The human virus

28 Days Later adds a new twist to the zombie flick.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Is it a metaphor for AIDS? For foot-and-mouth? For our post-11 September fears of shadowy terrorist networks?

All these theories and more have been thrown at Danny ‘Trainspotting’ Boyle’s take on the zombie/infection/disaster movie. 28 Days Later tells the story of Jim (Cillian Murphy), an Irishman-in-London who wakes from a 28-day coma to discover that the city has been deserted.

He eventually finds a heap of bodies in a desolate church (an image that screamed Rwanda far more than it did AIDS, foot-and-mouth or 9/11), and discovers that there is something horribly wrong with the surviving members of the human race. They have flaming red eyes, foaming mouths and an insatiable desire to rip Jim apart. ‘What the fuck…?’ he says, understandably.

Britain has been laid to waste by the Rage. Invented by pesky scientists keen to explore the nature of human anger (and freed from laboratories by even peskier animal rights activists who let infected monkeys out of their cages), the Rage turns ordinary Joes into fleshing-eating psycho-zombies within 10 seconds of infection. Before you can say apocalypse now, the whole of Britain has been devastated by the disease.

According to Danny Boyle, 28 Days Later is about ‘shopping rage, road rage, whatever rage’. One film critic starts her review by writing: ‘Boyle’s latest splendid cinematic offering is all about Rage – not just about trolley rage, road rage or people’s rage on the Underground in rush hour, but a full-blown Rage virus that infects the inhabitants of this country….’ (1)

This idea – that the Rage virus is an extension of everyday rage in everyday people – is a recurring theme in 28 Days Later. It is striking that the thing sweeping through Britain and killing people left, right and centre is not the zombies, living dead, alien invasions or airborne infections of earlier apocalyptic movies, but a human emotion.

The monkeys in which the Rage is first cultivated are made to watch TV footage of war zones and riots, to foster the right amount of loathing for the emotional virus to take hold. The message is clear: the Rage may threaten to wipe out humanity, but it was born of humanity in the first place.

In earlier zombie, disaster and disease flicks, the threat to humans has traditionally been from outside. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, released in 1956 at the height of the Cold War and during the McCarthyite witch-hunts in America, was a metaphor for the external menace of the ‘Evil Empire’. One film critic called it ‘a semi-subtle allegory about the threat of communism to America’.

More recent disaster movies have focused not on social or political threats, but on a strong sense of personal insecurity in our post-Cold War world. Twister (1996) and Volcano (1997) captured widespread environmental fears; Deep Impact (1998) and Armageddon (1999) had meteors threatening to destroy the Earth; Dustin Hoffman’s disease-fest Outbreak (1995) summed up the ‘everyone is at risk’ sentiment of the AIDS era.

28 Days Later takes these paranoid fears a step further, suggesting that the threat to humanity is humanity itself. One of the film’s characters says he is looking forward to the day when the Rage wipes out all humans, because then the planet ‘can get back to normality’. We’re the plague here, he says.

A Sergeant-Major responds that this already is normality, and compares the bloodletting on Britain’s Rage-ridden streets to the war zones he has fought in over the years. ‘Humans are killing humans, as they always have done’, he says.

Eventually Jim hooks up with a ragbag of other uninfected humans, including a badass bitch played by White Teeth’s Naomie Harris. They travel north to Manchester after hearing a radio message claiming to be from a surviving regiment of the British Army.

This is where things get really messy. Jim and co think they have found hope in the regiment’s makeshift garrison, only to discover that the soldiers are anti-women, vulgar and fascistic. The Sergeant-Major (Christopher Eccleston) even keeps Rage victims alive in order to study them (sounded sensible to me), and suggests allowing his soldiers to have sex with Jim’s badass sidekick in order to keep the human race going (which also sounded sensible to me, under the circumstances).

Forget heroic soldiers, scientists or politicians coming to save the day. In 28 Days Later, the army are sinister, psychotic types who apparently pose more of a threat to our heroes than the zombies do. Any idea of organised action against the zombies is frowned upon, and it’s left to our unskilled, agenda-less heroes to ‘do something, anything’. Indeed, Jim and co eventually enlist the help of the raging zombies, rather than relying on the troops.

If all this is a metaphor for our times, heaven help us.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Film

(1) 28 Days Later review, Rachel Foster, OMH Music, November 2002

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