Jul 182003

(Warning: Spoilers ahead.)

The alarming spectacle of ordinarily clever and thoughtful people praising 28 Days Later makes it clear that my taxonomy of zombie movies is overdue.

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.

  14 Responses to “The Undead”


    So, the soldiers were being eminently rational when they tried to kill Jim and rape the woman and little girl? And when Jim set the monster loose to prevent these rapes, that was irrational?

    In my view, the soldiers didn’t die because they were being rational, they died for losing their reason and giving into savagery, after having been rational. At least that was how I viewed it.

    Yes, Jim’s apparent conversion to killing machine was a stretch (I’m being kind), but I went with it, especially since it was implied that between the loose zombie and the element of surprise, he was getting by on luck more than skill.


    Spielberg said to his producer on Jaws that it didn’t matter how fake the shark looked in the third act by that point in the film, if he had the audience, he could do anything he wanted; and if he didn’t have them, the movie was screwed.

    By the third act, Boyle had me, and he only stretched a bit, not ridiculously (well, not too ridiculously), so I went with it.

    I’m glad that you find me thoughtful, even if not in this particular case. :)

  2. Ian: No, I don’t think the soldiers were rational to try to execute Jim and rape the women, quite the contrary. My objection is that what was left of their rationality (surely you agree that it’s sensible to keep a zombie around for scientific purposes), not their irrationality, turns out to be the agent of their destruction.

  3. In the end I came away from the movie having learned to things. The first, countries that ban guns are going to have a horrible zombie problem. Second, animal rights activists are stupid, actually I already knew that but this just reinforced it.

  4. Aaron: Yes, I agree that keeping the zombie was a good idea. But I didn’t read the use of that zombie in the same way.

    At the point in the movie where he releases it, Jim is the only rational man around. He’s picked up the symbol of their reason and used it as a tool against the savages they chose to become.

  5. Huh. I always thought that zombie movies were popular because people are afraid of dead people and wouldn’t it be really gross and scary if they came back to life and were still dead? And worse, if they tried to eat you as well, because people are also afraid of being eaten.

    Okay I guess I don’t get zombie movies.

  6. Andrea: I take it that you mean that I don’t get zombie movies, and maybe so. Gross, scary, fear of being eaten, all true. But I don’t think it’s altogether idle to speculate that a few deeper themes might be at work somewhere. Besides, I can’t bloviate about poetry all the time.

  7. Actually, it is just that finding deeper meanings in zombie movies brings up bad memories of having to watch Dawn of the Dead over and over with my ex-boyfriend the English professor, because he was fascinated with that movie. This bizarre obsession culminated in his weird desire, while on a trip to Philadelphia, to visit the Monroeville Mall where the thing was filmed, somewhere in New Jersey or Pennsylvania, I forget where. Fortunately we had no time. I don’t think he ever got over the loss. (But he refused to watch Starship Troopers with me, which he proclaimed the Worst Movie of All Time. I still haven’t seen it — I’m afraid to rent it out. I do have a Christmas present for him, though: someone gave me a video of Left Behind, which is supposed to be a spectacularly bad Christian Horror film, starring Kirk Cameron. Heh heh heh, revenge is a dish best served cold.)

  8. You have an English professor for an ex-boyfriend? My profoundest sympathies; at least he’s an ex. I saw twenty minutes of Starship Trooper once and, bad as it was, there’s no way it was worse than My Private Idaho.

    By the way, that sounds like a superb Christmas present. What am I getting?

  9. My Own Private Idaho didn’t gleefully besmirch a classic Robert A. Heinlein novel. It has that, at the very least, in its favor.

  10. Hm, I was also warned to avoid "Idaho." It seems that I have been missing a lot of bad movies lately.

    Your Xmas present: we shall work on that. (Rubs hands together and smiles an evil smile.)

  11. Oh wait — I’ve got it! Your copy of The Lonely Lady, starring Pia Zadora, is winging it’s way to you as we speak. Well, it’s not, actually, but it could arrive at some point in time in your mailbox. Use gloves. Thick ones.

  12. Pia Zadora, or coal in my stocking? Give me a minute here.

  13. Wait, this thread can’t die without someone sticking up for "Starship Troopers." Excellent movie, widely misunderstood — not a failure to put over a straightfaced version of the novel, but instead a cult-style satire of "Star Wars" and the whole beaming-careerist thing we’ve seen too much of for the last few decades. Much more like a midnight movie than anything straightforward. Violent, dirty, malicious, deadpan — like a Paul Bartel movie, only with a mega-budget, which itself becomes part of the joke. Anyway, I thought it was hilarious. All those beaming, scrubbed kids, all the Leni Riefenstahl imagery …

  14. I was so happy to see that you saw through "28 Days Later." Yuck. What a dreadful, incoherent, nasty, movie.

    It’s also highly derivative. "Life Force" – an old British sci-fi movie about hyperactive, electronic, alien-infected vampires running around London – already used up what was supposed to be the movie’s main conceit: frisky zombies.

    That critics liked it serves to show that critics see too many movies – and thereby become perverse.

    Boyle would be better off going back to opiates.

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