I met Zsuzsa last night, and we had dinner together, after seeing a movie at her suggestion, 28 Days Later
, directed by Danny Boyle, of Trainspotting
fame. Nowadays I just go where people point me, pretty much. I’m not too picky about what’s on the menu, and I have to say, I think the food’s much better that way. I find myself enjoying certain things better now than I would have allowed myself to do just a few years ago, like 8 Mile
. I mean, what’s the use of crying over it? It’s what it is. Life is like that. You should enjoy what you enjoy, but even try to enjoy what you don’t.
Zsuzsa said 28 Days Later
was a horror film. I don’t mind horror as long as it’s done well, but I wouldn’t say it was horror, exactly. It may qualify on one level as allegory, but it was not exactly allegory, either. It started out as Being There
, morphed into Mad Max
, then turned into 120 Days of Sodom
mixed with Night of the Living Dead
. It was a post-apocalyptic Fandango
with a very tidy, happy ending. Hmm.
I really liked it. It complemented my apocalyptic mood, that’s for sure. Though I never really talk about it, I have been sure for a long time that, as a graffito in the stairwell of a church in the film has it, "The end is really fucking nigh." Once in a while I realize that with the pace of things these days, the world is ending all the time. It is in a constant state of flux. It becomes impossible to define it from one moment to the next. This really is a relatively new phenomenon—at least the rate of change. Maybe kids today are different, but I wasn’t made for it, and I’m not ready. Maybe kids today are comfortable in free-fall, but I feel the constant need to grab hold of something solid. Of course there is nothing solid to grab hold of, but I can't help trying.
So the premise of the film is that some sods have broken into an animal laboratory at Cambridge to liberate chimps, unaware that the chimps have been infected with a virus ("what have they been infected with?" one of the animal libbers asks the wanker who’s pulled the alarm on them, to which he answers, "rage"). The animal libbers open the cages anyway, feeling sorry for the chimps, who then attack and infect them. The infection is passed through blood and saliva, and takes full effect in ten to twelve seconds, transforming the infected person into a raging fiend, basically. This was as much explanation as was given about the virus and really as much as was needed to set the scene. It was not entirely clear why the rabid people (and apparently animals of all sorts could catch it too), didn’t venture out in the daytime, but this is a horror-film axiom, and gave us some down-time to get to know the characters a bit.
Jim, played by scintillating Cillian Murphy, has been in a coma for at least a month. It’s 28 days after the animal libbers released the virus. We see him lying in his hospital bed naked. There was quite enough gratuitous male full-frontal nudity to satisfy me in this scene, I must say, and we got to see his bum a bit later. He’s a lanky kid, with stunning blue eyes—same basic type as Ewen McGregor was in Trainspotting, I guess. In the American version he’d be rippling with muscles, played by Marky Mark, or someone.
He wakes up (thankfully in the daytime) to find he’s locked in his hospital room, though someone slipped a key under the door at some point, so that he would be able to let himself out should he regain consciousness. The hospital is deserted and in shambles. In the lobby he finds some cans of Pepsi that have spilled out of a trashed vending machine, and guzzles one down, then sticks some more in a plastic bag and sets off for home. There’s quite a bit of similar product placement of various Pepsi products and candy bars, a Benneton billboard, and even a Mercedes Benz, all but the last of which make sense enough in the context of the film. The cola and candies would be a long-lasting food source in such a setting. The Benneton ad gave a sense of irony. The Benz was too much, though. Here he’s walking around post-apocalyptic London all alone, everything is trashed, and suddenly he walks right into this Mercedes commercial, with this brand spanking new spotless Benz sitting there. He tries opening the door, but the alarm goes off, and he runs away.
He finds money, a lot of it, on the steps of what might be a train station, and stuffs it into his plastic bag, which, of course, drew knowing chuckles from the audience. This whole portion of the film—we’ve seen it before in numerous such films—was moving. You felt a great many things watching poor Jim slowly come to grips with reality and seeing that reality so convincingly rendered. I felt relieved that it was all over (of course it wasn’t—this was only the first ten, fifteen minutes of the movie), excited by all the usual possibilities of starting again from scratch.
All through this first part of the film I kept thinking, yes, it could easily happen, something like this. Probably they have viruses in laboratories that could decimate an island like that in a month’s time. Or less. As for our first encounter with the infected, the digital cinematography was of the same type they used in The Gladiator
to make the scenes of violence so violent—the brittle super-real color and definition, the jerky, hyperkinetic movement of the camera. This contrasted with the dull, sometimes blurry lens through which we saw most of the rest of the film.
If this had been your average horror flick this attention to style would have come in a weak second to gore, but there wasn’t actually all that much gore here. Enough, but not so much. Those infected weren’t your typical post-apocalyptic zombies, either. The depiction of rage was very true. It could have turned a bit comical if not for the camerawork. Those infected behaved like rabid dogs. They were the very personification of rage, often quite literally spewing bile on their victims, along with blood and spleen. This is how people behave when in a rage, this is just how rage would look if it transformed us wholly and permanently. This is how people would look if, in a rage, we turned them inside out.
And the gestation period (plus/minus fifteen seconds) was essential, of course, for making the point. That’s how rage spreads. Perversely, perhaps, this was also the source of hope in the plot. Because the virus spread in this way, it was contained to the British isles, and Europe. It couldn’t spread abroad but through the Chunnel. At one point a man in despair says, "you know they’re still living life as usual in the US, watching The Simpsons, going to the shopping mall!" Of course such a virus couldn’t spread over air or sea. Zsuzsa didn’t see the point of giving it any thought (she said it was a boy thing), but this is what makes the hopeful, happy ending of the film possible.
The first hint that the film was attempting a more conscious and complete allegory, with a political tint, is when our heroes hear a recorded broadcast on the shortwave, urging the uninfected to make their way to Manchester, where the army has established a blockade. Thus began the second part of the film, the roadtrip. This basically gave us time to get to know the four characters who had found each other in the first part of the film. Those educated in horror films knew not to get too attached to anybody. Driving only in the daytime and stopping into some old ruins at night, they make it in two days’ time. I must admit that, while I understood the necessity of this situation for the plot, it didn’t make any sense. Why not drive at night (since presumably the infected could not manage to drive, as they were always lashing about and foaming at the mouth), and stop during the daytime to rest? Or better yet, there were four adults in the car, why not take turns driving and just drive straight to Manchester that way? That’s what I kept thinking, myself, though as far as the plot was concerned this provided a nice stretch in which to develop relationships and deepen our sympathy for the characters.
They reach the barricade (all of Manchester is in flames), and sure enough, one of the characters, the lovable father, turns rabid. Several soldiers show up to rescue the others: Part three.
They take them to an old manor house they’ve fortified with barbed wire fences and landmines, with a huge statue of the Laocoon in the foyer, though I can’t see the significance of the statue to the story. At any rate, it soon becomes clear that their situation is not much improved from when they were in London.
The first indication that something sinister is afoot is when the leader of this small platoon, who looks disarmingly like a Nazi, takes Jim into a little courtyard where he has chained up one of his soldiers who was recently infected. Aside from one of the women who’s accompanied Jim, this rabid soldier is the only black character we’ve encountered. Later we will meet another black soldier, but this scene established the extent of the danger Jim and his girls are in not only from the infected, but also from those who’ve rescued them from them. The Nazi tells Jim at some point that the reason for broadcasting the recorded message on the shortwave was to lure women to the compound. He explains that he’s promised his men women, since without them they’d be doomed as well.
Thus begins the final part (to which the happy ending is a coda). Jim, along with a rebel soldier, who objects to the planned rape of the women, is taken out into the forest to be shot. He is taken to the place where they dispose of the bodies of the infected, who nightly wage war on the compound. As luck would have it, this place in the wood has a wall, over which Jim escapes in a moment of scuffling between the two soldiers charged with the duty of killing the two prisoners. He lands on his back, looks up and sees a jet high above, leaving a trail behind it. Thus, we know there’s hope, there’s a way out.
Meanwhile the soldiers figure he’s as good as dead, shirtless and unarmed. He runs off to the blockade, and sounds the siren, which stalls the rape of the women, and brings the soldiers to him. Jim, the skinny, sensitive kid, has suddenly transformed himself into a kind of Rambo (without all the muscles), and the cinematography that cues us to the presence of one of the infected is now being used when we see the action from his perspective. But, of course, we know he has not been infected. And he is obviously using his capacity for rage in an attempt at something valiant (saving the girls).
He manages to lure one of the soldiers round a corner, kills him quite handily, takes his machine gun, disables the vehicle the soldiers came in, and heads off to the manor house. Night’s fallen by the time he gets there. He scales the wall, frees the rabid soldier in the courtyard, who goes off to wreak havoc in the house. He knows the girls can defend themselves against rabid, hysterical monsters better than against rational, determined fascists, especially when the fascists have to fight the monsters, too. So while the whole house is suddenly plunged into chaos, he sets about rescuing the damsels in distress, becoming ultra-savage in the process, so that when finally he does rescue his lady love, she doesn’t know whether he’s a man or a monster himself, and comes at him with her machete. This is the first of several false endings, as the film winds down.
So she doesn’t chop him into little bits. In fact Jim cracks a joke when she comes just short of doing it. Suddenly our blue-eyed gamin has become Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon III
. It really was one of those moments like in a Hollywood action flick, where the hero has come this
close to death, and makes some little ironic crack about it.
Then they kiss, and it’s a very Hollywood kiss. Then the teenage girl who’s the third survivor of the bunch, breaks a bottle over his head. False ending No.2.
"Ouch!" Jim cries. "I was kissing her!" The girl apologizes. "I thought you were biting her!" Everybody laughs.
For the next five minutes we’re in classic Hollywood action flick mode. Our hero has dispatched all the minor villains, he’s got the girl, but they still have to get out of the burning building, and the arch-villain remains at large somewhere. The girl fetches the taxi they came in, and her mates open the back door to climb in and make their escape. When who should they find but the Nazi! "You killed my men," he says to Jim, and pumps a slug in his gut. False ending No.3.
The girl throws the taxi in reverse, and backs into the foyer, where the black soldier the Nazi had chained up in the courtyard is waiting, smashes through the back window, and gobbles him up. The girl throws it into gear, picks up her two comrades, and they race for the nearest exit. But the gate is locked! They urge her to crash through it. The moment she does, the frame is frozen as her two passengers are thrown forward. Fade to black. Fake ending No.4.
Then there’s this little coda. I mean, first we see Jim looking a lot like in the first scene, when he’s in his hospital bed. The lighting is the same, and he is just waking up. The first feeling you get is, oh, no, it was all a dream!
The director doesn’t milk it, though. Soon enough we see that he is actually recovering from different wounds. Lucky for him, his lady love happens to be a qualified chemist with obvious medical experience. They have found a cottage on a lake deep in the English countryside. It’s 28 days later.
We see the view from a fighter jet. We see the jet racing overhead from the POV of a couple of goons crawling along the country road—they’ve expended their rage, obviously near death. Then we see one of the girls shouting to the others that she can hear the jet coming. They rush out and place the huge quilt the other girl’s been sewing on the ground in front of the cottage.
The jet flies overhead and we see that our heroes have been working on a huge sewing project, spelling out the word ‘HELLO’ (interesting for many reasons—at first you see the H and the E and think it will spell out ‘HELP,’ and then, because they are still working on laying the enormous O down, you see the word ‘HELL’ and then you realize it’s actually HELLO and you think OK, but you wonder why they chose such a long word and didn’t just settle for a symbol, or a simple ‘Hi’ instead).
They are leaping up and down, even Jim, with his bandaged belly, faces glowing with hope, waving their arms wildly in the air. The jet does some tricky maneuver, to sort of acknowledge they’ve been found, and that’s it.
Really, a little bit of everything. The thread running through the whole thing was nihilism versus hope. When Jim first encounters Hannah with her machete she is sure that the best they can hope for is survival. Then they hook up with this father-daughter team, and seeing the love between them Hannah starts to change her tune.
But when Dad catches the virus and they’re rescued from him by the Nazis, the future they’re confronted with seems still to be one of mere survival, but even graver in a way than their own survival, it is the burden of the survival of the species they’re meant to bear, the women especially.
Hope comes in two forms: the survival of an outside world the proof of which Jim sees when his escape from the Nazis is accomplished, and the love that blooms between Jim and Hannah, the strength of which is demonstrated by her hesitance to chop him into little bits even though she suspects him momentarily of being infected.
As an allegorical tale set in the present, the implications are obvious, but some of the parallels are a little obscure. The rage is easy enough. I mean, it’s everywhere. People hate each other, that’s clear. Sitting in the cinema with a bunch of spoiled teenagers, I felt it. There was a guy next to Zsuzsa crunching his popcorn through the first half hour of the film. She finally said, listen, you’re making a lot of noise over there. The first part, no one speaks in the film. There’s silence most of the time. And here’s this sod beside me who’s brought his own soft drink in a bottle with him, and has this nervous habit of screwing the cap on and off. The fat middle-aged bloke sitting in what happened to be our seats (he took up two—we ended up in the row in front of him), seemed to either be having trouble breathing or to be fast asleep and snoring. The teenage pair behind us talked through the first ten minutes (curiously they were not talking through the twenty minutes of ads and the previews), but then were relatively well behaved until the most suspenseful moments late in the film, when suddenly one of them started crunching on his popcorn again, with real gusto. I looked back and his eyes were wide and glued to the screen while his hand was mechanically digging in the bag of popcorn and stuffing fistfuls in his open mouth. Nothing new, really. People aren’t aware of how annoying they are, and it’s been a long time since anyone had any manners, or cared much who they annoyed so long as they were enjoying themselves doing it. But people should be more careful when the topic of the film is rage.
So the rage anyone could understand. How it is blind. How quickly it can spread. How it can destroy society. How, maybe in the view of the filmmaker, it is
destroying society. How it becomes necessary to destroy those who would destroy society in order to save society. How this process then perverts you. But that’s as much of it as I get, to be honest.
Jim’s love for Hannah and his assurance that there is a way out (represented by a military fighter jet that must be American, though we never see any identifying emblems on it) are meant to justify his rage. He unleashes the virus on the soldiers, basically, and lets it do the work for him, to a point. But, of course, he has to be the one to free the girls in the end, and in doing so he gives vent to the rage within.
In what might have happened next there was potential for something profound, but this is precisely when the film falls back on irony in order not to make a point. But it had gone all the way up to it, and then proposed, basically, that the implications could be sidestepped, which is not satisfying really in any way, not morally, not aesthetically, not even in horror film terms. In a way, the film asks us to take it quite seriously (and from the getgo it is a serious film), and then suddenly when it comes to the point, it offers a punchline in its place.
Would it have been more satisfying if Hannah had in fact chopped him up into little pieces instead of offering him kisses? It would have made the point we were led to believe we were about to see made, for sure. Was there a certain genius in confounding our expectations like this? Personally, I think it was taken to an extreme—I mean not just once were we faked out, but four or five times in quick succession—and it was a little bit childish.
And it’s not happy endings that I object to. I mean, take a film like, I don’t know, Four Weddings and A Funeral
. It had a happy ending, and I was perfectly happy with it. It was a good movie, too. What would have been the point of ending on a low note? Likewise, even 8 Mile
was fine for what it was. It knew
what it was. So no problem with happy endings. I enjoyed 28 Days After immensely, but I think whatsisname, the director, finked out in the end. And to cover it up he made this last bit of the film sort of cheeky and ironic. But it didn’t start out that way.
Had this bloke found a way out of it that could lead to a believably happy ending (and to be fair he almost got there without fudging it) I would have been perfectly happy. I like the idea of hope winning out over nihilism, but unfortunately you have to conquer cynicism to get there. And irony is the tool of cynicism, of nihilism, not hope, which is why the ending rang hollow. As it was this coda was a sneering little gotcha
to all those who would insist on the ending they had been led to believe they were about to be dished up.
There is a more sinister question of just how far we can go with this certain kind of irony. It really is the same kind you’d find in the Lethal Weapon
franchise, but you generally don’t find it married to gory, graphic images of bodies stacked in mass graves in the woods, or the rotting corpses of our young hero’s parents, whom he finds lying in bed together, having decided to commit suicide rather than risk infection, his mother still clutching a photo of her son in a hand lain on her husband’s chest. How far can we take it? The filmmaker seems to argue in the first half of the film that our violence has consequences, but then he doesn’t follow through with this in the second half. Is it a triumph of the will that we can hope in the face of this, or is it that we really have been utterly desensitized? These questions are raised, but the answers are all muddled.
Still I enjoyed it immensely.