•28 Days Later: The Set-Up
28 Days Later was a key moment in the history of the zombie movie—the moment when the genre reorganized itself around a taut antithesis, such that its monsters could henceforth march as the avatars either of consumerist hyper-civilization or of that civilization’s very negation, its sacking, though, of course, even Romero’s middle-class zombies were cannibals and so suggested a certain preemptive undoing of the antithesis, a welling up of savagery in the North American heartlands of consumer society, in some socialisme-ou-zombiïsme kind of way. It’s the kind of complexity at which horror movies excel, a sociohistorical rabbit-duck operation in which you can look at a figure and not be sure whether you’re seeing Martha Stewart or an Ostrogoth.
It should be easy, at any rate, to say what kind of associations the zombies carry in 28 Days Later. Boyle’s zombies are fast; that’s really all we need to know in order to guess that they’ll generate the same meanings as Snyder’s terrorist-savage dead. But we don’t have to guess; 28 Days Later comes with a decoder ring.
We know that Boyle’s zombies are terrorists, because his movie has almost exactly the same opening as the Dawn remake: video footage of riot police, Muslim street violence, European protestors getting rowdy. The movie’s sequel, meanwhile, will narrow that range of associations, arranging a full-bore Iraq War allegory in which the zombies are the insurgents.
We know that they are savage because the dialogue says as much: Late in 28 Days Later, one of the characters contemplates a zombie he’s captured and chained—for study—and says: “He’s telling me he’ll never bake bread; plant crops; raise livestock.” The movie’s idiom is overtly civilizational: Zombies, like Huns or the Inuit, are people incapable of settled life. Here, then, is a picture of these Other People, the Loaf- and Lambless:
Sociologically, of course, the correlation posited here—in the feral, careening body of the fast zombie—is bunk. Terrorists do not come from the world’s pre-agrarian populations. Hunter-gatherers do not have access to car bombs. The Taliban fund their operations by selling some entirely successful crops. But allegory can take whatever shortcuts it likes; bundling is one of its great tricks … so the Khoi-San Al-Qaeda it is … the Arctic Circle Hezbollah. And to this already doubtful pairing, 28 Days Later will add a third term, since the movie’s initial villains—or not villains, exactly, but the fuck-ups who precipitate the great catastrophe—are animal-rights activists, the stupid Left, which doesn’t understand animality, doesn’t understand violence, doesn’t understand “rage”—the movie’s key word, that one—doesn’t understand the dangers of freedom. The Left doesn’t understand that if one breaks down too many barriers, everything will spin out of control. Such is the alliance that the movie brings into view and demands that we fear, the standing threat to our ordinary lives: angry Muslims, obtuse student-activist types, and Hottentots.
But then we’ll also want to say what counts as “our ordinary lives.” Just what is it that these aboriginal suicide-bombers and their hippie dupes are out to destroy? Dystopian science fiction typically forces us to imagine the totalitarian thickening of some institution or another—either the state or corporate capitalism or the corporate-capitalist state—but zombie movies are in this respect oddly like utopias in that they are more interested in subtraction, in what society would look like if one peeled away this or that seemingly basic thing. 28 Days Later begins, accordingly, with a long sequence in which we are asked to contemplate a world from which various institutions have vanished.
The end of the family: Very early on, the movie shows a large, street-side message board, entirely papered over with flyers, Xeroxed photographs, hand-drawn pleas to the missing, all clearly modeled on the post-traumatic Litfaßsäulen of Manhattan. And the last flap of paper we see tacked up to this 9/11-wall is a child’s drawing, something that looks a lot like art therapy for abused kids: A scrawled house, two stick figures in pools of paraffin blood, as though Crayola had begun marketing a crayon called “major artery,” and the blocky caption: Mommy…Daddy.
The end of religion: The first place the movie’s hero seeks refuge is a church, which is also the first place he is attacked by zombies.
The end of Britain: As the hero wanders through the abandoned streets, he steps over scattered heaps of Union Jacks and Big Ben souvenirs. Those patriotic icons catch the eye, but the negative space around them is just as important, since the emptied-out city has become a commonplace of the New Zombie Movie, the visual summation of its various excisions and sociopolitical loppings: the major metropolis as ghost town. For a production company, that’s an expensive stillness to get on film, laborious to stage even in morning’s early, pre-commuter light. And it’s a little bit of a red herring all the same, since movies like 28 Days Later don’t trust cities to begin with. “It started as rioting,” is how one of the characters recounts the zombie outbreak. “Except it was different this time, because it was happening in villages. It was happening in market towns.” It’s the phrase “this time” that we’ll want to pause over, suggesting as it does that the fast zombies had precedence, but only in the cities. London and Manchester have always housed the Furies. What is new is the extension of Brixton tumult into the shires and the B&Bs. The dead, when angry, will make of any city a Baghdad, and of any hamlet a city.
If you’ve gotten even this far into 28 Days Later, fifteen or twenty minutes, you no longer even need to read Hobbes. The movie has already spared you that effort. But the clearest Hobbsean moment in the film comes just a few minutes later, when a guerrilla band of human survivors is breaking the very bad news to the movie’s hero and Rip Van Winkle, who was in a coma and so slept through the Fall of Civilization.
Hero: What about the government? What are they doing?
Survivor: There’s no government.
Hero: What do you mean? Of course there’s a government. There’s always a government.
The oddly pungent quality of that exchange—the thing that pushes it decisively over into Hobbes’s territory—is the sense of complacency in what the hero says: “There’s always a government.” The movie wants to snap you out of your usual blithe confidence in the government as the sun-that-will-always-rise. It wants you to stop taking the government for granted. That is how a movie can give you a crash course in seventeenth-century political philosophy, at least at the level of your gut. Fast-zombie movies offer up emotional lessons in Hobbesean thought, forcing you to contemplate the state of nature more effectively than Hobbes ever managed to, simply by bringing it to life before your eyes. The idea, I think, is that once you have had to play that scenario out in your heads—life without government—then you should learn to love government, love the government that promises to keep you safe, love it deep down, learn to feel grateful for it, learn not to question it, because you have had to imagine how sad you would be if it were gone. Occasionally, a young woman catches herself daydreaming about someone really close to her dying—not because she wishes it—not at all—but because she is compulsively rehearsing in her head how terrible the loss would be. So she envisions, despite herself, that her boyfriend is dead, and then she rushes over to the living boy and surprises him by saying: I love you so much! 28 Days Later is like that, except it’s the government who has died in the daydream’s car crash or cancer bed. The movie opens up for you the morbid headspace to mourn the government, even though we currently still have one.