‘Dead Set’ resurrects zombies for TV

U.K. show combines 'Big Brother' with the undead

LONDON Zombie movies have long been a staple of the cinema, but a new U.K. TV show gaining buzz among reviewers and fans alike has resurrected the flesh-eating genre for the smallscreen.

“Dead Set” imagines Britain beset by a zombie apocalypse where the only place of sanctuary is the “Big Brother” house — that is, until eviction night when all hell breaks loose as the contestants come under attack.

The show drew 1.4 million viewers and 8.5% share when it bowed Oct. 27 in a 10 p.m. timeslot and that includes the 220,000 viewers who watched the show on the timeshifted E4+1, giving E4 its best aud since 2002.

TV reviewer Charlie Brooker, best known in Blighty for presenting BBC TV’s “ScreenWipe,” created the show.

Brooker’s day job has led some commentators to interpret “Dead Set” as a clever satire on reality TV and the celebrity circus that feeds the genre.

“I can’t deny there isn’t an element of satire in it,” acknowledges Brooker, “but it’s primarily a romp studded with cliff hangers and incidents and is meant to be genuinely scary.”

The show stars the real host of the U.K. version of “Big Brother” Davina McCall playing herself alongside a cast of thesps.

These include Ray Winstone’s daughter Jamie, who was in British cult pic “Kidulthood,” as a member of the fictional “Big Brother” production team helping to fend off the zombie onslaught.

“The idea for ‘Dead Set’ arose in 2004 while I was watching ’24,'” says Brooker. “Jack Bauer was performing a tracheotomy on a terrorist with a splintered peg or something, and another terrorist came running through the door.

“‘I’m enjoying this,’ I thought, ‘but these terrorists are just ridiculous. They’re like waves of Space Invaders. They might as well be zombies.’

“At the time, ‘Shaun of the Dead’ and the ‘Dawn of the Dead’ remake were about to come out. Zombies were clearly in the ether, so I figured it would only be a matter of time before the U.S. made some epic big-budget TV series about the undead. But they didn’t and I got there first.”

Even so “Dead Set” almost failed to be greenlit. Twice Channel 4, which bankrolled the show, axed the project, but eventually spin-off digital web, E4, ran with the idea and last month E4 stripped “Dead Set” over five nights in the countdown to Halloween. Show garnered average audience share of 5.8% (compared to a slot average of 1.8%) and a 0.67 million audience (slot average 0.3).

“Rather like zombies, it wasn’t something that would stay dead,” deadpans Brooker, who is also the co-writer of British TV cult comedy “Nathan Barlay,” aired in Britain by Channel 4 and which is being adapted for U.S. auds.

The “Dead Set” DVD was released in the U.K. this month and is also available on iTunes. Channel 4 plans to give the skein another broadcast early in the new year.

There are no plans to show “Dead Set” in the U.S. or reversion it for viewers on the other side of the Atlantic.

However, the extreme nature of some of the scenes — being a zombie film blood-spattered severed heads are the order of the day — rule out anything other than a cable station taking the show.

For Brooker, whose precocious talents included a spell as a schoolboy cartoonist, the praise showered on “Dead Set” suggests that in Blighty commissioning editors will seize on the next script he pitches — and one day there may even be a movie project.

“We approached ‘Dead Set’ with a feature film sensibility,” he recalls. “It doesn’t look like most TV programs. The special effects guys all came with lots of movie credits and the editor, Chris Wyatt, worked on ‘This Is England.'”

In fact, “Dead Set,” produced by Endemol subsidiary Zeppotron, is surprisingly cinematic, especially as it was made on a low budget.

E4 controller Angela Jain told Brit media: ” ‘Dead Set’ has yet again proved E4’s ability to consistently commission programs that are original, surprising, critically acclaimed and, just as importantly, watched and enjoyed by a lot of young people.”