’28 Days Later’ – a cynic’s guide to normal life
The film that regained Danny Boyle his red hot status after the wrong turn represented by A Life Less Ordinary and The Beach, 28 Days Later serves not only as Sound on Sight’s favorite Boyle outing, but also as a refreshingly original take on a zombie horror sub-genre that enjoyed a new lease of (undead) life in the intervening period following its success. Simple tricks such as subverting standardized niche tropes and avoiding use of the ‘Z word’ were combined with a sweepingly ambitious, more pragmatic route of plot as its small band of heroes looked for survival and hope in desolated Great Britain. Interestingly, many of the crucial creative choices by Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland, here producing his finest script, lend credence to the notion that all is not what it seems within 28 Days Later, and that its bleak atmosphere and constant mood of perilous dread in fact serve to a more simple symbolic agenda; this survival thriller is in fact a candid, misanthropic and brutally cynical metaphor for the grind of everyday, normal life in our very real world.
While this theory may have been better justified had the film not featured its ultimately unnecessary prologue sequence, its presence does possess some traits which add weight to such a hypothesis, a quick stab at exposition set up used as the cloak for a 2001 style indictment of humanity’s failings. The first thing we see is depictions of mankind’s privation, shots of rioting, fighting and violence, subjected to a barbarically restrained and imprisoned chimpanzee. Not only do we do great evil to ourselves, it seems to say, but we cannot even allow the more benevolent animals in our midst to remain separated from that realm of inherent cruelty. Then we have the spark that causes the outbreak of ‘rage’, a virus seemingly the result of poorly judged science. A combination of exploitative research, the scientists abusing nature in search of some form of advanced genetics, and naïvely good and blindly damaging intentions see the pathogen unleashed on the public. Even when we try to do a decisively right thing, we simply throw fuel on the fire of destruction. The evil of the science sets up the blundering stupidity of the righteous, while the activists’ lack of care for the words of warning they hear represents an ignorance that borders on hypocrisy, so blinded by their moral crusade that they fail to take heed of the damage they will do. Everybody, this sequence tells us, is guilty.
With this set up taken care of, we kick into the real plot, and perhaps the most symbolically significant shot of the film. The main character Jim awakens naked in a hospital bed, completely vulnerable and defenseless. The simple truth is that under no circumstances would a medical patient find themselves in this state of undress, while said sufferer’s awakening after weeks alone in an abandoned facility following life threatening injuries, shorn of vital treatment, is a logical jump too far. The newborn symbolism isn’t just hinted at; the film warps its own gritty reality to make it predominant. Having conveniently missed the outbreak and its aftermath, Jim wanders into the world ignorant to his surroundings and with no understanding of what life now holds. His inquisitiveness in the early stages sees him wander the empty streets of London, without care for his own safety, the innocent curiosity of a child. A visit to a church throws further analytic musings into the mix, as this edifice most commonly associated with sanctuary and hope is overrun by bloodthirsty infected and has its walls daubed with pessimistic, nearly obscene messages of fear and apocalypse. The first ‘zombie’ that Jim encounters, quite notably, is a priest. So far, Jim has been in the realm of a hospital and a church, and found no help or care in either. The notion of birth followed by christening is also prevalent.
He is rescued by two other survivors, the distinctly contrasting Selena and Mark. Both are wearied and trauma hardened by their ordeals, but have different perspectives on their suffering, with Mark’s gallows humor opposed to Selena’s more serious and pragmatic professionalism. They each recount their respective losses, family mostly, and we quickly learn that the outbreak, or life as this interpretation will tell you, has taken everything dear from them with nothing offered in exchange. Jim is just starting to come to terms with matters when he finds that his parents are dead, lost to him, and he is now utterly alone in an emotional sense. Nobody will look after him now, and he is exposed to the harshness of the raging monster that surrounds him. When Mark is possibly infected, Selena doesn’t hesitate in butchering him in a screaming, horrific killing – we learn here what it truly takes to survive, a ruthless and unemotional sensibility when faced with necessity. Killing a man before he can become a threat – read making a terrible decision to ensure one’s own safety and security; the lack of sentiment suggests this isn’t the first hard choice she has had to make. Out of the gloom comes a shining light of potential hope and goodness, however, with the discovery of Frank and Hannah, a quite wholesome father and daughter pairing keeping their chins up and leading a Spartan but reasonable existence. They have suffered loss too, Hannah’s mother having died some time prior.
Their presence changes several dynamics, as Jim finds himself part of a family unit for the first time. Frank is undoubtedly a father figure to him, as seen by the chemistry they enjoy and Frank’s natural paternal instincts. Thus Hannah is his sister, and upon hearing a beacon call from a military unit they make the choice, as a family, to up sticks and go looking for this salvation. The lack of water they have at their high rise home makes this a no-brainer, although the theme of leaving one home in search of something more prosperous isn’t exactly hard to spot. The family move on, saying goodbye to the comfort of the past, as life seems to offer them a chance at something better. The trip North offers many smaller elements of symbolism, many of them more positive, as the humor and banter enjoyed by the family shows that man can cope with adversity with an optimistic, almost spiteful spirit, while a wonderfully shot picnic sequence featuring horses shows that despite the horror around them, there is still some beauty and goodness to take from the world. By contrast, a stop off at a gas station almost has Jim punished for his youthful recklessness at the hands of a raging child, one who audibly screams “I hate you!” at him before he takes the sickening action of killing the boy with a baseball bat. Children, it seems, are not immune to rage and destruction, and pose just as much of a destructive threat as their adult counterparts. Nothing can be taken for granted.
This comes home to bite when arrive at the army blockade on a highway and find it abandoned, speaking more of past horrors than future rescue. Faced by the notion that their huge gamble of a journey has not paid off, the usually stoic and positive Frank loses his temper and is promptly infected by a drop of blood from an overhanging, dead victim. The safety of the army only arrives to then execute Frank before he can strike out at his children. His terrible death, traumatic and scarring, sees another loved one stolen from our protagonist due to the cruel temperament of fate. Taken to a manor house turned barracks, the main characters are introduced to their new life living side by side with a dwindling troupe of soldiers. Their leader, the softly spoken fatherly Major West, instantly becomes a new protective figure for Jim and seems to be just as trustworthy as Frank. While the other soldiers are unsettlingly gaudy and irreverent, they are at the discretion of a decent human being. Or so we think. It doesn’t take long before the truth outs, as West has in fact promised his men the women of the group, regardless of their wishes. Yet another symbol of security and safety is devastatingly turned on its head as the soldiers become another threat. The betrayal of trust and decency is palpable, and the only member of the unit to object, to stand up for his morality and oppose the act, is summarily dispatched coldly and cruelly. Fate intervenes only long enough for Jim to escape certain death at the barrel of a rifle and, body bared once more, run amok into the wilderness with ne’er a hope in hell.
The direction Jim turns in, defining the film, the message and driving into a stirring if subconsciously disconcerting finale, is both strong and troubling. He has decided what he cares about the most, the now helpless Selena and Hannah, and is faced with a near impossible task to save them. How does he do it? He, in effect, lets rage take him, allows himself to fall foul of the same evil that has scarred the landscape and brought British civilization to its knees. In a bloodthirsty, inhuman blaze of death and destruction, Jim counterattacks and kills soldiers, ambushes soldiers and dooms soldiers to harrowing fates. As he runs through the house and jumps through windows, stained with blood and fury burning in his eyes, he is no better than the zombies that have enabled this mess, and is far worse than the immoral but simply selfish victims he now stalks. His method of killing the reprehensible Mitchell, thumbs to the eyes, is both disgusting and overkill. Fittingly, he is almost killed by Selena who only spares our protagonist by a troublingly uncharacteristic hesitancy when faced with possible love. At that point, she has no reason to believe that Jim is not infected, yet she doesn’t strike, too hopeful that he is still himself. Interestingly, this is the only such sign of weakness which isn’t punished in the film. What does this mean? In short, the victory that Jim earns due to this bloody frenzy shows that winning comes down to matching the horrific cruelty and selfishness of the world and even topping it. Only by becoming a monster can Jim defeat the system, and save the girls.
This is underlined by the ending, as the trio manage to successfully signal a jet fighter to their presence (the Finnish pilot calls for a helicopter in his native tongue), and a dark and brooding piece concludes with a happy ending. Trouble is it’s not really a happy ending in the traditional, wholesome sense of the term. There is no doubt that Jim, Selena and Hannah are now scarred for life, made to suffer terrible loss, defining trauma and make horrendous sacrifices to ensure their survival. Any decent humanity Jim may have possessed was lost in the blood wash when he bayoneted Jones in the stomach, or when he doomed Major West to a gory demise at the hands of the infected. Yet it was necessary, and was rewarded by a quick escape and generally winning the battle, winning at life by ditching moral good and peaceful wishes. To be truly successful in life, you have to be willing to screw everyone over and to adapt every ounce of moral fiber you hold dear in search of victory. That is the message here. Interestingly, the alternative ending, featuring Jim dying in (coming full circle) yet another abandoned hospital puts a different spin on the same point, and has the added bonus of providing symbolic bookends. We see Jim born, live, and then die in the same pattern we expect of most people. The message that everyone dies, with Selena and Hannah losing yet another soul, would also ring most true. In some way, perversely, the ending that was chosen is much more harsh and bitter in its metaphorical judgment.
A superb slice of survival horror, 28 Days Later has to its benefit a savvy knowing eye that presents itself just below the surface of fictitious virus outbreaks and new world orders, one that proves indispensable in securing its cult status and critical acclaim. Its familiarity that lends a vital ingredient to the dread and fear felt by the viewer stems from a life lesson taught by a cynic, much in the way that most parables and nursery rhymes have a very simple subtext better expressed through expansive storytelling. The image of a desolate, empty world somehow becomes more disturbing when married to the notion of symbolic imaging. It is empty, literally by depiction but metaphorically by meaning, just as the world and our lives truly are. Or perhaps cynicism simply begets cynicism.
This has been a strange interpretation…