Dead Channels: UK vs. US TV Zombies

Dead Set

Dir: Yann Demange
Star: Jaime Winstone, Andy Nyman, Kevin Eldon, Riz Ahmed

I largely avoided the Big Brother phenomenon, leaving the country mere months after the programme started in 2000, though it was clearly already gaining some steam. My ignorance probably added some extra resonance to this five-part series, which centres on the effect a zombie outbreak would have on show participants, from both sides of the camera. Certainly, there is no dodging the parallel drawn between the reality show devotees who gather outside the studio with their signs and chants, and the living dead chewing on human flesh later – both mindless zombies, of one kind or another.

The Walking Dead

Dir: Frank Darabont and others
Star: Andrew Lincoln, Jon Bernthal, Sarah Wayne Callies, Laurie Holden

The hero is Rick Grimes (Lincoln), a cop who is shot, and comes back from unconsciousness – like the protagonist in 28 Days Later – to find the world has gone to hell. He returns home to find his wife Lori (Callies) and son have vanished, and heads off towards Atlanta to find them. What he doesn’t know is that, while his family are safe, Lori is now in a relationship with Rick’s old partner, Shane (Bernthal), hiding out in the country.¬† Rick has first to track them down, and then figure out how to survive in a world with very little infrastructure left.

It’s certainly an acerbic piece of work, with a couple of the characters largely unlikeable. Most notable are air-headed Pippa (Kathleen McDermott) and show producer Patrick (Nyman); being locked in a room with either would be… Well, I’d probably prefer to have my intestines gnawed on by zombies. That they end up in this situation with each other, and a ravenous Davina McCall pounds on the door, is poetic justice.

As an aside, I was amused by McCall’s supporting role, far from her usual bubbly persona. I imagine the only way The Walking Dead could have competed with that is if they’d had a zombie Ellen De Generes. Best not, I think – but it does illustrate one of the main differences between the two shows, with Dead Set possessing a more satirical bent. Here, the humans can be as big a threat to each other as the flesh-eating ghouls, both directly, as when a trigger-happy cop believes someone is infected, or through reckless actions which endanger others.

Davina enjoys a light snack.

The tone here is certainly downbeat, with the last two episodes in particular depicting a downward spiral and the futility of struggling against what seems to be increasingly inevitable. In tone, it’s closest cousin is Day of the Dead, which similarly depicted ill-matched groups thrown together in a confined space. Indeed, the fate of one character closely mirrors the death of Captain Rhodes, even to the victim’s rebellious last words. Here; “”I’ve got fucking bowels full of shit – eat it!”

The pace of exposition was quick, probably a necessity, given the relatively limited time available. It runs barely 140 minutes in total, and the individual episodes didn’t bother with credits, just a link to deadsetcredits.com, if you were interested [no idea what you’d do if you were interested but Internetless] It’s helped by having galloping zombies, something which drew the wrath of Simon Pegg.

I don’t mind too much either way. What I really didn’t enjoy was Yann Demange’s camera suddenly having an epileptic fit during any zombie attack. It wasn’t clever in 28 Days Later, and it’s not a technique which has improved with age. That’s a rare misstep, in a series which conclusively proves that British zombies are not necessarily endearing corpses, with whom you can play video-games in the shed. Much as I love Shaun completely, it does no harm to be reminded of zombie “reality” now and again.

This was based on the comic-book of the same name, created by writer Robert Kirkman and artist Tony Moore, which is currently up to its 78th issue, having run since 2003. It may explain why the pacing seems more languid: there’s less rush, with 4 1/2 hours or so to fill here, and a second series already commissioned [a no-brainer, as the Halloween premiere set ratings records for AMC]

Must confess, I was expecting something tamer. After all, this is basic cable, which pushes the envelope about as far as a church tea-party – as far as harsh language was concerned, that remained true. However, there was no shortage of head-shots and flesh-rending (credit to Greg Nicotero for the effects), and moments went much further than expected. In particular, a sequence in part two where Rick hacked apart a corpse, using the guts to disguise his scent. Not just the goriest thing I’ve seen on broadcast TV, it would have provoked the wrath of the DPP in an 80’s video-nasty.

Admittedly, seeing Rick stagger about, covered in entrails, immediately provoked “Vacant, with a hint of sadness – like a drunk who’s lost a bet…” comments. [Again, Shaun has a lot to answer for…] But generally, the series took the usual conventions of the genre e.g. someone beloved being infected, and extended them to a length not practical in a feature. This prolonged the emotional pain to a near-sadistic level, enhancing the impact. After following these characters for six weeks, seeing some of them die packed a wallop.

Land of the free, home of the very hungry…

A common theme with Dead Set is the idea that the living dead are not the only threat. While a pair of redneck brothers, played with lunatic abandon by genre specialists Norman Reedus and Michael Rooker, certainly possess the necessary survival skills, they wouldn’t be anyone’s first choice for humanity’s best and brightest. Add the tension between Rick and Shane – the latter having abandoned Rick in hospital and told Lori her husband was dead – and it’s clear that morality has a shaky place when survival becomes the top priority.

On the other hand, it’s a somewhat kinder view of us than¬† Dead Set, with courage and self-sacrifice more common and obvious. The open ending is more hopeful too – even though the survivors drive off to an uncertain future…well, at least there are survivors, shall we say! Series 2 is eagerly anticipated for 2011.