The Running of the Dead, Part 4




28 Days Later: The Set-up, continued

Let’s rewind a few sentences:

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 it would be. So she daydreams, despite herself, that her boyfriend is dead and then she rushes 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, and not your boyfriend, 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.

There’s a variation on that same sinister reverie that zombie movies regularly spin; we can call it Having to Kill Someone You Love. In 28 Days Later, the harsh lesson goes like this: If a living person turns in your presence, “you have ten or twenty seconds to kill them. It can be your father or your sister or your best friend.” Scenes of this kind, in which intimates get euthanized, are all over the zombie film. They are as basic to the genre as transformation scenes are to werewolf movies. They are, indeed, an adaption of those very scenes: accelerated and moonless turnings in which the dog never makes it out of the vet’s office; lycanthropic kittens drowned in sacks.

But then what we’ve just spotted is a continuity, a convention that carries over from slow zombies to fast. Both types of zombie movies go in for transformation scenes; nothing has changed on that front. And this, in turn, prompts a rather interesting question: How does the Hobbsean orientation of the fast-zombie movie reframe the genre’s usual conventions? 28 Days Later may break with the Romero-era zombie movie in a few basic ways, but most of Romero’s conventions it actually takes over intact. The possibility we now need to consider is that those innovations are so drastic that they change the meanings even of those features that the movies most obviously share, simply by supplying them with a new context.

The best way to follow this out is simply to watch 28’s first mercy killing: A survivor gets infected, looks left, imploringly, past the camera; one of his comrades immediately leaps across the screen—to put him down—except all she has is a machete, and the viewer has to sit through seven sharp, moist swats. That the woman is black and the man white brings to the surface the scene’s historical provocation: A black woman hacks a white guy to death with the Third World’s iconic weapon, the curved blade that Africans and Caribbean islanders have lying around, the knife for whacking bush and coconuts and political rivals. In 2002, the image might still have brought Rwanda to mind, which reference-point is not wholly irrelevant, since one way of summarizing 28 Days Later would be to say that it is asking you to imagine Britain as a “failed state,” when that last is the current Hobbsean term of art.

Now the important point is that if we were watching this scene in a Romero movie, we could probably guess its effects, since Romero specializes in setting up equivalences between zombies and human survivors; in forcing viewers, that is, to conclude that there isn’t very much difference between people and zombies after all (since the condition of zombism is the condition of our stupid, little lives, &c). We could say something similar of 28 Days Later: the scene is quite conspicuously brutal, and the woman with the blade manifestly displays the ferocity of her zombie-opponents, and though this familiar line wouldn’t exactly be wrong, it wouldn’t really be right either. The scene presents an unusually good opportunity, in fact, to specify the fast-zombie movie’s Hobbsean labor: When the living people in Romero start acting like zombies, this discredits them; it makes them scary. And that’s not true of 28 Days Later. The woman commits murder right in front of us, and that act doesn’t discredit her, doesn’t make her scary. Her situation is scary, but she isn’t, because the killing has been explained in advance by the movie’s Hobbsean frame, to the effect that people living without a government don’t have any choice but to act like zombies or savages. The obligation to kill is part of the horror. Hobbes’s entire point is that people living in a stateless condition don’t get to choose to be good people; life without a government requires brutality from everybody. When you slowly realize, watching Night of the Living Dead, that nearly all of the survivors are as violently brain-dead as the zombies, it’s a crushing experience—anyone who remembers that movie’s final credits will know what I mean: They force you to reevaluate everything that’s come before. But in 28 Days Later, the realization comes early and is no kind of surprise; it is simply built into the scenario.

This point is then amplified in a bit of a dialogue a few scenes later. The hero and the woman with the machete are looking at an old photograph, from Before, a smiling middle-class family, cinched in close together, laughing father, beaming mother, ungrudging teenager caught in a group hug. The hero remarks that they look like “good people.”

MACHETE: Good people? … Well, that’s nice, but you should be more concerned about whether they’re going to slow you down.

HERO: Right, because if they slowed you down…

MACHETE: …I’d leave them behind…

HERO: …in a heartbeat…

MACHETE: …yeah.

HERO: I wouldn’t.

MACHETE: Then you’re going to wind up getting yourself killed.

The movie, in other words, turns the photograph into an occasion for a colloquium on the domestic virtues: sentiment, fellow feeling, and the like. The hero is talking like a Christian or benevolent liberal, and it is another one of the distinctive features of zombie movies as a form that they render that position—the position of a generic goodness—utterly impossible. The hero has to be weaned of his decency, and we will know that he has achieved this new moral consciousness when we witness him kill a (zombie) child.

The point is complicated, though. By the time the movie ends, the liberal and the killer will have moved in together, into a northern cottage, with the girl in the photograph as their adopted daughter, and so have reinstituted a humanist ethics or at least a coziness; their values get un-transvaluated. This gets us back to Hobbes and the authoritarian Right, whom we can now distinguish from the Nietzscheans by pointing out that they precisely don’t want the condition of pre- or post-humanist savagery to persist. They don’t want people to have to be beasts. Indeed, they want people to be able to act like Christians or benevolent liberals, but in order for this to happen—and this is the properly political, which is to say structural and so anti-ethical moment in Hobbes’s thinking—in order for this to happen, in order for you to be a decent person, there has to be some fundamental shift in the political order, or rather, politics as such has to be born. Political society has to constitute itself. The problem, then, for a Hobbsean is that liberals and Christians fail to grap the close conjunction between their decency and the exercise of force, fail to grasp that kindness and the police go together, that the police make kindness possible, which means that kindness will never be able to substitute for the police.

28 Days Later has worked out a way of telegraph this idea visually, in what is probably  the most clever sequence in the entire movie. The two survivors—the Hero and Lady Machete—have worked out that there are other living humans in London, at least a few of them, hiding in an apartment high above the city. They sneaky-pete their way up the building’s stairwell and down the corridor toward the apartment’s door, where they see this figure…

…who turns into this figure…

…who turns into this figure…

It’s all something of a sick joke: First we encounter an unmovable paramilitary cop; he mutates into a balaclav’d thug, marching straight for the camera, in a shot borrowed directly from slasher movies; and this killer then peels off his mask and reveals himself to be … Brendan Gleeson, an actor of excellent good cheer, boozy and lummoxing, a kind of human wassail. The idea here is that open-hearted, hospitable middle-class people and the riot police actually go together, though not usually in a single person. Such, at least, is the Hobbsean take on the issue. What the movie has done is taken the two sides of bourgeois society, usually experienced at a confusing distance from one another, and welded them back into a single figure—the softie and the cop, the teddy bear and the guy who’ll push your face in—and thereby bodied forth the interdependence of those positions, which is what liberals putatively never get.

•28 Days Later: The switcheroo

So we can say that 28 Days Later forces us to imagine a certain crisis, the complete breakdown of political order into terrorism and savagery. And in the history of political thought that idea comes with a built-in solution: Strengthen the state, strengthen the police, the military, the executive. Expand the emergency powers of the central authorities. It is this fantasy that the movie puts into play. The first half of the movie follows a group of survivors as they straggle across a de-populated England trying to get to whatever is left of the state: the Army’s last uninfected platoon, garrisoned in an old manor house, chanting the Hobbsean mantra: “We are soldiers. … Salvation is here. … We can protect you.” One of the civilians has preemptively echoed the point: “The soldiers could keep us safe.”

At this point I might as well just out and say what the movie does to this fantasy, which is that it explodes it into little bits. That is the single most important fact about 28 Days Later, that it drives you into the arms of the soldiers, convinces you to look to them for refuge, and then turns the soldiers into monsters in their own right, mostly because they plan to begin a breeding program upon the bodies of the two surviving women and so immediately default on their promises of asylum. There are obvious precedents for this: In the later stages of the movie, Boyle begins borrowing shots from Apocalypse Now, and these are so many visual nudges, reminders that the underlying scenario is straight out of Heart of Darkness: The last outpost of civilization turns out to be a whirring freak show. So a borrowed plot, though it is fascinating all the same to watch a certain Conradianism well up unexpectedly within the horror movie. For Colonel substitute “Major” and for Kurtz substitute “West”—that’s the movie’s human villain—“He’s insane!” someone shouts—Major West, which name is of course allegory reverting back to plain-speech.

But then most people aren’t going to be chasing down the literary history while watching a movie, so perhaps it’s more appropriate to explain 28 Days Later as a basic exercise in emotional manipulation: It sets you up to want the soldiers, to be desperately pro-military, and then once you get your wish and end up face to face with the Tommies, it makes them creepy—not exactly like the monsters—the distinction will matter—but in their own way fiendish. It forces you to experience them as oppressive. No-one calls soldiers “grunts” because they’re polished. And to call them “dogfaces” suggests only that the enemy had better be shooting silver ammo. Such, anyway, is Boyle’s con, his trick. He seems to be making all of the Right’s moves—and just when the time comes to put the Right’s solution in place, he undoes it instead—and thereby makes clear that he was playing a different game all along.

Let me take another crack at it: 28 Days Later swaps out the problem of sovereignty or political order and puts another, entirely different problem in its place. At its most basic level, this is a point about the plot, and so about your actual, minute-by-minute experience of the movie, if you’re watching it for the first time. It looks like it’s going to be a straightforward trek movie, in which the credits will roll once our heroes find the army unit. In a different kind of movie—the kind of movie that Boyle lets you think for a while he has made—the soldiers would constitute a happy ending. But as soon as the survivors arrive at the army’s aristocratic headquarters, the soldiers mutate into a new problem. Authority stops being the solution and becomes instead the crisis. The hero, in other words, will have to learn to fight the soldiers—and not the zombies he thought he was fighting all along. Here’s another way of gauging how curious 28 Days Later is: The movie’s longest fight sequence, its protracted-final-action-horror showdown, involves the zombies barely at all; it pushes them to the periphery, in a clear indication to the audience that they should stop worrying so much about the goddamned zombies already. More: By that point, the hero is, if anything, aligned with the zombies; he is literally fighting alongside them. Boyle, having carefully tutored you into the statist position, is violently reversing course, and will now insist that you take up the anti-statist position. 28 Days Later has the structure of a movie arguing with itself; it is a grindhouse paradox or splattery antinomy.

This plot point—expectations established, then violated—in turn houses a rather sly visual puzzle. It’s a variant of the machete problem: That final fight is spiked with a series of uncanny shots in which it becomes increasingly hard to tell whether the hero has been infected or not, whether or not he has turned zombie.

•The camera pans slowly around an army truck, and catches the hero pressed up against its slats, still and seething, his eyes blotted out by shadow. The sound track supplies what is either a loud wheeze or a soft grunt: a growl. From this point on, we are watching a horror movie run in reverse, in which the hero is inserted into the shots typically reserved for the monsters and the soldier-villains are tricked out with all the visual conventions of victimhood.

•The hero flits past the camera, barely more than a shadow himself, which is another monster shot: two seconds borrowed from an Alien movie. And by bringing in an actual raging zombie just a little after that, the movie makes you wonder for real whether the hero hasn’t been infected, because it puts the contagion on the scene, dangerously close.

•The fight moves to the manor house, where there are two figures on the rampage: the hero and the zombie who doesn’t bake, now unchained. The hero spends the entire sequence wet, bloodied, and shirtless, his face distorting in the old building’s blown glass windows.

The eye’s confusion is actually a political test. The hero is trying to destroy the bearers of authority; our ordinary word for that is revolution. So by the end of 28 Days Later there are three positions available to the characters where earlier there were only two: 1) The savage or the terrorist; 2) the state and its protections; and now 3) the revolutionary. So in these shots the movie is posing another tough question: Is the hero zombie or human? Can you tell the difference between a savage and a revolutionary? Or more to the point: Can you tell the difference between a terrorist and a revolutionary? That’s a profound question, one that has lost none of its moment.

You can also pose a version of that question from inside the revolutionary’s head. The revolutionary has to ask himself what he is doing when he unleashes his own rage or taps into the rage of other people. Can you set that violence loose, direct it, and still rein it in once it has done what you needed it to do? The movie becomes a meditation on the basic problem of revolutionary violence. And the movie doesn’t stay up in the air on this issue. It resolves the paradox by deciding, via its own writerly dictates, that you can do this—you can direct violence to good ends. It comes down on the side of the revolutionary, although revolution is depicted here as a good old-fashioned quest to rescue the maiden from the lair.

It all comes down to this: 28 Days Later, the movie that for all intents and purposes created fast zombies, was already the movie that demystified them. The subgenre stands permanently indicted by its own author and source. Boyle’s movie is not the progenitor to [REC] and Quarantine and the Dawn remake and Justin Cronin’s vampire-zombie novel The Passage; it is their accuser, the one that calls them out on their despotism and aufgehobener race-hate.

A movie that initially expends all of its ingenuity getting us to love sovereignty ends by getting us to love instead sovereignty’s overturning. And there is one more gotcha secreted away inside of that big one: Boyle is an Irish director born in England. All we have to do is keep that in mind and then think about who survives in this movie. At first, there are three adult survivors: an Englishman, a black woman, and an Irishman. The hero is Irish, though the dialogue never once pauses to remind you of this. The first word he speaks, other than “hello,” is “Fadder” — hesitantly addressed to a zombie priest, both question and greeting: “Fadder?” In fact, the actor playing the Englishman is also Irish, so he’s nearly a Dubliner in disguise. The more important point is that the movie kills him off, but then it’s already killed off all the adult English, which means that the people left to repopulate England are the Jamaican woman and the man from Cork, and that the seeds of the new nation will barely include Angles, Saxon, Normans, or anyone else who has typically kept that land in copyhold.

13 responses to “The Running of the Dead, Part 4