For those readers not residing in the UK, it might be quite difficult to grasp the cultural significance which has accreted to the reality show "Big Brother" since it first aired, in the year 2000. Now approaching its tenth anniversary, the show (despite signs that its glory days are over, with viewing figures tumbling in recent years) continues to be a lightning rode for those perennial debates in British popular culture: the worship of celebrity above talent, the supposed 'dumbing down' of culture, the manipulation of 'reality' and those who take part in such shows by fat cat TV execs, etc. Those who hate "Big Brother" tend to really, REALLY hate it! While its hard core fans see its yearly parade of outré contestants as holding a mirror to the state of modern Britain. The debate never goes away and probably never will. Unlike its US counterpart of the same name, the show is based on audience interactivity, in that, each week, viewers are encouraged to phone in and vote for which out of several nominated housemates they would like to 'evict' from the Big Brother house. "Big Brother" was the first show to exploit this popularity contest format to its maximum extent and it is a format which now totally dominates British TV. It is something which the country's seemingly all powerful tabloid press (the real villain of the piece most of time, I would venture) can latch onto very easily; and the show, and what goes on in the house, has over the years been at the centre of many an inflated public controversy which would doubtless seem absurd and parochial to anyone looking at it from the outside. These days though, as well as Simon Cowell's relentless money-raking search for yet more pop fodder, everything from ballroom dancing to orchestra conducting, from renovating buildings to a master-chief's dishes, is now decided by this seductive format which involves having a public phone vote; and many of Britain's most successful shows have recently become embroiled in various rigged 'voting scandals' in the past year (although, ironically, "Big Brother" seems to have been the one show which has thus far escaped any blame in the matter).
The upshot is, is that anyone wishing to satirise modern Britain in any way will have to, at some point or on some level, address or refer to "Big Brother". It seems only natural then, that, since the zombie genre has, ever since George A. Romero's "Night of the Living Dead", always been associated with allegorical satire of modern society, that someone would eventually think of combining the two. Zombies and "Big Brother". It's only a wonder that it has taken so long! Now, Charlie Brooker - more usually known for his seeringly dyspeptic newspaper TV column and for his hilariously sweary BBC 4 show "Screenwipe" — has gone and done it, and produced not only the first hard-core Horror TV series, but probably the TV highlight of the year, to boot!
Of course, the whole premise of "Big Brother" is perfect for a zombie film: a group of people who don't get on (in this case because they have been specifically selected by TV producers because they don't get on!) barricaded in a confined space (the Big Brother house, in the UK version of the show, is a compound on the lot of Elstree studious, surrounded by wire fences and patrolled by security guards to stop members of the public communicating information from the outside world to the housemates). Its basically an even more tense, secluded, pressure cooker version of the siege scenario found in all the best zombie flicks from Romero onwards. The difference is (at least for a UK audience) that viewers are already intimately familiar with the layout of the Big Brother house, which the production designers have reproduced with an uncanny verisimilitude. Unusually, the show was produced by E4's entertainment division rather than its drama department (who, rather tellingly, apparently dismissed the whole project as a load of rubbish!) and not only have they reproduced a perfect version of the Big Brother house, but they also got to shoot footage for the eviction of one of the characters on an actual eviction night from this years real series, utilising the real cheering and booing crowd that gathers each Friday night to witness the exit of that week's evicted housemate.
This access to the production of the real "Big Brother" is one of the elements that enables the makers to start the first episode as if it were simply another episode of the show itself. Initially shot on the same Digi-Beta format and utilising its perennial Geordie voice-over narrator, Marcus Bentley, the first episode starts as a pastiche of the actual show, in which we are introduced to the remaining housemates and their all-too-convincing petty squabbles and rivalries. We then switch to a behind the scenes production meeting, (the video style shifting now to a similarly bleached and grainy digital video format as was used in "28 Days Later") where that night's episode is being edited by cynical producer, Patrick (Andy Nyman). It is the night of the latest eviction, and also the night of a party being held for previous contestants (thus, fans can have fun later in the series, spotting zombified versions of previous real contestants such as Saskia, Aisleyne and 2007 winner Brian Belo). While the Big Brother production team are busy organising the night's live show and placating the show's iconic presenter Davina McCall - who, like the many ex-housemates who pop up throughout, is playing herself — they've completely failed to notice that something ominous seems to be happening all over the country. Rioting is taking place on a national scale, though it only filters through to Patrick when Channel 4 News threatens to bump that weeks' post-eviction interview from the schedules!
Meanwhile, harassed production runner Kelly (Jaime Winstone) is busy trying to organise the arrival of the friends and family of the potential evictees, while also dealing with guilt over a one-night stand with one of her colleagues from the production crew, her boyfriend, Riq (Riz Ahmed), being away. Reality literally bites though when, during the eviction of housemate, Pippa, zombies invade the eviction crowd and the evening turns into zombie carnage! Soon the entire crowd and all of the production crew including show host Davina McCall, have become ravenous zombies, hungry for human flesh! Kelly manages to negotiate through a dangerous maze of zombies in the production offices and in the darkened camera runs, to find the one safe place in the country to hide out in: the Big Brother house! The remaining occupants though, knowing nothing of the total breakdown of society outside, and still believing their exploits are being filmed for the edification of the Great British Public, think her blood-spattered entry is just some part of another stunt being pulled for the show — until she stoves in the head of a zombie who escapes into the house through the storeroom! Meanwhile, producer Patrick is trapped in a production office with the newly evicted Pippa while a zombie Davina prowls the corridors outside; and Kelly's boyfriend desperately tries to make his way to the house across a wasteland of zombies — with only the still-running Big Brother live feed (in previous years, a 24 hour, unedited live feed is broadcast from the house via interactive red button on the TV remote control) to remind him of his shaky relationship.
After this set up, the remaining four episodes move between Riq's terrifying journey across a zombie plagued country to be joined with Kelly, and the rapidly deteriorating relations between the survivors still left inside the house. Brooker's script manages to switch between suspenseful scenes of gory horror — as uncompromising as anything one might see in any modern horror flick — to some hilariously funny satirical digs which manage to be damning enough while never particularly over self-important in their condemnation. Brooker is intelligent enough to be conflicted over the whole Big Brother debate: simultaneously appalled by its media excesses but also as transfixed and caught up in the spectacle as the most rabid Big Brother fan. Consequently, there often seems to be a sneaking fondness for the show hidden behind the satirical blows. He certainly knows his stuff: the episodes are full of loving references to people and events which have taken place on the real show over the years, and Davina McCall seems happy to throw herself wholeheartedly into the spirit of the piece, proving herself a fine zombie actor — merrily feeding off of the guts of former 2006 housemate Eugene Sully and sprinting along corridors in a fine "28 days later-syle" rage zombie parody.
This sprinting zombie thing has become a bit of a bugbear for some fans, and although I'm usually the first to agree that old school shuffling zombies are best — here I think Brooker was justified in going for the modern screaming rage-fuelled version. It is necessary for the pace of the show that society breaks down completely very quickly indeed, while usually it only gradually becomes apparent, through sheer weight of numbers, that the world is effectively at an end and civilisation over. Here, it occurs virtually overnight, although it might seem a rather bizarre quirk that these sprinting zombies will stop dead when confronted by the flimsiest of wire fences, I suppose this again is a kind of satirical point about the voyeurism and transfixing nature of reality TV. The largely unknown cast are excellent, with Brooker's script furnishing the show with some fictional Big Brother contestants who manage to bridge the gap between being simply stereotypes of typical Big Brother housemates, and being believable people who can be identified with as the show goes on. Chief among the cast is newcomer Jaime Winstone (formally seen in the British horror flick "Donkey Punch") who strikes a fine balance between gutsy heroine and vulnerable twenty-something; while Andy Nyman has been handed a gift of a role in the thoroughly nasty, sarcastic and hateful show producer, Patrick. The character is essentially a conduit for Charlie Brooker's wonderfully sweary and bad-tempered dialogue, the character spiting out some of the shows best one liners over the course of the five episodes. As the tone darkens with each passing episode, it becomes fairly apparent that there is going to be no happy ending to the situation. But nothing can quite prepare one for scale of the zombie holocaust Brooker's script unleashes in a climax that proves equally as disturbing as it is moving, and eventually strangely calm and elegiac.
This show being one of the TV highlights of the year, the Region 0 Pal disc from 4 DVD is a must for all fans of zombie movies. The special effects are very respectable and although the shaky "24-style" camera work seems to there to hedge any bets by making it hard to focus for too long on any of the gore, there are several set-piece sequences involving a head being caved in with a fire extinguisher, an entire body being ripped apart, and Davina McCall having a light stand thrust through the back of her head and out of her eye socket, which are as blood-soaked and gruesome as anything one could hope to see in any horror flick. The disc reproduces the shows rather dull and desaturated palette accurately, and although there is unfortunately no Charlie Brooker commentary, the extra features include a large selection of short interviews with cast, crew and Brooker himself; a tour around the set of the Big Brother house; and a look at the work of the special effects team. Not the ultimate special edition one might have hoped for, but nevertheless an essential addition to any zombie fan's collection.