(Warning: Spoilers ahead.)
Zombie movies, like zombies themselves, refuse to die. Ian Hamet, who claims to dislike them, writes:
But I like the idea of zombie movies… The apocalyptic backgrounds, the stripping away of all veneers to reveal what it is that makes us human (or inhuman). The sense that we are our own worst enemy. There’s something rather primal about the notion, which I think is a large part of why such movies are so popular.
Zombie movies appeal in particular to the secret thought that one is the sole sentient human being in a world of pod people. I mean, we all believed that in high school, right? In the most creepily effective zombie movies, like the ur-classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (directed by the great Don Siegel of Dirty Harry fame) and The Stepford Wives, the zombies look normal. They’re our friends and neighbors, our parents and siblings. They live among us! The moment in Stepford when Katherine Ross discovers her best friend has been turned into a house-proud robot is genuinely terrifying, in a way completely different from the mere surprise in which most “horror” movies truck.
E.M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel, distinguishes story from plot as follows: “‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.” Where The Stepford Wives has a plot, 28 Days Later has only a story.
Danny Boyle, its director, wisely ignores the convention of outfitting zombies in whiteface (The Omega Man, Night of the Living Dead), with the result that 28 Days Laterhas the most frightening zombies you’ve ever seen — slavering, blood-flecked, fast-moving, hissing and shrieking like banshees, yet recognizably human. The first attacks made me jump out of my seat. But even squeamish viewers like me quickly become inured to shock, and wait for something more substantial, which never comes.
As Ian points out, any proper zombie movie is survivalist at its heart. Place a few people where it’s kill or be killed and watch Darwin take his course. From this stems the universally-observed convention that the zombies must never turn on one another. The virulent flesh-eating monsters of 28 Days Later scorn the flesh of their fellow flesh-eaters — not tasty, not nutritious, who knows, who cares? It’s an us-against-them world.
Trials of character, however, require characters. The weak, the stupid, and the treacherous must perish, in consequence of their character flaws; the rational must survive, at least for a while. The archetype here is the Night of the Living Dead, almost a drawing-room drama, in which the people, not the zombies, kill each other.
In 28 Days Later who lives and dies seems mostly luck at the beginning, and utterly absurd by the end, when in the climactic scene one bare-footed, unarmed man single-handedly settles the hash of a dozen soldiers with machine guns. This is filmed, I suppose intentionally, so that it’s impossible to tell except in the most general way what’s going on, since you wouldn’t believe it if you could. But the soldiers, though treacherous, do not die from their treachery, unlike Mr. Cooper in Night of the Living Dead. They die — mega-spoiler coming now! — because they keep a zombie chained up for scientific purposes, to see how long he will survive, and our hero unlooses him. They die, in other words, for being rational. And that’s no way to run a zombie movie.