28 Days Later: Taming the Human Animal

13 June 2014

28 Days Later begins with a montage of news reports of violence and riots around the world (28 Days Later 2002.) Because of genre conventions, the viewer is encouraged to assume that this is the beginning of the zombie outbreak. The viewer is lead to believe that like in the Romero films the cause of the zombie outbreak will be left unexplained or at least explained in an ambiguous or contradictory manner (Romero 1968, 1979, 1988.) However, the camera pans back to reveal that the news reports feed into a bank of televisions that play simultaneously to a test animal in a scientific looking laboratory (28 Days Later 2002.) Of mice, rabbits, and apes that have been connected with scientific experimentation in popular culture, the ape is the one that most resembles the human. The anthropomorphic quality of the ape being tested on brings up the idea that the film is trying to critique the human/animal comparison. The misleading beginning of this film forces the viewer to take a step back from the immediate narrative of the film and think about the violent animalistic brutality of the human world. In “A Zombie Manifesto: The Nonhuman Condition in the Era of Advanced Capitalism,” Even though Sarah Lauro and Karen Embry  anticipate much of their possible criticism when they state, “…There is […] the American importation of the [zombie], which in its cinematic incarnation has morphed into a convenient boogeyman representing various social concerns” (Embry and Lauro 87.) A critical reading of the 28 Days Later shows that Embry and Lauro’s implication that the zombie is the next necessary step in the evolution of modern humans is a misunderstanding of the purpose of the zombie narrative (Embry and Lauro 87, 88.) The film, 28 Days Later is ultimately a story about the human’s struggle with and eventual triumph over his or her own animal nature.

This film portrays its zombies with different characteristics than the standard definition of the zombie as defined by Romero’s movies and its clones. The zombies of 28 Days Later are not undead, immortal, or cannibals. The zombies of this film are referred to as infected and the opening scenes of the film reinforce this idea when a band of eco-terrorists break into a scientific research laboratory and liberate the test animals. Embry and Lauro seem to agree that these zombies fall outside of the traditional undead category. They dismiss these zombies from the ranks of the undead by claiming that they result from viral contamination; however, the film is not give an authoritative explanation to their exact origins (Embry and Lauro 87, 88.) When informing Jim of what has happened while he was in a coma, Selena tells him that the outbreak of the infected is a result of viral infection, but while Selena had been a pharmacist before the zombie outbreak, she was not an authority on viral infection. When the lab animals were about to be released, the scientist, who presumably was an authority on the experiments that were going on in the lab said that the monkeys were infected with rage (28 days Later 2002.)  Although it is easy to assume that rage is the name of a virus, he does not refer to it as a virus, and viral infections are not influenced anything that the host watches. The scene with the ape with wires hooked to his brain while he was being forced to watch multiple television monitors showing these scenes of intense violence repeating over and over on a loop serves no purpose if rage is a virus (28 days Later 2002.)  Since the zombies are not undead beasts and they are not caused by a viral infection, cause of the zombie plague must be a psychological one.

Embry and Lauro say, “…The zombie horde is a swarm where no trace of the individual remains” (Embry and Lauro 89.) But they are slightly off the mark. A swarm is a group of insects that work together for the betterment of the collective, and as lower order animals they do not have the mental capacity to develop a theory of self. Without a theory of self the swarm insects are allowed the freedom to act without selfish motivations, but humans do not have this luxury. The name, rage is crucial to understanding the psychological nature of the zombie infection. As a social animal, humans have an instinctual drive to follow the verbal and nonverbal cues of others of the same species. What is thought of as a mob is just the human equivalent of a herd. Rage is just one half of the fight or flight response, and humans are driven to act by the verbalizations or body language of people that they identify with. Therefore, an agitated body posture or an angry yell will get others nearby agitated and angry as well. And violent actions of one individual will encourage the violent actions of another. In herding animals, these instinctual reactions are not a selfless act for the betterment of the hive. The herding animal is driven by a selfish concern for safety in numbers. Therefore, the human animal member of the zombie horde is not acting because he or she has lost all trace of the individual; he or she is acting to preserve all aspects of the individual especially the individual’s life.

Embry and Lauro state, “…In the figure of the zombie, the body and the mind are separated antinomies…. the body is resurrected and retained: only consciousness is permanently lost” (Embry and Lauro 89.) Jim’s narrative through the film serves to prove that at least in this film the zombies have the potential for redemption. Although Jim was never seen to be actually infected in the film, he did begin to take on the aspects of the zombies.

After escaping from the soldiers when they were planning to put him to death, Jim spent several hours without a weapon alone in the woods with the zombies (28 days Later 2002.)  While he was gone he adapted the stealth, speed, and strength of the zombie while maintaining enough mental capacity to work tactically to draw out and kill the soldiers one by one. Jim is portrayed as animalistic. His posture is hunched and his muscles are taut. Every time he moves, he is sprinting.  Even the camera works to portray Jim as a predator stalking his prey. The portrayal of Jim like an animal calls back to the apes at the beginning of the film. The apes seem docile or even friendly while they are in their cages, but when the ape is let out of its cage into an environment that it cannot control it lashes out violently (28 days Later 2002.)  The animal that had seemed so much like a human seconds earlier, reveals its brutal animal nature, and so too does Jim in this situation.

As he went along he became more and more brutal and the soldiers back at the mansion began to grow more and more afraid of him, and as the soldiers fear grows so too does Jim’s zombie like strength. By the end of Jim’s slaughter of the soldiers, he has given over so much to his animal instincts that he kills the last soldier with his bare hands by plunging his thumbs into the soldier’s eyes (28 days Later 2002.)  During Jim’s killing spree, he has given so much of his personality over to his own psychological rage that he is indistinguishable from the infected zombies. Not did Selina believe that Jim was a zombie when he came to save her, but the zombies must have mistaken him for one of their own as well. During the whole time that Jim was fighting to free Selina and Hannah, the zombies did not attack him. The other zombies even seem to be feeding off of Jim’s animalistic brutality. For all intents and purposes, Jim had become a zombie, yet he is able to recover his humanity after having given in to his animalistic rage.

Unlike the main thrust of Lauro and Embry’s essay, “A Zombie Manifesto,” the film, 28 Days Later allows for the recovery of the humanity of those that are drawn down into the depths of the zombie condition, and unlike the claim in “A Zombie Manifesto” that the zombie is the only way to become post-human, I submit that the zombie is the pre-human or the animalistic side of humanity. All one must do is tune in to the nightly news report to see graphic depictions of the violence going on all around the world to be reminded that humanity is in a constant struggle with its animalistic urge to destroy one another.

Work Cited

28 Days Later. Boyle, D. 20th Century Fox, 2002. Film.

Lauro, S and Embry, K. “A Zombie Manifesto: The Nonhuman Condition in the Era of Advanced Capitalism.” 2008. Print.

Romero, G. Dawn of the Dead. United Film Distribution Company, 1979. Film.

Romero, G. Day of the Dead. United Film Distribution Company, 1985. Film.

Romero, G. Night of the Living Dead. The Walter Reade Organization, 1968. Film.

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