‘28 Days Later’ and the Zombie as a Political Metaphor

Some films occupy a special place in your heart. They have a resonating effect. To put it simply, they stick with you.

For me, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later has to be one of those films.

In 28 Days Later, a bicycle courier named Jim awakens from a coma to discover that a virus known as “Rage” has swept across England. After coming across other survivors, he must ward off the infected while striving to retain his humanity in a post-apocalyptic world.

The peculiar thing about 28 Days Later is its ability to mix beauty with bloodshed, tenderness with terror. There are moments of sheer hair-raising terror. There are also moments of intimacy, lightheartedness, and deep reflection. It is typically a very difficult and risky venture trying to get these conflicting story elements to mingle.

Conventional thinking is that people who like to be thrilled have very different tastes from those who like to be intellectually challenged. This may be especially true for horror fans, whose palettes often reflect their views of the genre. Some horror fans enjoy the visual gore, while others are fond of horror that appeals to them on a psychological level. Similarly, what is intellectually-stimulating to some is boring to others; the gore and thrills which satisfies the latter audience is base and off-putting to the former. Works like 28 Days Later defy conventional thinking, proving that, yes, there is an audience of people who like to be thrilled as well as stimulated.

The film is often credited with revitalizing the zombie genre, even though many would argue (justifiably so) against this categorization. The infected, after all, are technically not zombies. They are not reanimated corpses with a taste for human flesh but rather living people driven to raging aggression by a viral outbreak. For the purposes of this essay, I argue that the infected are conceptually “zombies.”

I have a particular fascination with zombies as a powerful political metaphor. Zombies are unique in the sense that they occupy plot, character, and setting. Let’s set aside the stereotypical perception of zombies as decaying, shambling, grotesque hordes of tired clichés and overused tropes, and start to appreciate them for what they represent. When we do that, we start to see that zombies are truly terrifying.

Zombies, of course, emblematize the end of the world and the downfall of human civilization. Hence, they provide the rich reservoir from which political allegories can be extracted. In “Metaphor of the Living Dead,” Daniel Drezner explains how zombies are used to contextualize three specific societal anxieties in particular: war, globalization, and pandemics.

More than that, however, zombies represent the subversion of reality. More specifically, they challenge the rudimentary conceptions of life and death. Because they are neither living nor dead, zombies tap into the innate human fear of death, and the uncertainty surrounding it. The idea of absurdism comes to mind, as the characters in a zombie apocalypse are thrust into a world that is fundamentally askew, in which the laws of nature are essentially broken. In a zombie apocalypse, there is no uncertainty surrounding death. In a zombie apocalypse, survivors find themselves in an absurd nightmare, where living futilely is the only way to overcome an overwhelmingly bleak and meaningless situation.

Indeed, at the heart of 28 Days Later is the unraveling of reality, prompted first by Jim’s awakening at the hospital, followed by one of the most haunting and iconic sequences in the film, when Jim dazedly roams the empty London city streets. The protagonist-waking-up-from-a-coma scenario has become standard fare in the post-apocalyptic genre, used to call into question the very solidity of the protagonist’s reality. There are moments in this film that are near-dreamlike, constantly calling into question if Jim is still dreaming. It is thus difficult to discern whether or not the suicide note Jim receives from his parents, in which they tell him not to wake up from his coma, is meant to prey upon the viewer’s suspicions. The surrealistic feel of the film is further aided by its shaky cinematography and John Murphy’s atmospheric soundtrack.

Through this essay, I have sought to outline the ways in which zombies embody meaning far beyond their literal incarnation. 28 Days Later has managed to reimagine the prototypical, Romero-esque image of the zombie while remaining true to its metaphorical meaning. Between the eye-gouging and bludgeoning and a “Rage” virus which unlocks mankind’s brutal inner nature, 28 Days Later is still a wonderfully poignant film. And like all great zombie films before it, it offers sharp insight into human nature, political anarchy, and the potential collapse of human civilization.

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