Stuart Linday, graduate of the Mlitt in The Gothic Imagination at Stirling, provides a provocative social reading of Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set (2008). Stuart asked that a clip be included in what follows but embedding has been disabled by youtube, so please just click on the link to the video to watch.
This Zombie Nation: Technology and Undead Social Representation in Dead Set
By Stuart Lindsay
Fear and laughter, since the inception of the Gothic as a literary and aesthetic style in the late Eighteenth Century, have provided audiences with entertainment through emotional appeal. Gothic’s own twin, Romanticism, has historically been seen as its opposite. Where Romanticism’s high mandate of philosophical and political elitism generated complex social judgement, the Gothic revels in the abandonment of meaning and hope, replacing moral depth with surface imagery and effect.
In the Twenty First century, Gothic has found root in our own desires for immediate entertainment. Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set embodies this obsession for low culture, where our emotions and our senses of sight and sound are channelled towards the house of Big Brother. The contestants are trapped, displayed for our entertainment and held in the grip of our mercy. Who will get voted off first? Who will sleep with who? You decide. The world of Dead Set represents society as effectively brain-dead, abandoning entirely any Romantic ideas of moral depth, choice and complexity. Instead, it is the Gothic that rules the mind.
One image, recurrent throughout the Gothic, which features heavily in Dead Set, is the zombie. In the show, even before the viral outbreak, the cast and the characters are already infected with zombie-like behaviour: relationships play out predictably as if they were scripted, with everyone acting in response to their immediate desires. Also, in accordance with the modern zombie’s representation of rage culture, depicted in other British efforts 28 Days Later and its sequel, 28 Weeks Later, the show’s fictional producer, the ever-irate Patrick, is constantly frustrated by technological failure and staff incompetence, and all the while fans outside wave placards, baying for the blood of the new evictee.
The connotations of the zombie have come to represent the British cultural collective conscience of today’s socially stagnant, technologically saturated world. During the national viral outbreak, the breakdown of factors which constitute this modern nation, all of which are dependant on technology: relationships between friends, lovers, various national and cultural identities within the U.K, renders us all zombie-like, whether we are infected or not. Interrupting coverage of Big Brother, the outbreak is reported on television as a riot, spreading from the North of the country down. It immediately separates North from South, periphery from core and, as Patrick remarks about “those bloody Geordies rioting at anything, it’s not the eighties anymore”, one national and political identity from another.
As the riot makes its way to London, and the technological systems such as the phone and transport networks go down, we become separated from our friends and lovers, rendered mindless in the technological vacuum by our over-reliance on it to survive. In one particularly striking image, Riq, separated from his girlfriend who works backstage on the show, is condemned to shuffle silently, helplessly and pointlessly around an unmanned train station. The figure of the zombie interposes itself upon this society which depends on technology for entertainment: it unmasks our desire for such brain-dead entertainment and reveals to us ourselves without barriers, those separations of class, gender and race which are drawn by technology. Without them we are stupefied and raging: both characteristics of the modern zombie.
Indeed, this separation is key to the breakdown of the Big Brother house, the site of humanity’s last stand. The house itself is inhabited by all the various conflicting identities of class, gender, race and sexuality, which make up Modern Britain: always the noble claim of any reality television show today. Technology separates humanity into various rooms; security gates, video cameras, shutters and mirrored glass all mark the line of empowerment between British social hierarchies. They separate the producers from the consumers, the controllers from the contestants, and during the survivalist phase of the show, the humans from the zombies. In this last case, the humans, seated at the technological eye of power, class zombies as inferior members of society, like enraged chav gangs banging at metal gates, or the product of a military project gone wrong. Although Dead Set never reveals or explains the source of the zombie virus, it does hint that the cause and the effect are entirely human.
The technology of the house impedes the progress of the zombies, tantalisingly displaying their human prey on-screen, but never allowing them access to it. To this end, technology is a human safeguard, the central and final tool that keeps the social hierarchy intact. Both humans and zombies alike can be blocked and abused by it.
However, the virus spreads and the zombies finally break through these barriers, which are eventually rendered useless through lack of human control. When the last human, Kelly, is infected, the zombies become a symbol of a classless utopia: free from the “-isms” that divide and separate us. Here, the Gothic reveals the beauty in the abandonment of human hope and high morals. It shows us a possible world where, on the one hand, there is total unity only through mass conformity, where there is no racial, sexual or religious intolerance. However, on the other hand, in order to get to such a state, we must completely sacrifice all our humanity and our classificatory systems of technology and entertainment which we have become so reliant on. In the last scene of Dead Set, where Kelly’s undead face appears on all the television screens to an almost Orwellian effect, technology reverses its role. Rather than being a system to divide humans and uphold the social hierarchy of Britain, it serves to show how completely obsolete such a system has become in the new zombie nation.
There is a dark beauty to Kelly’s gaze. It displays the ideal society of utopian bliss that humanity has since its conception strived for, and yet, the image is too horrifying to bear, turning us away in Gothic contradiction, from our very human nature.
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