Monday, December 8, 2014

People Killing People: 28 Days Later and the New Zombie

The first "modern" (post-2000) zombie film that we covered in class this year was Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later. For this film, I wanted the class to investigate how these zombies differ from the ones we saw in Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, and explore what those differences might have to say about our culture. Here is the assignment (my model blog entry follows right after):

This week we will be watching Danny Boyle's 2002 film, 28 Days Later (NOT the sequel, 28 Weeks Later). One of the more interesting things about this movie is the way that it dramatically reimagines the zombie figure. It challenges, in some very overt ways (and some more subtle ones) the rules and conventions that we have become accustomed to in zombie fictions. For this blog, I want you to identify a few of the ways that these "zombies" differ from the ones we've seen in Romero's films. I would rather you pick the one or two differences that most interest you and focus on them, as opposed to attempting to catalog every way that these zombies are different and new. Once you have explored these differences, I want you to make an argument about what this shift in the presentation of the zombie indicates about our culture. Why did the zombie have to change to fit our current sensibilities? What does this new zombie say about us?

In 1968, George Romero presented us with a new vision of horror: the zombie. For almost 35 years, his presentation of the zombie was the standard, some slight deviations aside (“Braaaains!”). The 2002 release of 28 Days Later changed all of that. Indeed, in many ways, Danny Boyle’s new iteration of the zombie acts as an update of sorts, a reimagining of the creature to suit the shifting sensibilities of modern audiences.

At its core, the Romero zombie is a slow-moving, mindless, reanimated corpse that craves human flesh and multiplies by killing its victims, and can only be stopped by a direct attack on its brain. There are a few other traits from Romero’s films that have fallen away in other representations – rudimentary tool use, a fear of fire, eating crickets, etc. – but the traditions that have loosely been followed for over three decades are based on those characteristics explicitly outlined by the “experts” on the news in Night and Dawn.
The “zombies” we encounter in 28 Days Later are decidedly different. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they are never identified as “zombies” in the film. These creatures, though in many important ways zombie-like, are never identified as such by the characters in the film. Instead, they are referred to as “the infected.” Unlike in Apocalypse Z, however, where this term is also used (perhaps a little more euphemistically) to describe the monsters that have caused the fall of civilization, here the term is used literally. Whether it is the doctor at the beginning of the film explaining what has been done to the chimps, or Selena giving Jim the worst while-you-were-sleeping talk ever, when viewers are told that what caused this outbreak “was a virus, an infection,” it is meant quite literally (19:44). These “zombies” are not reanimated corpses, they are infected humans. Which is to say, they aren’t dead, they just live differently. Very differently. But they’re still just… people. In 28 Days Later, Danny Boyle confronts his viewers with monsters, infected and not, that are stunning in their very humanity. Although the infected are quite different from those not afflicted by the virus - they cannot communicate, they are basically mindless, are wildly contagious, and multiply at an alarming rate – they might be most frightening in their awful similarities.

In another interesting departure from the conventions established by Romero, the “zombies” of 28 Days Later aren’t much more difficult to kill than an uninfected person. I mean, the infected the zombie figure clearly doesn’t react to pain the same way that people do; even engulfed in flames, they will continue their single minded pursuit of human destruction. They aren’t indestructible, though, and trauma to the brain is hardly the only way to dispatch them. Being riddled with bullets (1:04:19) or hacked up with a machete (28:17) is no less fatal to an infected person than it would be to anyone else. They can be burned, starved, or blown apart by claymores. Their tolerance for pain is higher, sure, even much higher, but there is nothing at all supernatural about these beings. Nothing more than sick, deranged people, these “zombies” are alive like us and die like we die.

Shifting the zombie figure from the nearly invulnerable risen-dead to simply "the infected," living people who have contracted an aggressively contagious virus, reflects what I believe is a growing skepticism of the supernatural at the time. Following the real life horror of 9-11, the world had less and less patience for paranormal ghouls and goblins. An audience that watched thousands of people die in a terrorist attack broadcast live on national TV didn’t need their dead to walk; their living were plenty frightening as is. In 1968, Romero frightened us not by making zombies believable, but by depicting realistic reactions to inconceivable, indeed impossible, events. The interpersonal conflict and the societal collapse of Night of the Living Dead could not but resonate at a time of so much social unrest and upheaval. Boyle is doing something else entirely. While Boyle’s film certainly speaks to a similarly pervasive cultural anxiety and uncertainty, his zombie is perhaps most horrifying because it obeys the laws of the universe as we know them. Doctors do experiment by creating new viruses and diseases. Viruses do mutate, often at an alarming rate. Our world is a very frightening and violent place. When Major West tells his assembled dinner party that what he’s seen in the four weeks since infection is simply “people killing people,” much like they always have, and asserts that this “puts us in a state of normality, right now,” he isn’t just talking about the world within the film; he’s pointing an accusatory finger at our reality as well (1:13:36). This, or something like it, could actually happen. It is this horrible, horrible plausibility that has allowed the zombie to re-take its place as our worst nightmare and preeminent monster.

No comments:

Post a Comment