fame with its tale. The screaming, fame-worshipping fans who gather outside the Big Brother house at the start of the first episode are only barely distinguishable from the crowds of shrieking, animalistic dead who will be gathered outside the house at the climax of episode 5. That episode's final scenes of the zombies overrunning the house feel more like a fan riot than an incursion by monsters, as though the public, tired of scraps and morsels thrown from the table of celebrity, have finally come to take the bounty for themselves. None shall be spared.

Dead Set could probably, conceivably, have been shorter, though. While there are some good bits involving an astoundingly stupid Big Brother contestant named Pippa (Kathleen McDermott) who takes the "dumb blonde" stereotype to new and wonderful places, after episode two the story falls into the predictable pattern of the zombie movie standard. You could probably have the show on as background noise and still be able to follow it well enough. But its length as it stands now seems to pay off in the end. If this series had been shorter, I doubt the final moments shared by the remaining survivors before the last futile attempt at escape would have affected me the way it does. And the image the series leaves us with, of a zombie staring into a TV camera that's still working, and the signal being displayed on a TV being closely watched by another zombie, is an effective final punctuation mark on the series' commentary on fame culture.

Dead Set doesn't stray far from the beaten path, but unlike the great majority of zombie-themed entertainment (even a certain zombie TV show of which I do not speak), there's a message in its mayhem, and it's one that needs to be heard.

Dead Set is rated TV-MA for graphic violence, adult language and partial nudity.

Robert's Score: 8/10

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