Saturday, October 25, 2014

31 Days of Horror: 28 Days Later

Cillian Murphy realizes he may be alone in 28 Days Later.

In addition to our regular programming, every day this month, Last Cinema Standing will be bringing readers recommendations from the best of the horror genre as we make our way to Halloween. This should not be treated as a “best of” list but more as a primer. You can read the full introduction to Last Cinema Standing’s 31 Days of Horror here, and be sure to check back each day for a new suggestion.

Day 25: 28 Days Later (2002)

I was not going to write about Danny Boyle’s viral epidemic masterpiece 28 Days Later. It is among the most discussed, most debated horror films of the new century and with good reason. A lot of conversations in horror circles focus on its influence on the next decade of zombie pictures and whether or not this even qualifies as a proper zombie films. We will get into that in a bit.

First, we talked a bit yesterday about world events creating new contexts for films, lending meanings that were never intended or shedding new light on themes already present. Well, welcome to Ebola Panic 2014 and the profoundly disturbing implications of this early 2000s thriller. The film’s DVD, which I have owned multiple copies of in my life for some reason, comes with a short documentary included in the special features. It is about how the next great disaster will likely be a disease epidemic of one kind or another.

To those inclined to overreact to misreported numbers and unreliable data, the little documentary included among the deleted scenes and alternate endings may have seemed prescient. After all, in the years since, we have had panics over West Nile Virus, Swine Flu, Bird Flu, and now Ebola. There is little doubt that pandemic disease is possible, and with advances in travel technology and the congregating of large populations into megacities around the world, it is even likely. But we have not even been close.

None of these previous panics has been world changing, except to point out the media’s reliance on fear mongering as a sales tactic, which again, not world changing information. I live in New York City, where you may have heard Ebola just arrived on a plane. I can tell you no one here missed it because there was not one newspaper on one rack devoid of some variation on the banner headline “EBOLA IS HERE.” We scoffed and went about our day, such is the credibility of much modern news.

New York City and London are not far removed from one another in terms of makeup: large cities seen as beacons of the modern world and populated by people from all walks of life – the wealthy to the destitute of all races, religions, and creeds. 28 Days Later is that society, either society, when it collapses. In the film, a virus spread by contact with the blood of an infected person wipes out nearly the whole of England and turns its carriers into monsters consumed by blinding rage.

Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland do a fantastic job of creating a post-infection wasteland for our characters to wander around in, and this is probably where most of us were introduced to the great Irish actor Cillian Murphy – unless you are a fan of Disco Pigs, which I certainly am. It is a classic post-apocalyptic narrative in which a band of survivors searches for lost civilization and humanity while avoiding rampaging hordes of monsters.

Here is where the debate – and if you ask me, the fun of this movie – comes. Are the monsters zombies? You can ask this question on Google, and it will return any number of articles and message boards on this point, so I will not spend much time on this. The short answer is: Yes, they are. Are they the dead come back to life? No, but neither are zombies in their original incarnation. What is a zombie but a mindless killing machine who attacks the living? The monsters here qualify, and one would be hard-pressed to consider them still living, anyway

The argument then follows that they are fast, which zombies are not supposed to be. Well, who says? Allow that zombies are slow because their bodies have decomposed, and these people have not decomposed one bit. They became infected and immediately transformed. Their speed tracks with the in-world logic of the story, and if we are being honest, it is a welcome change for the genre. Now, no one questions a fast zombie, but the reason is because Boyle made it work, and it works brilliantly.

There is a third-act twist in this film that takes the movie even deeper into social-critique territory, but I will not reveal it here to preserve the mystery for those of you who have not seen it. The movie works because it is thrilling and energizing and scary as hell but also because if we look close enough, we can see its themes in our everyday lives. It is about fear, panic, and survival, but most of all, if you pay attention, it is about how the virus will not be what destroys us. When it comes down to it, we will be the ones who caused our destruction.

Tomorrow, we discuss perhaps the worst atrocity in human history – filtered through a zombie movie sequel.

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