Dogme of the Dead

The end is extremely fucking nigh: Cillian Murphy in '28 Days Later'
Fox Searchlight

More proof that pop will not only eat itself but puke, package the mess, and put a price tag on it: The freshest film of this warmed-over season is a virtual remake of the second sequel to an exploitation movie about... cannibal zombies.

Is this the end of the world? Set in an apocalyptic Blighty where all but a few desperate souls have been infected by a rage-inducing virus, 28 Days Later adopts a survivalist attitude of its own. Having washed up on The Beach, director Danny Boyle found himself with nothing but the instinct to scour the shore for discarded goods. Maybe the undead genre--George Romero's Day of the Dead in particular--has a little life left in it, he figured. Maybe digital video--blurry, smeared, bleached of any color but red--could help convey the bleakest future (and keep the budget down). And maybe the faint hint of hope in the final scene might allow a crossover-minded British thriller to infect those who wouldn't be caught dead at a midnight movie in the States. But what even the trendspotting Boyle couldn't have imagined when he started shooting in the summer of 2001 is that, 22 months later, his derivative horror film would be the bloody perfect allegory of our reactionary, paranoid, afflicted, murderous moment in history.

"We generally prefer our zombie flicks without political subtexts," opined Entertainment Weekly--of course--in its recent cult-movie roundup. But in fact, while you might take the zombie out of politics (no threat of Gore in '04, anyway), you can never take the politics out of the zombie. Indeed, the undead have always had an uncanny way of coming to life whenever it's hell on earth. In 1968, the rabid flesh-eaters of Romero's Night of the Living Dead could have been seen as reincarnated revolutionaries, as the Viet Cong, as Nixon voters, as the decomposed embodiments of our craven appetites. In 1979, the conspicuously consumptive ghouls of Dawn of the Dead were simply devoted shoppers--doing their part to usher in the New Morning in America. When Day finally broke in 1985, Reagan was in his second term and the zombies weren't nearly as scary (or as brain-dead) as the trigger-happy militarists who capitalized on catastrophe by instilling themselves at the head of the new war on terror.

Sound familiar? 28 Days Later ominously intimates the further collapse of human civilization (the bulk of the film takes place four weeks after the beginning of the end), though it's really the most natural sort of throwback: Another Day, same old shit. As in Romero's trilogy-capper, Boyle's tiny band of survivors heroically hacks its way through the zombie-infested city toward a military outpost in the middle of nowhere, and discovers that the key distinction isn't between the living and the undead, but between those with heavy artillery and those without it. The only real difference in Later is that the average zombie--like the world itself--is much faster now: Mere seconds after contracting the virus, the snarling "infected" will seek to pounce on the living and spew black death into the victim's nearest orifice. (How fitting that Boyle's monsters would be not cannibals, but regurgitators. Who has time to digest anything these days?) The attack scenes appear even more ferocious for the frantic cutting of undercranked DV: Twelve frames per second and no way out.

Not counting the penultimate sequence--a Gothic spook-house rave-up complete with strobe lighting by Mother Nature (and cathartic post-punk à la the Cure)--28 Days Later looks downright ugly, as if shot with the last Hi-8 camcorder left on earth. (Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle christened the things-fall-apart look of DV with The Celebration; one could say that this is his Dogme of the Dead.) Still, the movie isn't just fashionable nihilism. Choosing life a little more sincerely than he did in Trainspotting, Boyle takes a moment amid the chaos to meditate on human ethics at the end of days. Do you join a group that might slow you down or stay alive and alone? Would you wait longer than a heartbeat to get rid of someone you suspected of being "contaminated"? How much individual freedom would you give up in trade for comfort, for protection? And if both undead behavior and human survival are predicated on frenzy, how much room do you allow for calm? How much room do you allow for compassion?

Like Romero's series, 28 Days Later pivots on the question of self-interest versus cooperation--if not on violence versus pacifism. In the end, even the most left-leaning horror auteur will tell you that the only way to fight rage is to exhibit it.

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