Ben Wheatley and the Horrors of Societal Breakdown

With ‘Generation Z’ the director will continue to explore broken Britain.
Ben Wheatley Shutterstock
By  · Published on August 22nd, 2019

As the United Kingdom prepares for a future without the European Union, the country is divided. The majority of the population voted to leave the institution, yet a substantial portion still wants to remain. Ever since the 2016 vote took place, the government has been unable to reach a deal with the EU. Two prime ministers have lost their jobs in that time. It’s a mess.

Brexit is a complex issue, but it’s raised some fascinating narratives. One of the more polarizing arguments, however, pertains to the elderly, whose alleged longing for the glory days of British nationalism and autonomy has royally fucked over younger generations for decades to come. This has caused a rift between them and younger folks, who believe a partnership with the EU is the way forward.

The future is uncertain. People are confused, angry, and scared. In other words: it’s a perfect time for Ben Wheatley to make a TV series about zombies that also serves as a biting satire of the state of modern Britain.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, Wheatley has teamed up with Channel 4 for Generation Z, a six-part series about zombie pensioners causing havoc in a typical British town. It’s a tale of infected baby boomers versus everyone else, and a group of teenagers must stop the old monsters from spreading the virus.

The series producer, George Faber, told The Guardian that the show will reflect the current tensions affecting the UK’s population while skewering the atmosphere in the country as it enters more troubled times. He says:

“What’s happening in the UK right now is a slow-motion civil war. Our political class have found a way of dividing us down the middle and politics has become hardened to ‘us vs them’. There is no middle ground, which just leaves you with the living and the dead, effectively.”

The best horror and comedy addresses the big issues, and Generation Z sounds like a perfect project for Wheatley. The director’s oeuvre is littered with genre fare that boasts plenty of sociopolitical subtext, and his work tends to walk a fine line between being socially realistic, outlandish, horrifying, and hilarious.

In Down Terrace, we follow a small-town crime family trying to flush out the snitch in their ranks. The film’s husband and wife central pairing were modeled after former prime minister Tony Blair and his wife, Cherie, while the film’s story of a family at odds can be interpreted as a metaphor for British households who were struggling to cope during uncertain times.

Kill List also deals with the themes of families under pressure, albeit in a more horrific and macabre setting. The story revolves around two hitmen — and ex-soldiers — who become embroiled in an occult scheme after accepting a mysterious job to pay off mounting debts.

Wheatley once referred to Kill List as a “war film,” and he’s not wrong. For a start, the descent of the main character, Jay (Neil Maskell), is clearly a metaphor for PTSD. Additionally, Wheatley told The Guardian that he felt the need to make the film because he felt the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan weren’t being talked about like they should have been:

“We’ve just had two major wars going on that nobody seemed to be that bothered about. They were just rolling along. Even though a million people marched and said, ‘Stop it,’ they just went ahead.”

His 2012 feature, Sightseers, meanwhile, is arguably his funniest project to date. It’s also one of his most on-the-nose films about societal tensions in Britain, with the post-recession English backdrop providing plenty of opportunities to commentate on class division and social disparity in the country.

Sightseers tells the romantic story of a serial killer couple who decide to turn their rain-drenched caravan holiday into a bloody killing spree. Most of the victims are people they don’t socially align with. In one scene, one our antiheroes brutally murders a posh person and says, “He’s not a person, he’s a Daily Mail reader.” That line sums up the killer’s disregard for privileged folks in a nutshell.

Wheatley also explored class division in his 2015 adaptation of the J.G. Ballard novel High Rise. The film is about a tower block where the residents live on floors based on their wealth and social status. This eventually leads to all-out warfare in the building as everyone unleashes their savage tendencies. It’s perhaps Wheatley’s most biting film yet in regards to exploring the hostility between British citizens.

Wheatley’s fascination with political horror isn’t always contemporary-based either. As he showed with A Field In England, he’s willing to explore the cultural turmoils from yesteryear as well. In that movie, we’re transported back to 17th-century England, to a time when forward-thinkers realized that magic was just science and religion was no longer the be-all and end-all.

At the end of last year, Wheatley made what one Economist pundit called the “first Brexit film.” Happy New Year, Colin Burstead is another story of familial woes, and while it’s far from the most ghoulish of the director’s efforts, the themes explored in the movie are synonymous with his other work. Mainly, how bigger societal events have an impact on people and cause strife among them.

Wheatley applying his Brexit observations to a story about zombies should make for some highly entertaining political horror. The zombie subgenre has given us plenty of bloody stories which reflect the horrors of their respective zeitgeists. If anyone can make a good one about this iteration of broken Britain, it’s a creative force like Wheatley, who’s been commenting on the state of his home country his entire career.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.