Note: in its wisdom, Fox Atomic has not made images from 28 Weeks Later available to the general public - there' s no press section on their site for lesser media representatives like myself to lift images from; all images on the site are presented in a Flash Player that doesn't readily lend to their being downloaded. Not to be frustrated, I'm illustrating what follows with an image from Fallujah, in Iraq. You will see why presently.
28 Days Later
was a very likable film. 28 Weeks Later
is, I think, profoundly immoral and offensive. My saying this may be puzzling, because to many viewers, the films will seem very very similar, and for good reason. They share a host of features: the Rage virus as phlebotinum
; jagged edits of shaky, grainy, hand-held digital video images that really get under your skin; images of a deserted London; running, raging, red-eyed “zombies;” a central focus on the family; and even the music of Canada’s own Godspeed You! Black Emperor
, which worked so well in the first film that they’ve made the same passage, I believe from “East Hastings,” the primary soundtrack to the sequel. I need to step back a little bit and set forth a few basic principles before I can even begin to lay clear my objections to the film.
A vast and surprising number of viewers seem to have no idea just how complex horror and action films are. The vast majority of viewers seem to read movies on the level of “story” alone, or even simply spectacle; the idea that some of the most formulaic action and horror films out there also have themes, to say nothing of sometimes even more subtle subtexts, seems to be lost on a great many. I’ve emerged from seeing all manner of films asserting they were “about” things that no one else among the people I viewed them with was aware of; when I try to explain what I’ve seen, I am constantly confronted with comments like, “You’re reading way too much into things.” From my point of view, I’m usually stunned how most people read nothing at all
. Lots of folks approach films as entertainment, as stimulus, not as text; even professional film critics – of the more commercial variety, mind you – generally do a piss-poor job of reading the films they watch.
One rule of thumb for reading a film – I’m not sure where in the canons of film theory this was first articulated, but it’s generally accepted as a given – is to look at whatever disturbances begin it. What is upsetting, confusing, or unpleasant in the prelude to the film? What problems do the protagonists face? Chances are that, whatever the ordeal of the film – the specific form of which will often, but not necessarily, relate in some way to the disturbance at the outset – it will involve overcoming the flaws or problems that are articulated in the prelude. A few examples may be in order: at the beginning of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest
, Cary Grant is indecisive about committing to a romantic relationiship and too-in-the-sway of his mother, which is part of the problem. The ordeal of the film involves him possibly losing his relationship and his life if he doesn’t overcome these weaknesses; interestingly, he must battle and defeat an evil homosexual couple, overcoming, thus his own overly feminized aspects and said dominance of the mother, which their gayness is the logical extension of. At the end of the film, gays defeated, he can get married and perform sexually. This pattern is typical of Hitch: he generally equates the dominance of the mother or of the female with male homosexuality, and requires that both be overcome, so that masculinity and marriage can flourish; Strangers on a Train
is another interesting example of this. Psycho
doesn’t follow a conventional narrative formula, but relates, since Norman is sexually confused (and being played by a gay man) and his mother is definitely dominant, if dead.
A few more contemporary examples may be in order. Die Hard
– the first one – is “about” the primacy of white, masculine, American authority in the family, as most purely experienced among the working classes; it’s sort of a an average American white man’s self-pitying, self-validating masturbatory fantasy (as is The Last Boy Scout
; Bruce Willis is a sort of poster boy for self-pitying, self-validating, masturbating white male authority). Consider it: John McClane, at the beginning of the film, is coming to visit his wife, who is working for a foreign corporation. She doesn’t appreciate him, wants a career, is tired of his self-pity, self-dramatizations, and cranky world view. This is the problem that must be overcome, the sign that the universe is out of order: the Virtuous White Man is NOT BEING APPRECIATED - and his wife has a career of her own. Through a series of ordeals, he must defeat a sophisticated, European terrorist and his gang, prove himself smarter than his superiors, and rescue his wife from the consequences of her own foolish desire for independence. (I don’t recall there being any specific pokes at Japanese companies operating in America, but they’re clearly part of the problem, not of the solution, and corporations and international business are generally framed in a bad light, assumedly since the men in the film's demographic feel threatened by them). By the end of the film, we have confirmed that McClane’s cranky world view is in fact an accurate perception of things as they are; the universe has been restored to order, symbolized by his wife finally being subordinated to him again – leaving the ruined building, abandoning her career and aspirations for an independent life, once more under the arm of her potent and powerful hubby, where she belongs, and belonged all along (if only she’d realized it in the first place, so much trouble could have been spared everyone!). It’s plain as day, but try telling anyone that the film is about how women shouldn’t work, and people will generally look at you funny. Trust me: it’s a conversation I’ve had more than once.28 Days Later
, mind you, is not a particularly subtle film, and enough has been written about the aspects of social commentary in its Romero-directed precursors that savvier viewers probably could pin down a few thematic threads; zombie film watchers generally represent a higher class of filmgoer than Die Hard
fans, too – or did for the longest time; the form is being somewhat vulgarized now, as the pointless and thematically void Dawn of the Dead
remake evinces. Still, if I said that 28 Days Later
is about survival in a society that has completely broken down, which is meant as a dark mirror for our own; that it suggests that our survival requires people have an open mind to new forms of relationships (overcoming racism, for instance, in the form of the mixed couple at the center of the film), and that there is a profound mistrust of white male authority in the film – as symbolized by the soldiers and their deranged leadership, and the threat they represent to the two female leads and thus to the survival of the surrogate “family unit” at the heart of the film -- most
fans of the film would probably be with me. Neverminding its plot device of misguided animal activism – which seems irrelevant to any of what follows – the film could be read as extremely progressive, and much in line with Romero’s project (which, with the possible exception of Land of the Dead
, typically places non-whites and women in the role of protagonists and regards “the old order,” most often represented by the police or military, as oppressive, atavistic, or at the very least fraught with difficulty). Even though again 28 Days Later
has a white male hero, he has to battle and overcome the institution of “white male power” in order for there to be a happy ending, and is at times shown the inferior of his black female counterpart. It's ultimately pretty liberal-friendly.28 Weeks Later
is far more complex and harder to read. In order to do so, I’m going to have to spoil most of the film for people who haven’t seen it. I’ll warn you when the spoilers are particularly destructive.
At the start of the film, a surrogate family is holed up in a farmhouse. Actually, the main couple are a real man and wife pair, but there are surrogate grandparents, surrogate siblings, etc. There are also rage-zombies outside – even Ken Eisner
notes the parallels with Night of the Living Dead
and the “theme” of family, while failing to get much further into the film. While the drama of the original film centered around the question of whether the family can possibly survive, though, the entire impulse to family – or indeed, any sentiment that holds people together – is depicted as the enemy in 28 Weeks Later
, the center of the problem, the thing that must be overcome. Thus: the woman at the table, in the opening sequence, who is convinced that her boyfriend will return is a threat to the safety of the surrogate family. The impulse to let the uninfected child who pounds on the boarded up windows into the house and protect him is a threat to the safety of the surrogate family; we can assume it helps the zombies (well, Rage carriers, but it's more or less the same thing) figure out where the fresh meat is. The zombies are more or less invited into the house by the woman hoping her boyfriend is outside; her peering through the slots in the boarded up window incites them to break through it. The surrogate family are thus placed under siege, and in trying to help each other, end up almost all being killed. The man and wife pair are separated; seeing he has no choice, rather than indulging the hopeless impulse to protect his wife – who is inside protecting the child – he takes off. This sets in motion the key disturbance of the film, and what I guess is meant to be its explicit theme: sometimes you have to cut people loose and look after yourself.
As the film frames it, there is little doubt that if the man (Robert Carlyle, by the way) had stayed with his wife or gone back for her, he would have died; no good would have come of it. He makes the right choice, and the action of the film serves to vindicate him, as, in the rather complex narrative that follows, it is abundantly proven that sentimentality (like that which has him looking over his shoulder at her as he flees) is a bad thing, dangerous to indulge.
This message, in itself, is not entirely objectionable, I suppose: the theme that “sometimes selfish sentiment needs to be sacrificed for the good of the whole” in fact runs throughout the zombie genre – for example, in Night of the Living Dead
, the parents who refuse to accept that their daughter has been bitten and is going to become a zombie run the risk of jeopardizing all the other survivors in their party and pay the ultimate price – being eaten by their own kid. (One is also reminded of Tom Savini pretending he hasn't been infected in From Dusk til Dawn
). When survival requires it, you have to be honest about your chances in horror films; denial is dangerous, and that's fair enough. The problem is the alternative posited to selfish sentiment in the film, and how it interfaces with the film’s subtext, which is clearly meant to resonate off audience’s awareness of what is being done in Iraq.
This is most explicitly triggered early in the film, when the “safe area” in a post-Rage London is referred to as the “Green Zone,” aka Baghdad; the American military are defending it, and the area outside the Green Zone is off-limits and dangerous, as in Iraq. The “family” at the heart of this film exists within this world – Carlyle and his two children, who were safely out of the country when the virus hit and return to him the titular 28 weeks after the virus has died down and he has been safely evacuated. He lies to them, rather than trying to explain that he chose to save his ass by abandoning their still-living mother; his inability to overcome his guilt at having done perpetuates the problem – if he were more bravely honest with his kids about the reality of the dangers out there, some of what follows could be avoided.
Spoilers begin to mount here on in, but since I think I can easily convince you this is an immoral film unworthy of your money, fuck it. Examples of clinging to the sentiment of family, as the root of all evil, persist. The children endanger everyone by voyaging into the forbidden zone in order to find a photo of their mother. They further endanger everyone further by actually FINDING their mother, who has survived, an immune host to the Rage virus. She is brought back to the “Green Zone,” and Carlyle, in his sentimental desire for forgiveness, kisses her – and thus contracts the Rage virus, which he spreads through the safe zone; it quickly runs out of control.
The American military have (supposedly) no choice: with the virus out of control, the entire population of the town must be destroyed, to protect the world from the possibility of a resurgence of the Rage disease. The order is given to execute everyone, even those not visibly infected: in the chaos that has descended, no chances can be taken. We are placed on ground-level, for the most part, as the uninfected strive to survive against both the marauding rage-zombies and the arbitrarily death-dealing military. Carlyle’s two children form the heart of a new surrogate family that springs up, comprised of a female scientist who (for good scientific reasons) wants to preserve the kids so their blood can be studied, on the chance that they’ve acquired their mother’s immunity; and a soldier who (sentimentally) disobeys the command to exterminate civilians. He will later be aided and abetted by a friend, who also chooses to disobey orders for sentimental reasons.
In the meantime, we are treated to a vivid depiction of the extermination of civilians – a vast firebombing sequence larger even than the one in Apocalypse Now
, and happening in a city: the entire green zone is spectacularly torched, with innocent, non-infected civilians whom the army is supposed to be protecting being set ablaze with the snap of fingers. If you don’t think of Fallujah while this is all going on – y’all know that the equivalent of napalm – napalm-by-another-name – was used there
, right? – you probably need to give up your subscription to the Province and find a better source of news.
If you disagree with firebombing civilian centers, you’ll love Plan B: when some Rage-infected survivors of the scorching are seen, nerve gas is used.
Now, you see, for me, at this point in the film, regardless of the question of whether it was okay for Robert Carlyle to have cut and run - the overt disturbance of the film, which in fact obscures the real subtext -- the stakes have been raised considerably, because the film seems to be offering us the following choice: either we approve of the firebombing and gassing of civilian centers (to get at the terrorists hidden among them, say – or zombies, or whatever) OR we cling to the sentimental impulse to respect human life, to regard those we would firebomb as being like ourselves and thus worthy of respect, and place ourselves in danger. This is basically a fascist question, and it is absolutely chilling that Boyle and Garland – who made the (liberal, anti-fascist) first film and are involved as producers of the second – would be willing to frame it. It is absolutely imperative, for the film to have any shred of morality to it, that the decision to exterminate everyone be proven the incorrect
approach, and the “sentimental” respect for human life, however imperilled or troubled, to be ultimately vindicated.
It isn’t. The kids survive, but by doing so, spread the Rage virus to the mainland. The “bad guy” in the film is thus not hysterical, murderous authority, as in 28 Days Later
, but any human impulse that would object to hysterical murdering authority. The army was right; Tony Blair was right; George W. Bush was right; KILL THEM ALL, it’s the only way we’ll be safe. (I guess this kill'em all to save our own asses thing also vindicates Carlyle post-mortem, tying up the other thematic thread quite nicely: not only is it okay to cut and run from your family to save your ass, it's okay to napalm them, and everyone else too).
If the film could be defended on any grounds, it perhaps could be said to be a provocation, “raising the issue” of what is being done in Iraq in the name of preserving our privelege; I mean, I don’t think that defense could hold water, but if ANY defense of the film COULD be issued, it would have to go along those lines. For it to be a credible defense, among other things, it would require that viewers emerge from the theatre deeply unsettled, asking each other if we are really bad people, for allowing atrocities to be committed in our names.
I profoundly doubt that that sort of conversation is taking place in movie theatres, but I dunno. I will now visit Rotten Tomatoes and see how many negative reviews mention Iraq at all...