Spoiler warning with immediate effect.
Content note: fictional scenarios mentioned of infanticide, racially motivated violence and (separate) sexual harassment, enslavement and attempted institutional and ritualistic rape-to-impregnate in a post-apocalyptic horror context.
Atop the Big Brother house, picking the undead off by long-range rifle through its outer fence, characters in Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set (Channel 4, 2008) wonder why zombies overrunning Britain gather outside. ‘Some kind of primitive intuition’, offers gauche outsider Joplin. ‘Don’t forget, this place was like a church to them.’ It’s a hat-tip to Dawn of the Dead, George A. Romero’s film whose walking dead are drawn by a instinct to a shopping centre where survivors hide; iconic scenes show them traipse brainlessly down retail aisles, hardly distinguishable from their former selves. Dead Set‘s treatment of reality TV reprises this as well, and both stories (if Brooker’s more overtly) are satirical, picturing consumerism’s nosedive into actual flesh-eating.
Zombie narratives make thought-provoking commentaries since they differ from us only in being dead – we see in them a duller, hungrier echo of ourselves, one less pronounced in vampires or werewolves, and their worlds feel instinctively like places ours has the potential to become. Loving genre parody Shaun of the Dead (2004) plays with this theme, and Dominic Mitchell’s social realist horror series In the Flesh, screened earlier this year on BBC Three, is built around it, but Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later was the film to codify the zombie flick as social criticism, reviving and updating it as a cinematic form. Its creatures, not zombies in strict terms at all, are raging, hyper-violent Britons, driven by fictional infection to mindless hostility; the aforementioned stories all owe something to it, and repeat views leave me more and more convinced it’s a horror of national identity.
Released ten years before the 2012 Olympics, whose opening Boyle would stage as a collage of British cultural iconography, the same hand is still visible at work in it. Bleak as it is, the film’s landscape is packed with imagery of this sort: a deserted London’s skyline, silent at its outset, a red bus on its side as if lying wounded; the black cab in which characters flee the city; the ruined castle where they picnic and stately home where they seek refuge; Manchester’s smoking ruins and the Lake District’s glacial valleys. Boyle’s Olympic ceremony leaps implausibly to mind in certain scenes, as a looted supermarket’s trolleys glide balletically into shot, horses canter unaware through English fields and wind turbines whirl next to the M6. Moments like these alternate surreally with ones of undiluted horror, suggesting the two might be sides of one coin. As we switch from pastoral idyll to Wyndhamian hell and back again, Cillian Murphy forced in his first major to end a feral child’s life, the thought occurs that what the script calls a ‘diseased little island’ might itself teeter between the two – that both are part of Britain’s character, infection merely letting them resurface.
Christopher Eccleston’s grotesque but somehow dignified commandant, Major Henry West, leads a troop of human villains who by obvious design (perhaps to emphasise this point) bring empire to mind. Lamenting his soldiers grow lebensmüde in their fortified, once upper class estate and sanctioning the rape of survivors Hannah and Selena (Skyfall‘s Naomie Harris in an early part), he confesses ‘I promised them women, because women mean a future.’ That Selena is black, a fact would-be perpetrator Corporal Mitchell fetishises, gives the soldiers’ planned sexual violence imperialist connotations, and procreation here seems little more than pretext for it: if pregnancy is what they want and not just an excuse, why Mitchell’s harassment of Selena on meeting her? Why no question of her current fertility, or whether ambiguously adolescent Hannah can conceive at all? Why force them, as West’s underlings do, to dress up in scarlet ball gowns?
Aptly-named West’s real motive may be as as colonial as his chaining and yoking the infected soldier Mailer, also black. ‘What do nine men do except wait to die themselves?’ he asks while justifying his scheme, hinting at homophobic paranoia – is West afraid the homosocial interplay of his brigade (‘You killed all my boys’, he later tells Murphy’s protagonist), unchecked by ceremonial sex with women, might flower into eroticism? These attitudes to sexuality, gender and race, ones Britain exported worldwide at its historical brutality’s peak, are dormant mainstays here of its establishment, reawakened by the (not quite) zombie plague. Even West’s voice implies he aspires to this regime, Eccleston’s native Salford showing through the major’s plummier, affected vowels, suggestive of a man with establishment pretensions, determined to appear above his roots.
A newer imperialism features too, if subtly, in Boyle’s film, released a year or so post-9/11 in Britain and mid-2003 stateside. Its opening shot, inserted perhaps during the War on Terror’s genesis, shows scenes of police attacks on British demonstrators, public chaos in the Middle East and topoi which would otherwise become familiar in the years after, before cutting away to reveal these on television screens, shown forcibly to a chimp clad with electrodes. The rage virus’s spread, about which nothing else is indicated, begins when animal advocates release infected chimps from this laboratory; should the fact this is the sole hint viewers get at the infection’s origins tell us, on some impressionistic level, that world politics Britain was entering at the time somehow created it? That the rage of rioters, soldiers and war victims the chimps are made to watch somehow transfers to them, and subsequently infected humans? Major West, at dinner with the film’s protagonists before revealing his men’s plans, comments that ‘people killing people’ is all he remembers seeing before the outbreak, ‘which to my mind puts us in a state of normality right now.’ The violence of the infected stems, it seems, from that already harboured and practised by Britain, especially through military men like him.
The corollary of this, embodied in Selena and Jim’s relationship, is that whatever use compassion has as an antidote to carnage, it has here and now. Their love story, a better one than zombie films have often told us, lies improbably at the film’s core: Selena, hard as nails and able to dismember her infected friend initially, regains some measure of humanity from Hannah and Jim during the film, despite initially warning him ‘If it happens to you, I’ll do it in a heartbeat’; Jim, initially reluctant to kill and slowing the party down, unearths his lethal side in order to save her and Hannah at the climax. When Selena, mistaking him for one of the infected as he kills Corporal Mitchell with his bare hands, hesitates to attack, Jim tritely, knowingly remarks ‘That was longer than a heartbeat.’ The moment their attitudes meet in the middle is when we know they care about each other, a balance between callousness and mercy being struck which offers some degree of hope, as if walking that fine line might be what saves them, and stops our own society’s collapse into an abattoir. Boyle’s film is a British nightmare, a horror of things lurking in our nation’s woodwork and what might befall us should we fail to toe the line.