Can you imagine getting cut off from the outside world for up to 90 days with only odious house mates, the cameras and Big Brother's occasional edicts for company? Can you then imagine the deep unease if the alarms, the deliveries and the cameras stopped? Is it a power cut? Have terrorists bombed Elstree Studios? Is there a plague? Have we gone to war? Has Britain been engulfed by a zombie holocaust? Well, in the nightmare scenario to have emerged from the brain of Charlie Brooker, the latter is exactly what's happened. Dead Set imagines a Britain overwhelmed by hordes of the flesh eating undead. And these aren't your slightly comical stiff-with-rigor shuffling zombies either. As Brooker notes in his interview, since 2002 (i.e. since the release of 28 Days Later), zombies have learned to run.
When you're dealing with zombies, you can't help but be derivative. It is now canonical that you kill the living dead by shooting or stabbing them in the head. Also a recurring theme is survivors finding secure sanctuary from the undead, which, in this case, is the Big Brother house. Then you're allowed a brief moment to relax, to enjoy the smug superiority of humanity over the dim-witted zombies, until it all goes horribly wrong and someone leaves a door or gate open, or hatches a foolhardy escape plan from nice secure location to the zombie-infested wilderness. Perhaps humans aren't so smart after all.
I'm not going to outline the plot. If you want more read about it here, or better still, why not watch it? As mini-series go, it's excellent.
Needless to say, you can't really have zombies without a nod to satire, a golden rule of the zombie genre forgotten by the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake. And Charlie Brooker being Charlie Brooker couldn't resist having a few swipes at the Big Brother format. The zombies gathered at the studio gates, the spectacle of a zombiefied Davina McCall feasting on human flesh, their blank stares into monitors, all of it is pretty straightforward. As Brooker says, "while you could spend your time watching it thinking ”Mmmmm, yes, a satirical point”, most of the time you're going to be thinking ”Help! Here come the zombies!“ It's kind of a scary romp, first and foremost. It's not a chin-stroking exercise."
But I'd like to offer an alternative reading, which, like all readings, is a tenuous exercise, but is still a half-way plausible one. You could argue Dead Set is all about ruling class anxiety. Our masters, who were once so sure of themselves that even their official ideology trumpeted capitalism, red in tooth and claw, are now no longer certain. The economic shockwave came out of nowhere and knocked them all for six. Politicians' ritual invoking of deregulatory voodoo economics has only succeeded in reanimating Keynes, a figure whose body of thought they previously regarded a stinking corpse. Some have been bitten by the Keynesian bug (New Labour above all) and indecently abandoned the previous orthodoxy. Others remain huddled around neoliberalism's coffin, hoping it won't be long before they can break open the casket. All look to the future with a degree of fear and uncertainty.
Dead Set works through this nightmare. Big Brother stands in for the place the ruling class occupies. Like the bourgeoisie, Big Brother contestants and senior production staff expect to be the centre of attention. The public duly votes to evict their least favourite nominee while the real decisions, the real power, the manipulation and the edits are done away from the public gaze. But on eviction night, the occasion when Big Brother publicly celebrates its hubris, nemesis strikes and the studios are overrun by the living dead. They become an abattoir. Zombies are uncontrollable, unreasonable, single minded, and totally thick. The aura of Big Brother, the circus that once kept millions in its thrall, has lost its power. The shabby, smelly masses are now out for blood, their blood. The survivors holed up in the house are able to erect defences against the mass, which successfully holds the gibbering horde at bay for a short while. But they cannot keep the tide back. No matter how clever or ingenious they are, their better organisation is fractured by internal bickering and scheming. It is only a matter of time before the zombies of the working class are feasting on bourgeois flesh.
Dead Set not only taps into the anxiety of getting overrun by the dangerous but simple-minded mass, it shows the bourgeoisie the fear of their superfluity. Zombies are clearly violent. The presence of the living sends them into paroxysms of bloodlust. Safety is only guaranteed if one lives in a gated community. But when the remaining housemates become zombie fodder and everyone is (un)dead, a strange calm descends upon the land. Zombies shuffle around the trappings of bourgeois civilisation, their unblinking eyes wide open in almost innocent wonder at their surroundings. The hierarchy and power of Big Brother is gone and all is left is a new society of sorts, one achieved only by them coming together as a collective and using their numbers to sweep the old order away. Life (of sorts) goes on without the bourgeoisie/Big Brother. There is no more violence and no more suffering. Zombie communism is the order of the day.