Erik Jaccard does something we’ve never seen before here at 10YA by writing a very smart meditation on the genre of the disaster film, Žižek, and the zombies of 28 Days Later while driving through the wilderness. Welcome to Erik’s id, everyone.

28 days later 1

28 Days Later

Dir. Danny Boyle / Original Screenplay by Alex Garland

Hello from the middle of nowhere. I’m currently speeding my way along a lonely highway, blanching in the glare of the mid-morning sun, somewhere between Bozeman and Billings, Montana. I’m on the way to a wedding in South Dakota’s Custer State Park, which is pretty damn cool, if I say so myself. One thing’s for sure—besides the actually breathtaking natural beauty of the landscape on this trip, the surfeit of cultural Americana thus far has been one unending hipster instagram wet dream. Anywho, I return to you today, remotely, to re-view Danny Boyle’s 2003 zombie-disaster-thriller 28 Days Later. Back in 2003 the film’s appearance was hailed as initiated something of a genre renassaince, supposedly rescuing the zombie thriller from more than twenty years of irrelevance and garish, comical parody (Thriller, anyone?). Yet, while the ten years separating us from 2003 have indeed featured more than your average number of flicks and tv shows showcasing variously grisly onslaughts of the walking dead, the historical fact of this revival, or even the place of Boyle’s film within it, may be one of the least interesting things we can say about it ten years later.

I think there are very stimulating and provocative conversations to be had about how (or how well) 28 Days Later fits into the longer legacy of zombie narrative and/or zombie film,  but that is for a different project, with a different writer not confined to a rental car on a hot Friday morning in late June. What I want to do here—what I think I have time for here—is to explore the various dimensions of my experience and interpretation of the film, and to hopefully understand how those coordinates have shifted and stretched over time to produce a number of different readings and meanings. Being honest, though, while my position may have shifted repeatedly in the last ten years, as I’ve grown as a human being, intellectual, and critic, my appreciation for the film has remained constant: it’s excellent. It was excellent in 2003, it’s excellent in 2013, and it’s likely to be excellent in 2023. This consistency derives from a number of key aspects of the film’s stylistic presentation, particularly its camerawork, as well as its treatment of the social and political dimensions of its subject matter. Furthermore, it reflects and negotiates anxieties and tensions in the experience of industrial/post-industrial capitalist modernity in general while both working within and expanding on a long history of British disaster narrative in particular. Neither of these themes is likely going anywhere anytime soon, and certainly not as long as we remain more committed to exploring and representing the end of our world than we are to changing it (as Slavoj Žižek is fond of putting it). But before we get into the meat of the re-view, let’s talk about my immediate experience of the film in 2003.

28 Days Later 2

How Was It Then?

Fucking terrifying. This has a lot to do with the film, which is frightening enough as a narrative of social collapse and monster horror, but which is also shot, edited, and plotted so as to make it seem like you’re watching a film that might have been made had a rogue cameraman from the set of Big Brother 23 followed around a group of terrified survivors of a velociraptor invasion. Shot entirely in digital (rather than on film), 28 Days Later thus feels at times like a reality (horror) show.  While this might tie it more concretely to its historical moment, it also makes it all the more terrifying in its implications. The ‘footage’ is lower quality than film, clearly, but not grainy or homemade; this isn’t The Blair Witch Project orCloverfield. In fact, the film features so many high angle shots that, at times, the aesthetic is less the subjective documentary feel of a ‘home movie’ and more of a God’s-eye vantage point. This is particularly poignant in the extended sequence in which we follow a recently awakened Jim (Cillian Murphy) as he despairingly explores what would be for most a surreal and utterly solipsistic nightmare —a world empty of everyone but oneself. The alternation between mid-level shots and high-angle shots in these early scenes creates a bifocal point of view which allows us to see/experience Jim’s alienation from a grounded perspective but also from a bird’s eye view, where he becomes just a lonely wandering ant in a ruin, a living relic, a walking testament to a disappearing world the planet will neutrally neglect to mourn. I spoke of implications.  In 28 Days Later there doesn’t seem to be a God, and if there is, it’s the stuff of Deist theory, a bored and frankly unimpressed God checking in to see what’s happening on Earth (this God has many more planets to run) and finding that those crazy monkeys he made a while back have actually managed to wipe each other out. Indeed, because most of what occurs in the film is the result of human arrogance, ignorance, or myopia, we’re left with the unsettling, yet entirely ordinary, conclusion that this is our fault, that no one is coming to help us, that we are, in fact, alone.

This is no new conundrum.  In fact, it’s one of the modern world’s most intransigent conundrums. As the cosmic certainties of a theological order faded in the face of Enlightened rationality and scientific certainty, the concepts and ideologies which place us comfortingly within an insulating holistic world (God, nature, etc) went with them. In their place we created a world of thinking subjects and passive objects, a universe of things upon which we can act, but which offer us no salvation, no answer to the tricky problem of our mortal coil (I leave the speculations of the trans- and post-humanists to the side). The bird’s-eye shots of 28 Days Later, along with what looks like live CCTV feeds, thus do not provide some reassuring omniscient perspective. Rather, they just remind us of their own natural role, to play a game of simulation, to substitute for the God that may not ever have been there in the first place. What remains is a game we play, but only with ourselves. Hell, as Sartre famously quipped, is merely other people.

Speaking of hell, I first saw 28 Days Later on a hotter-than-hades July afternoon in Charleston, South Carolina, where I was visiting a friend I had made a couple years prior while working in Alaska. After a day at the beach doing beachy-things, we had decided that the evening’s entertainment would be to watch the local Class-A Charleston River Dogs (an affiliate of the New York Yankees) play some middling opponent in the furrythick inferno of a deep South summer evening. Actually, while we kind of wanted to watch baseball, we mostly wanted to go because it was Bill Murray bobblehead night (Murray owns a home in Charleston and is part owner of the team). And, come on, who wouldn’t want a Bill Murray bobblehead doll? I was excited simply at the prospect of showing up and finding out which iteration of Bill Murray would greet us. Caddyshack Bill Murray? Ghostbusters Bill Murray?What About Bob? Bill Murray? Space Jam Bill Murray? (Ha!) I had already decided this amazing treat was going to preside totem-like over my refrigerator back home in Seattle, right next to the dancing Kung-Fu hamster that had always succeeded in keeping my roommate out of my frozen burritos (I’m not making this up. The hamster was awesome. It had nun chucks it swung around and it danced to “Kung Fu Fighting” when you pressed a button on its furry little paw of death. RIP NINJA HAMSTER.).

Suffice it say, we did not end up with our Bill Murray bobblehead doll. At some point in the hours leading up to the game, the sky darkened, the wind blew ferociously, and all hell broke loose, meteorologically speaking. A thunderstorm unlike any I had seen before descended, the skies opened up, apocalyptic lightning crosses the sky in fiery veins and the sky pounded back in claps and shouts of thunder.  Clearly, such conditions do not make ideal conditions for a baseball game unless you’re eager to die by lightning or flying debris.  So, unfortunately stymied in our quest for a bobbling Bill, and with nothing to do outside, we retreated to a local cinema, where I was able to convince my friend that the appropriate film to accompany all of this biblical weather was one about the zombie apocalypse. I didn’t really know much about the film going in. I’m not sure I even knew it was directed by Danny Boyle, who had always been one of my favorites (excluding the train wreck that is The Beach). So we arrived, already slightly anxious from the cataclysmic weather, and bumbled into the theater.

I should mention that I don’t do horror flicks. I’m not that guy. I’m squeamish about blood and gore and even somewhat silly Stephen King adaptations like Pet Semetary have always managed to send me spiraling into week-long night terrors. But I loved 28 Days Later in 2003. Not having watched much horror, and having never seen any of the Romero classics (Night of the Living DeadReturn of the Living Dead, etc), I honestly didn’t know what to expect. However, always the sucker for well-made, intelligently written indie flicks, whatever their genre, I was able to appreciate how different the experience of the film was for me. My friend and I left the theater not only entertained, but stimulated. As I recall, the film prompted a diverse and wandering discussion about the nature of the catastrophe that the film unfolds, its origins, its outcome, and of course, its various suggested interpretations. The actors were relatively unknown to me, outside of Christopher Eccleston, the script was tight and spare, and the film’s vividly conceived ‘infected’ monsters were utterly chilling.

As I think many would agree, Boyle’s ‘zombies’ are terrifying precisely because they are not, actually, ‘zombies’ as we’ve come to know them. They’re not the glassy-eyed puppet-things of creolized Haitian myth, nor are they the slow-moving, brain-eating masses we’ve come to associate with Romero’s Living Dead flicks. They are, in fact, quite alive. And they movefast. And they are super strong. And they once they’re on you, you’re done. It’s not likeShaun of the Dead, where you can playfully turn one’s face to the side for a candid shot in the back garden. In 28 Days Later, when one gets that close to you, it’s likely ripping your throat out or projectile vomiting infected blood all over your face. These zombies have so much life in them, in fact, that they spit it at you. This hypervivacity is actually what makes them both ghoulishly revolting and uncanny at the same time. It’s difficult to identify with the dead precisely because they lack nearly everything we know as human except biological form. Boyle’s infected ‘zombies,’ however, are less cartoonish versions of the Hulk: they’reangry, and anger is a human emotion we’ve all experienced at some point, some of us even to the point of violence. And we’ve all seen someone disfigured by rage. It’s disgusting and horrific. People don’t behave like their properly civilized selves when in such a state. They become grotesque, inflated, and bestial caricatures of their ‘normal’ selves.  A human being motivated by nothing but rage is a monster, even if only for a moment. Perhaps what I’m getting at here is that the infected zombies of 28 Days Later are all the more terrifying because in certain ways they are so familiar. They’re you at your worst…x 1000.

I’m sure that back in 2003 I also latched onto the vicarious pleasure in destruction many of us find in disaster narrative. It’s fun to watch the world topple, partly because it provides a thrill without any real appreciable danger: we know the world goes on outside the pages of the book or the walls of the cinema. We also know that things are all right in most cases because the ‘end of the world as we know it’ is narrated by a survivor, usually someone more or less like us, who shows us, much like the person in front of you in line for a roller coaster, that things are going to be ok in the end. Then there’s the vicarious pleasure/sanctimonious righteousness some of us may feel at the seeing the demise of a world we may consider to be avaricious, blind, and reckless. I admit to being one of these people at times, one of those who would, or rather can more easily imagine the destruction of the world than they can a world beyond the horrors that dot the news on a daily basis. I also admit, like most leftists, that whatever essential qualities may define us as human beings, they are impossible to think outside of the material conditions, active ideologies, and webs of second nature we call culture. This means that I’m also occasionally wont to admit that I can more easily imagine the destruction of our world than I can the toppling capitalism, its dominant social and material ideology. Being honest, I would admit that occasionally it seems easier to just ‘flush it all away,’ as it were, scrap the whole thing and start over. I recognize ten years later that this type of thinking is every bit as willfully evasive and ignorant as that by which the willfully ignorant majority goes on believing that everything is going to be ok. But at the time the film’s presentation of these themes gave me a reason to be pessimistic and I craved those moments back then.

kinopoisk.ru

How is it now?

Every bit as good, if not better. So good, in fact, that it inspired the following quasi-logical fever dream of a review within a‘re-view’.

The car is on fire, and there’s no driver at the wheel

 And the sewers are all muddied with a thousand lonely suicides

And a dark wind blows 

As a global culture we have entered a state of permanent catastrophe. There is little point in making distinctions between crises and the mythical state of normality against which such moments are traditionally defined. We live in a world in which crisis is the norm, normality the mythical point to which we will never return. As 28 Days Later opens, cutting from riot to massacre to urban strife, from shells exploding to fists slamming into faces, and from the tear-gassing of crowds to their  beating by truncheon, we are meant to assume that what we’re seeing is the prelude to our tale, the montage which will explain how our post-apocalyptic world came into being. But no, what we see when the camera finally pans back is an ape bound to a table, glancing uncertainly at the multiple images of human violence flashing across a row of screens. Is this video of the cataclysm we know is coming? No, it’s merely a record of the everyday chaos to which we are all inured, the chaos which should seem abnormal, but which must be normalized in order for the system to keep chugging on its way. In order to keep living the way we do, we must be convinced that our way is the only natural way, and further that the system’s very nature demands chronic instability. At the same time we must be convinced that chronic instability, the anxiety, the rage is the product of some nebulous and essential ‘human condition’ and that this therefore has nothing to do with the system. Nonetheless, if the system in which we live produces rage or anxiety or instability, it must be pacified, poked, prodded, understood, and cured. As the film’s simpering scientist whines pseudo-philosophically, ‘in order to cure we must first understand.’ This is true. It’s also highly ambiguous and  utterly dependent on what we mean by ‘understand’ and ‘cure.’ If what we mean is that we must be able to diagnose and identify a pathology (that is, produce knowledge about it) in order to return to an equilibrium at which the system can continue to function uninterrupted, we are talking about one thing. If what we mean is that we must seek understanding of our conditions, their contexts, their contradictions, and the preventative possibilities inhering therein, we are talking about another. It’s the difference between treating a disease and medicating one. And the implication in 28 Days Later is that we are walking the numb, dusky terrain of the latter.

The government is corrupt and we’re on so many drugs

 With the radio on and the curtains drawn

We’re trapped in the belly of this horrible machine

And the machine is bleeding to death 

We know the machine is bleeding to death, just as we know each successive change in government is nothing more than the Emperor’s new clothes. But we insist in putting our faith in another larger entity, in a lie or a façade, in ‘the Other supposed to know’ as Žižek calls it. One of the favorite examples of this process is the image of priests reciting Latin mass to a clueless congregation of vernacular speakers, each of whom believes the priests know the meaning of the words, and that this is sufficient evidence of their continued faith. Žižek’s point is ultimately about how we form lasting political consensus, or at least the appearance of such agreement. However, I like it for what it says about all the priests in our world, the talking heads, the economists (who, when you think about it, are the contemporary world’s seer par excellance), even the celebrities. One of the most telling scenes in 28 Days Later occurs not long after Jim is rescued by Selena and Mark and the three of them are hiding out in an abandoned shopping mall. After Selena recounts what little is known about the virus and its diffusion, Jim quite honestly asks what the government is doing about all of it. When Selena replies that there is no government, Jim shouts ‘Of course there’s a government, there’s always a government!” Rather than a comment on government per se, or on states or state structures, this is more a comment on the way we construct intermediaries to stand between us and what we know to be true. Jim even wanders through some of the most potent of these intermediaries on his haunting walk through a deserted central London (a scene every bit as terrifying now as it was in 2003) in the form of nationalist kitsch (souvenir replicas of Big Ben) and, more importantly, pound notes lying scattered on the ground. Money, as we know, is the ultimate illusion of value and authority. We know it’s worthless, yet we pretend as though it were not. Similarly, we know the nation to be a construct, yet we believe in its embodiment in history, its ability to help define us. We even know that we don’t like the government, that we actually feel its presence in our lives as a kind of unnatural intrusion, its laws and regulations an bureaucracies only serving to make the world more indecipherable, complex, and alienating. Even at our most cynical, we continue to believe in the ultimate validation of the Other, the continued subconscious pat on the back saying ‘it’s going to be all right, I’ve got this.”

The sun has fallen down

 And the billboards are all leering

And the flags are all dead at the top of their poles 

I dream of a world without advertising. In this fantasy world there are no billboards, no radio spots, and not television jingles. 4 out 5 dentists never agree and all the detergents, cars, and beers do the same damn thing. One of the primary joys of these stories of apocalyptic population winnowing is that they inevitably lead to shots of a single person standing abandoned and isolated in formerly bustling locations. The two most iconic ones in the Anglophone world are, respectively, London’s Piccadilly Circus and New York’s Times Square.  Watching Cillian Murphy’s Jim wander desolate through central London was, in 2003, merely thrilling in an uncanny, surrealistic sort of way. I think that’s what is ultimately most fun about such scenes: they dance provocatively along the thin line between existential terror and glee. This time around, though, I couldn’t help but keep my eyes more firmly planted on the background. When you look at Times Square or Piccadilly Circus or central Tokyo or what have you, the flashing lights and the advertisements always seem to overlap with the masses of people on the streets, conjoining into one big overwhelming sensation. The point here is that the pieces fit and it’s much harder to tell them apart when they work in concert.  But in 28 Days Later, with all those people winnowed away and only one remaining, I kept thinking of how stupid it all seemed, how intrusive and unthinking and banal were the dead advertisements, now reduced to their sad function—trying to get a human being to forge a connection with an inanimate object, service, or sensation so that abstract value created in some long spectrum of labor and production could change hands. Much the same can be said of the Houses of Parliament, I suppose. They advertise power and authority, the global scope of imperialism. In 28 Days Later they refer to world that has ceased to exist. They are ruins, shored up remnants of history, as Walter Benjamin calls them. If this is so, then the only thing that provides me with more satisfaction that the knowledge that these advertisements now refer to a system that has ceased to be is the revelation that, of course, just as we always knew, the system continues. This is satisfying because that system and the world it creates (not to mention our way of perceiving it) is all we know. The machine cannot stop. The machine does not stop. Jim sees a jet plane. And rage-filled zombies don’t drive jet planes (except into mountains, or New York Skyscrapers).

It went like this:  

 

The buildings tumbled in on themselves

Mothers clutching babies

Picked through the rubble

And pulled out their hair 

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Since we are roundly in my scholarly wheelhouse, allow me to provide a little background on the disaster narrative. Disaster narratives, of which alien and zombie invasions represent only a subgenre, have been with us Euro-American moderns about as long as we’ve been able to conceive of our own ability to transform the world without divine intervention. Sure, we worry a lot about natural disasters, too: the 19th century’s fascination with geology, history, and deep time gave rise to a 20th century paranoia about the prospect of humanity going the way of the dinosaurs (comets and all). But what really gets us going is the prospect of human self-destruction, particularly the myriad methods we modern industrial capitalist humans have devised to bring that destruction about. We tell stories of viruses, of mutants, of climate chaos, of nuclear warfare, of economic collapse and a return to the pre-modern, of invasion (human and alien), of war and terrorism, of biological weaponry and satellite warfare, of cyborgs and androids. If we can dream of the science or the technology or the social blueprint, we can dream of a way to make a disaster of it. That said, disaster narrative is never only a literal exploration of the possible effects of this or that new thing, or even of the after-effects of this or that potentiality.

As a number of 20th century critical theorists point out, catastrophic disaster is inherently embedded in the Enlightenment ideal of ‘progress.’ As everyone from Marx and Engels to Freud, Nietzsche, Weber, Kafka, Zamyatin, Orwell, and Huxley has pointed out, a fully rationalized and mechanized society—reduced to a perfectly efficient blueprint—is as likely to produce a nightmare as it is a dream of human perfection. The more orderly and rational we become, the further we remove ourselves from the natural world of which we are an extension, and the more distant we seem from the human characteristics our order and technology is so efficiently meant to augment. This condition only intensifies as the modern world shifts into a system of production and culture that privileges capitalization, commodity, and the maximization of profit, thereby alienating humans further from the social (and natural) bonds which have traditionally defined human life. This psychotic pattern of production and consumption intensifies to such a degree that disaster seems not only possible, but likely, the vicious endgame of an ouroboric ethic in which we all passively participate. Whether we all perish from war, climate change and its resultant calamities, or a global pandemic, what matters in this particularly pessimistic reading of the modern industrial (or post-industrial, take your pick) world is that we always knew it was going to be like that. To put it more succinctly, disaster narrative often turns on the assumption that we are trapped in the belly of this horrible machine and the machine is bleeding to death.[1]

Now, this is a fairly routine and general summary a widespread anxiety about the modern world that has been around since at least the early nineteenth century. Many would consider it axiomatic at this point and not a little paradoxical, considering how adept we living things have become at standing in the immanent shadow of our own demise (a condition made even more ironic by the fact that humans, at any stage in their history, have always lived in the shadow of their own demise).

Sorry for the potential spoiler, but 28 Days Later is not, in fact, about the end of the worldIt is, at the very least, about the end of the world as it is known to the people of Britain in the early 21st century. One of the things I found most interesting this time around was the topical locality of the film, of its essentially parochial character. No matter what it tries to say about global capitalist society en masse, or about humanity’s relationship to itself, its cultures, or its societies, it is also always already only talking about a very British experience of these things. The first reason we know this is that—though it is eventually revealed to be false—everything in the film is reduced to what happens in Britain because, as Selena notes, after reports are received of infections in Paris and New York, the world might as well be over. This is, of course, not the case, but the more important point for the narrative is that it seals Britain off from the rest of the world. This is a narrative ploy with a long history that has been used in a number of ways. But what seems to be going on here is an explicitly 21st century adaptation of the kind of British disaster story that flourished in the late 1940s and ‘50s and which read the fallout from WWII, the End of Empire, the nuclear age, the Cold War and other relevant anxieties in terms of invasion, collapse, and disaster.

There is plenty of evidence for this, but I’ll confine myself to two main examples here: 1) The scene with Jim walking through London alone is ripped from John Wyndham’s well-known 1951 catastrophe novel The Day of the Triffids, in which a middle-class everyman wakes up in a hospital one day to find everyone blinded and murderous walking plants on the loose (I know, I know)  Jim’s early moments are, like Wyndham’s William Masen’s, emblematic of a larger existential crisis that only unfolds throughout the remainder of the story. Also, 2) LikeTriffids and other instances of what Brian Aldiss once called ‘the cosy catastrophe’, disaster in these stories brings not only fear, anxiety, and moral quandaries, but pleasure and release from the bounds of the civilized world. This is a guarded and compromised freedom in 28 Days Later, considering that the infected are always on the loose; you may commandeer a new Bentley, but you’re just as likely to get ripped out of it by your tongue and be smeared across the street. Nonetheless, watching it is time around, it was immediately apparent that scenes such as the one where the newly formed ‘family’ unit of Jim/Selena/Frank/Hannah goes ‘shopping’ are intended to express the paradoxical freedom and pleasure inherent in losing 95% of the world’s people.

The skyline was beautiful on fire

All twisted metal stretching upwards

Everything washed in a thin orange haze 

I said, “Kiss me, you’re beautiful. These are truly the last days.”

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One of the things that I appreciated about 28 Days Later this time around is that it manages to address the lingering necessity of human love, affection, and social bonds without belaboring the clear potential of the plot to produce a standardized, banal ‘romance’ sub-plot between Selena and Jim. One of the most persistent tensions in disaster narratives is obvious disparity between the continuations of ‘real world’ human relationships in the face of the crumbling material conditions that constitute and legitimate them. Because generally derived from some form of the Wellsian ‘scientific romance,’ these stories often end up torn between the dual imperatives implied by that title. The first, science, is inherently progressive and historical, demanding that people and the relationships that define them move and change as the conditions around them change. The other is mythical, conservative demanding certain truths about humans, heroes, villains, and the damsels that often link them. The ‘science’ part is clearly the component transforming your reality beyond recognition. It’s the new theory, the forward thinking technology, the arrival of the aliens, or the life-changing discovery, what Darko Suvin calls the ‘novum’ in a sf narrative, that pebble of newness thrown into the pool of human social relations that sets the historical continuum a-rippling. But if science and technology generally imply, nay, demand transformational change, this imperative tends to work against the universal, mythical certainties of the romance. Romances generally demand a defined quest structure, a hero-damsel plotline to animate and justify that quest, and moreover, a certain consistency (or flatness, to use Henry James’s pejorative term) of character that allows the hero to remain heroic in the face of numerous obstacles and setbacks, particularly in a world beyond the celebrated British reverence for the rule of (common) law. The conflict is thus: as science (in this case an engineered plague) transforms the world (in this case by ridding it of 98% of its population), the transforming world ought thereby to transform most things about you, even your attitudes about love, romance, even sex. For certain obvious reasons, this likely revolution in social relations is one not often fully explored by disaster stories precisely because of their implications. We don’t like to consider that the ways of living and thinking we take to be natural—including our values, morals, loves even aspects of our personalities—are relative to our material circumstances. These are things we like to think are special about us, unique aspects of our coherent individual personalities. But what is at least worth thinking about is whether what you think of as your(self) wouldn’t actually crack and crumble in the face of altered circumstances, only to reform in some new configuration more practical and relevant to present conditions.

Because the world of 28 Days Later occurs only weeks, rather than months or years, after the fall, these transformations are less noticeable and dramatic. The most noticeable such transformation seems to be the character of Selena, who has already hardened to the specter of death’s constancy, knowing that in the new world anyone can, and likely will, die at any time, with little not no notice. In such conditions it’s easy to see how our notions about relationships would start to shift and move with the growing impracticality of interpersonal emotional bonds. Therefore, there is even a certain silly impracticality to any of the loviness that transpires between Serena and Jim. Yet what seems to fuel both Serena and Jim’s attraction to each other—and their loyalty to Hannah following Frank’s death—is less romantic and more filial, more a commitment to a world in which families and communal belonging can exist. We might think this cheesy, but we would do well to remember that it is this same longing and despair that so hauntingly defines the sterile, childless wasteland of Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men.  Major West’s answer to the absence of hope in the form of women, children, or the future is to capture women as chattel for his soldiers, ensuring continuity, but only through regression to a pre-modern past. For Jim and Serena, the goal seems to be not simply survival, but survival with value, or what we might call survival with decency. As I suggest above, it is, more than anything else, this assumption—that one cansurvive with decency—which links the film most concretely to its forbears in the British disaster narrative tradition.

Well, I’ve run out of time. And my companion is, I fear, weary of the tip-tap-typing. And I’m hungry. So I’m stopping. I leave you with this, the music that’s been playing in the back of my mind this whole time, the bass line to my weird and discombobulated and disorganized review. I’ll be back next week with a slightly more coherent offering.

The car is on fire, and there’s no driver at the wheel

 And the sewers are all muddied with a thousand lonely suicides

And a dark wind blows 

The government is corrupt

 And we’re on so many drugs

With the radio on and the curtains drawn

We’re trapped in the belly of this horrible machine

And the machine is bleeding to death 

The sun has fallen down

 And the billboards are all leering

And the flags are all dead at the top of their poles 

It went like this:  

 

The buildings tumbled in on themselves

Mothers clutching babies

Picked through the rubble

And pulled out their hair 

The skyline was beautiful on fire

 All twisted metal stretching upwards

Everything washed in a thin orange haze 

 

You grabbed my hand

And we fell into it

Like a daydream

Or a fever 

We woke up one morning and fell a little further down

For sure it’s the valley of death 

 

I open up my wallet

And it’s full of blood

Godspeed You! Black Emperor, “The Dead Flag Blues” (1997)

 

Free-Floating Thoughts Wandering All Zombie-Like Around the Landscape of My Deserted Brain

  • [SPOILER ALERT] It’s only here, in my unbounded free-thinking time, that I’m going to address what some may consider a vital component of any re-view of this film: the various ‘alternate endings’ included on the film’s DVD. And I’m going to address it by way of ultimately claiming that—and this is somewhat of a shocker for me, perhaps, that I’m ok with the more syrupy ending we were originally given. Now, as those who have seen it know, the film as it was released in theaters features what we might call an ‘upbeat’ ending, with Jim, Serena, and Hannah escaping both Major West’s soldiers and the swarming infected in the process of retreating to a secluded (island/peninsular) redoubt where they await the cavalry in the form of (as we learn later, in 28 Weeks Later) a joint Anglo-American military expedition. Hooray! Everyone lives and the infected are starting to die and the hastily formed new nuclear family can go on dreaming its dreams of the future without frenzied red-eyed zombie killers stalking their every step. However, the alternate endings, of which there are two, both feature scenarios in with Jim does not survive his wounds, leaving the two women on their own. The first is identical to the film’s actual ending, except in the place of a recovering Jim, Selena is talking to a chicken (!), meaning Jim hasn’t made it, but that the rescue is still on [And the chicken is super funny, but you can see why this one didn’t make the cut.] The second, dourer ending, gives us an extended scene in an abandoned hospital (shown in the original film only in rapidly edited cuts) where Selena and Hannah try in vain to save Jim, leaving him much like we find him, lying prostrate (this time dead) in an abandoned hospital. The film then closes with the women walking out into an uncertain (and likely deadly) future. The choice here is really between the ending we get and this latter, sour and ultimately ambiguous one. And, given that we’ve spent two hours learning to like these characters, and to appreciate them for their bravery and humanity, it doesn’t bother me in the slightest that what we do receive is a little ray of sunshine in an otherwise completely fucked world. Sure, there’s symmetry in having Jim finally die, after only narrowly escaping a grisly fate in the first place, the visual parallelism bringing it all back around neatly. But there is more to a film than visual symmetry and, outside of a potential nod to ‘realism,’ I don’t see any reason for Jim to die. It’s not like it’s a Hollywood Rom-Com wherein they’re all going to get shipped over to America and suddenly a neat little hip bohemian family living in Greenwich Village alongside the cast from Friends. They’re going to get shipped into a quarantine zone where they will wait uncertainly for their lives to resume. Who knows? Maybe they end up in the overrun quarantine zone of 28 Weeks Later, getting their narrative comeuppance after all. Either way, the ending we see is still, when you think about it, highly ambiguous. Right, moving on.
  • The scene near the end where Jim is running around in the rain, tormenting Eccleston’s Major West, is excellently shot. I’m still learning about the formal elements of film production, so I’m not entirely sure what technique was used to make the rain seem simultaneously sleety and deluge-like (delugional?) while at the same time appearing to fall slowly, in large, distinct droplets. It’s almost as though two tempos are occurring simultaneously, one sped up, seemingly in the background, to simulate the rapid movements associated with a frenetic, adrenaline-fueled chase, and the other slowed to create a picturesque, dramatic foreground.
  • I recently read a brief interview with Boyle, Garland, and producer Andrew Macdonald wherein Garland remarks that Boyle’s adaptation of The Beach was in most part a Hollywood-driven film that came into being largely because its star, Leonardo DiCaprio, had liked the book and Boyle’s Trainspotting, and thus went about his Hollywood star business getting it made. And somewhere along the way, that project became the utter train wreck that is The Beach. Though Garland doesn’t say so (it is he who makes this remark), it’s hard not to wonder whether it was precisely the film’s pointed attention to the American/Hollywoood market that turned it sour, with its contrived love story and its, oh, complete inability to get anything about the novel right. I’ve nothing whatsoever to go on here, but I’ve always wondered whether 28 Days Later was Boyle and Garland’s attempt to take interesting original source material (in this case Garland’s original screenplay) and do a film the right way, on a small budget, and with actors who were mainly (at least at the time) unknown (it should be said that American filmgoers probably would have recognized Eccleston and maybe even Brendon Gleeson, both of whom had been playing character parts quite impressively for some time on both sides of the Atlantic). In any case, I’ve always been pleased that Boyle and Garland were able to reunite and produce a film that is, whatever its faults, mostly a success (as was 2007’s underrated Sunshine, also written by Garland and directed by Boyle).
  • As my viewing partner remarked, in the early London scenes, “Serena’s got a super fabulous sparkly shirt for the zombie apocalypse.”
  • Following on that comment, I’d say that Jim’s “bicycle-accident chic” hairdo in the film’s opening scenes would fit right in as high style in our current era.
  • Also from my viewing partner: “Hey! The apocalypse is ok so long as your daughter still thinks your jokes are funny!”
  • Ok, so there are a few times in this film where it’s pretty tough to suspend disbelief. For instance, that bit where they’re driving through one of the tunnels that runs under the Thames and they drive over giant pile of smashed up cars in a taxicab is…totally realistic. And then, once the infected start to swarm in their general direction, we see what must surely be the fastest tire change from busted tire to spare to tightened lug nuts EVER.
  • There were a number of moments in the film where I couldn’t help but think that Boyle had reused, in a form of visual verbatim, somewhat iconic imagery from Trainspotting. The first such image occurs when the hardy foursome stop to refuel at a roadside petrol station-cum-diner and Jim witnesses a mother lying dead on the ground, face down, with her dead baby facing upwards in her arms. The baby, if you look at it closely, looks an awful lot like the unforgettably horrible (if somewhat fake) dead body of baby Dawn in what is probably one of the top three most retina-burning scenes in the earlier film. The second one I’m thinking of is a little harder to prove, but when Jim jumps over the wall after escaping his intended execution, he lands with this thud, head down, arms and shoulders forward, in a way that directly recalled the jump cut inTrainspotting where Mark, fleeing from his family and his state-sponsored methadone treatment programs, jumps from a wall and lands, amusingly, in the flat of his heroin dealer.

[1] For those interested few, the best fictionalization of this sentiment I’ve ever come across is E.M. Forster’s 1909 novella The Machine Stops. It’s well worth reading.

28 Days Later 6

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