‘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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Police Slayings: Our Pain Becomes Our Poison

After Police Slayings, One Asks: What is Our Night?

Editor’s note: This column, written in response to the 2016 murders of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, was originally published July 27, 2016 in the York Daily Record.

Imagine waking up to a fog of pure blackness. It’s 8:30 in the morning, and there’s night all around. You’ve risen from bed and stand ready to charge ahead, toward another workday, expecting daylight to brighten the skies just as it did the day before. Yet, there is only the curtain of night.

Only in The Twilight Zone could such an unimaginable scenario become imaginable. Those familiar with Rod Sterling’s surreal anthology know of the rich trove of allegories. From Death posing as a hitchhiker to an accident victim (“The Hitch-hiker”) to a witch hunt unfolding in a suburban neighborhood beset by small-town hysteria (“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”), Sterling’s catalogue explores the depth of man’s fears and the magnitude of his faults. Of all the entries, “I Am the Night—Color Me Black” is my favorite from the collection.

For those who haven’t seen this episode, I strongly recommend that you do. The narrative follows the final days of a condemned man convicted of murder. On the morning of the man’s execution, darkness replaces daylight in the small town. The town’s newspaper editor arrives at the sheriff’s station to interview the murderer – a self-described “bad guy” – who has no regrets about taking the life of a racist tormentor.

A crowd of eager spectators show up to witness the execution, including the newspaperman and a town reverend. The reverend, a black man, speaks to the condemned man, who is unrepentant even in his final moments. “I know it all too well,” says the reverend, searching the man’s heart. “You’re guilty.” The man rebukes the reverend for siding with the majority opinion. Recognizing that injustice cannot be repaid with injustice, the reverend laments: “the minority must have died on the cross, 2,000 years ago.”

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A reverend (Ivan Dixon), left, and a newspaperman (Paul Fix), right, speculate about the source of the town’s night.

When he is finally hanged, there is no solace. There is no satisfaction in schadenfreude and little comfort in revenge – only horror. Talking to the speechless gawkers, the reverend explains the source of their night. “It’s the hate he felt. The hate you felt. The hate all of us feel.” As more darkness smothers the town, the townsfolk begin to realize that they are the night. Hate, like personal poison, can never be contained. It festers inside us, bubbles to the surface and darkens our vision.

Returning to the station after the execution, the newspaperman, the wearied sheriff and his deputy contemplate the day’s events. As they turn on the radio, they realize that night has also descended upon other places of hate around the world: West Berlin, Vietnam, Birmingham, Chicago, and in Dallas. Dallas, at the time, was where an assassin’s bullet claimed the life of a charismatic president. The wounds of history would be reopened decades later, in much the same way, again in Dallas.

It seems, sometimes, that night is followed only by night; hate reciprocated by hate. But in the deluge of darkness, eyes cannot discriminate between black and white, or, I dare say, black bodies and blue uniforms. In the deluge, we seek only the outline of our fellow man. In the deluge, our own insecurities become abundantly clear to us, as we fumble and seek the touch of others. “In the darkest times,” tweeted actress Rashida Jones in response to the shootings in Dallas, “we must love even harder.”

It might be more reassuring if there were some mystical explanation. Perhaps, the darkness would be more tolerable if it were the act of a divine power or the result of some incursion by extraterrestrial forces. Instead, it so happens that we are the source. We are all hurting over the loss of black lives as well as the loss of blue lives. It should suffice to say we grieve the loss of all human life. As we wrestle with our pain, we guard it just as well, because suffering is no great leap from hate. And hate, when it boils and brews, spills into our streets and byways, with malice like that displayed in Dallas and, most recently, in Baton Rouge.

That is the nature of our country’s unprecedented “crisis,” as hailed by cynical pundits and a certain presidential candidate. However, these challenges, while doing nothing to diminish the emotional toll, are not unique to our time and certainly not unconquerable. Our country has faced racial tension and violence. The 1920s, with the explosion of organized crime fueled by Prohibition, was one of the deadliest decades for law enforcement, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial. In that same decade, our country also witnessed the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and the spread of its “Invisible Empire.” The challenges of today, as painful as they are, must be treated with caution and perspective, as to not inflame the wound.

At what point does our pain become our poison? At what point does hate begin to seep into our lives? The hate felt by those cop-killers in Dallas and Baton Rouge was the result of a hurt shared by many in this country. It spilled over and became our night.

I remember the terrifying feeling of waking up to more night, the night after those five officers were killed in Dallas. I have become wary of the night, just as a small child is wary of the unseen monsters lurking in his closet. It is the intimate fear of an imaginative threat. Maybe the monsters will never leave that vault. Maybe the darkness will never fully descend over the waking world. Still, the child will be in a state of constant worry each fretful night, always imagining what abominable beasts may be prowling. Only, it is hate, begotten of suffering and lurking within the soul, which occupies my fears.

Handsworth Revolution

Thorne’s Critique:

Steel Pulse’s Handsworth Revolution is a daring, politically-charged album that holds no punches in its bare critique of social inequality.
Rating: 8.5/10

Handsworth Revolution (1978) strays from the typical reggae blueprint of sun-drenched grooves and carefree themes. Breaking free from this mold, Handsworth Revolution is an exquisite roots reggae album by a band looking to establish its musical identity. The album is every bit as raw and contentious as its title would suggest. Don’t let the grungy exterior fool you though, Handsworth Revolution is a diamond in the rough.

Immediately, Steel Pulse establishes the pace with the titular track. “Handsworth Revolution” is a heartfelt yearning for widespread change, coming from the steely Handsworth area that seems to grace the band’s album cover. Confronting racial discrimination, injustice and corruption, the band sings about reclaiming its hometown for future generations. The deceivingly-collected rhythm quickly erupts into a rapid-fire, impromptu spoken-word verse towards the end of the song. “Handsworth Revolution” holds no punches and serves as a solid introduction to prelude the rest of the album.

Steel Pulse follows with the derelict “Bad Man” – a song so primal in its delivery that it almost sounds as though it was produced deep within the jungle badlands. Lead singer David Hinds’ taunts to “leave town” are embellished by guitar riffs and a cacophony of guttural chants from the background singers. Hinds also uses clever metaphors to illustrate his point: there can be no sharing of power, because he is the “badder” man. Make no mistake; “Bad Man” is full of bravado and pretension. However, if one examines the song more closely, there are also subtle signs of weakness and insecurity. “Bad Man” is also a message about slavery. “Four-hundred years” and “strange fruit” are meaningful historical references that give the song its intellectual edge.

One of the more reserved tracks on the album, “Sound Check” is an odd, but thoughtful ode to music and dance. “Prodigal Son” highlights the album, with its foreboding rhythm and highly critical lyrics. The song artfully uses the jeremiad rhetorical device and draws upon the Biblical parable to craft a transcendent narrative of redemption. “Prodigal Son” is a powerful, apocalyptic admonishment of a wayward, materialistic society on the brink of collapse. Finally, “Ku Klux Klan” is every bit as fiery as the title would suggest. The rebellious “Ku Klux Klan” is quintessential Steel Pulse material.

Uncompromising and politically-charged, Handsworth Revolution is an anomaly in the reggae genre. With one foot in the Caribbean roots reggae scene and the other foot in the punk movement in England at the time, the album would eventually become representative of Steel Pulse’s unique sphere of influence.

What makes the album such a gem is that it retains its edginess without losing its feel for the music. A common dilemma among politically-themed artists is getting the message across without becoming preachy. Handsworth Revolution effortlessly avoids such pitfalls. What’s more, Steel Pulse needed only eight strong tracks to accomplish this difficult task. Cries of injustice reverberate throughout the concourses of this album, but the album never loses its cadence. The rhythms, though minimalistic, compliment the band’s evocative lyrics. And though Steel Pulse is noted for its great passion and energy, Handsworth Revolution is entirely focused. Deserving of its critical acclaim, the album not only established the Steel Pulse identity, but also solidified the band as a top-tier reggae talent.