Tuesday, November 9, 2010

DEAD SET (2008), & What It isn't

Is it fair to judge a movie for what it isn't? Obviously, if it's rubbish, no one could deny it's the prerogative of those who have suffered through viewing it to rip into it like a Romero zombie horde, and that would include roasting it for all the much better things it failed to be, but what if it isn't really bad? What if it's actually a somewhat entertaining little picture, but one that just spectacularly fails to live up to its potential?

October saw the U.S. television debut of just such a picture and I had just that sort of reaction to it. It's DEAD SET, a British horror "series"--in this case, essentially a movie carved into half-hour segments--about an outbreak of flesh-eating zombies that overruns the UK, and, apparently, the world.

Literally overruns it, in this case. The premise may be that of George Romero's epics, but DEAD SET eschews Romero's mournful, shuffling ghouls in favor of the hard-charging sprinters popularized in Danny Boyle's (non-zombie) 28 DAYS LATER (2002) and the godawful 2004 remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD. When it comes to the living dead, I'll confess a general partiality for the slower, stiffer breed. When trying to sell an utterly fantastic premise to an audience, it's best to try to make it as plausible as possible, and it helps if what are supposed to be reanimated corpses actually look and move like one would imagine reanimated corpses would.[1] Some who share my preference are quite dogmatic about it. While my own view is that, as a rule, slower, stiffer zombies are best, if a movie works I wouldn't give that question a second thought. I'm certainly no rabid fanboy on the point.

Simon Pegg is, though. Sort of. The star of SHAUN OF THE DEAD wrote a very good mini-essay on the subject, a piece that also featured some thoughtful insights into what makes the best zombie cinema work. In particular, Simon is--forgive me--dead on in awarding the zombie "the title of Most Potent Metaphorical Monster." Zombies, as Romero used them, are such great fodder for film because they're cracked reflections of human beings. They're driven to try to eat the living, of course, but other than that, some semblance of what they were still fires through the synapses of their putrefying grey matter.[2] They're people reduced to their impulses.[3] One can use zombies to tell just about any kind of story.

The kind of story DEAD SET creator/writer Charlie Brooker and director Yann Demange were telling is about a zombie uprising that lays siege to the Big Brother house. Big Brother is a noxious--and depressingly popular--"reality" show contest wherein a diverse group of shallow fame-seekers is confined to a house for months and forced to live together, entirely isolated from the outside world and under constant surveillance. They're given various challenges, and, one by one, they're eliminated, as viewers vote to "evict" them from the house.

Eviction Night is a big deal on Big Brother, and that's where DEAD SET begins, with a gala event featuring a loud crowd of rabid fans gathered to see off the evictee. That's also where it begins to fall short. Some shots of these screaming, overly-excited fans would have made a great contrast to the later shots of hordes of rabid corpses laying siege to the house. The parallel is so obvious it positively begs to be drawn. Unfortunately, DEAD SET doesn't bother to draw it, and its absence is palpable.

The series had a premise that was absolutely ripe for a relentlessly caustic satire. I'd even hazard a guess that the desire to create just that is what gave birth to the initial idea for it. By virtue of taking place around a lame-ass "reality" show, it begs for that sort of treatment. And, in fact, we do get the odd nod in this direction. One of the characters, surveying a scene of zombie carnage for the first time, blurts out, "Does this mean we're not on tele anymore?" Another, scavenging through a drug store for supplies, is excited to come across a tabloid with his picture on it then becomes upset by the less-than-flattering story in it. And the ending of the picture is sheer wicked brilliance. Unfortunately, these moments only serve to underscore the missed opportunity inherent in the decision to treat the rest of the picture like a more-or-less run-of-the-mill survival horror story. Of course, DEAD SET doesn't have to be anything other than another survival-horror movie. It had the potential to be a great deal more, though.

As a regular movie it's entertaining enough, even if it is mostly unexceptional. There's plenty of mayhem and gore. Brooker wrote some great dialogue. Most of his characters are entirely unlikable and tend to be one-note stereotypes, which is appropriate given that they're contestants on Big Brother (a fact that even led me to forgive their relentlessly stupid behavior throughout the proceedings). My favorite was easily Patrick, the unbearable Big Brother producer. Essayed by Andy Nyman, he's DEAD SET's version of Capt. Rhodes from DAY OF THE DEAD, a mouthy, dictatorial prick from his first appearance to his last.[4] His dialogue mostly consists of creative insults, and he dominates every scene in which he appears. His finest moment comes when he gets the idea of chopping up the now-dead Big Brother houseguests and using the pieces to bait the zombies away from the gate so they can escape. Everyone else is horrified by the suggestion, so he gets a knife and starts hacking on the bodies himself. He's hacking away, pulling off body-parts and getting absolutely covered in gore, and the whole time, he never stops ranting at the others, going on about how he has to work for a living, how, on the other hand, they're just fame-seeking twats who want the easy way through life, and so on. The scene is way over-the-top hideous, and should have been absolutely hilarious, but, yet again, DEAD SET proves not to have the stomach for that sort of humor--the moment is juxtaposed with shots of the other characters, at a distance from the carnage, crying as Patrick rants while somber music plays over it. Too bad.

So what am I to make of DEAD SET? As a survivor horror tale, it's entertaining. A bit long [5] It has its moments. It has some problems.[6] I wouldn't call it "great," and I don't see myself revisiting it often in the future. Where it really fails is in blowing what could have been some great material. The project had potential to burn. It just doesn't live up to it and the overwhelming impression with which I'm left is one of disappointment, because I can see where some better choices would have made it something very special. Is it fair to judge a movie because of what it isn't? I don't know, but with this one, I suppose I have.

--j.

---

[1] Running zombies lead to other logical problems as well. If they maintain the strength and coordination to sprint, why are doors and even flimsy fences a barrier to them? Particularly when they're in force. It's never a good sign when a movie makes one start thinking of things like this, and DEAD SET does.

[2] ...and, in that respect, eating other people doesn't seem so much the exception to their humanity as my wording, there, would suggest.

[3] ...which is why I dislike another trend in zombie flicks also followed by DEAD SET, the complete dehumanization of the zombies. They already eat people. When they also have utterly inhuman (rather than just dead) eyes, emit animal sounds, and run harder than they ever could in life, they may make ghoulish monsters, but we entirely lose any connection between them and ourselves and all of the rich metaphorical material that comes with it. They may as well be invaders from Mars.

[4] His last scene, in fact, directly references Rhodes.

[5] Nearly 2 1/2 hours, a consequence of stretching a story for a feature-length film over five episodes. It isn't dull, to be sure, but the middle portion is a bit middling and the whole project is a bit padded. A subplot, for example, about the boyfriend of one of the Big Brother assistants trying to get to his girl eats up a lot of screen-time and doesn't really go anywhere--it could have been entirely excised without any real loss, except for one moment it provided which I particularly liked. The line is "I liked our farmhouse." See it in context, and you'll like it, too.

[6] Something I really disliked was the tiresome shaky-cam-on-steroids, which is used in all of the suspenseful scenes. The technique doesn't bother me the way it does some. It's just that it has been done to death, and rather than being an artistic choice, it's usually a substitute for one. Like the running zombies, it's blatant pandering to the zero-attention-span crowd, and, to be blunt, no one who is serious (or worthy of being taken seriously) should be concerned with pandering to them.

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