Monday, December 3, 2012

Question for the Week of Dec 3-9: Why is 28 Days Later a zombie film?

Why do you count 28 Days Later as a zombie film? They never use the word in the movie, and they don't feed on the living...
28 Days Later is a fantastic movie. I loved it - so much that I kind of don't want to review it. I'm not sure what I can claim about it, review-wise, that would be worth my and your time. But I can totally discuss how it's a fantastic zombie film, and why.

I remember my feelings from the first time I saw Romero's Night of the Living Dead. It's a scary pic, and   it was new and inventive - not only for its time, but to my young self. The whole "eat you" thing is shocking, but the real terror is in this idea that, suddenly, people are rising from their graves and attacking the living. 

You don't know why, which is so important to someone following a story. It could be that the Bible is true and it's the apocalypse, it could be the work of some demon or science - just having your dead loved ones come back with a vicious, mocking mindset is completely f--king terrifying. Over time, though, people started to apply hard-line "rules" to the concept, and that's where things fell apart.

Much like vampires in Stoker's novel could walk in daylight, we soon had specifics that served to either "balance" the situation (e.g., why haven't they taken over already) or to create tension in the audience (e.g., the head is the key, even though the brain should be dead). In a short while, zombies weren't just after flesh - they wanted human brains. Zombies could be killed, but only by disrupting the brain/spine area. And they were always at least mostly mindless...

But there's a massive problem with those kinds of zombies, and they all boil down to simple logic. I know that it's stupid to use "logic" when you're talking about magical/scientific hocus-pocus, but it's part of why I celebrate 28DL so much. I don't have any experience with dead bodies (thank god, any god), but I know a few things:

  • bodies stiffen when they're dead. You have to break someone's cold fingers if they're clutching something you want to get out of their hands;
  • bodies decompose when they're dead. Refrigeration aside, a body will start to turn into maggots, or decay like fruit, or even liquefy after the blood-pumping, air-breathing life goes out of it.
  • scientifically, things like "hunger" can't be reduced to simple instinct.
And, honestly, it's that last point that I want to start with. In Resident Evil, we're told that the virus reanimates the dead with nothing left but the most basic instinct, "the need to feed." That may be a great line, especially as it's read in that scene, but it's total bull. 

I have a medical background and know many doctors and scientists. I don't think any of them would disagree if I said that the most basic instincts are probably: air, sun, water. Guess what?! Food probably comes after all of those. But it wouldn't be too frightening to watch Unalive Humans Breathe Up All Our Air, or The Dead Rise and then Lie in the Sun.

Among other things, "hunger" isn't something that a brain-dead person would have, because hunger is something you feel because of signals and chemicals that go through your brain and body. The problem is that the undead has no reason to feel it. I don't just mean that a dead thing wouldn't want food, I mean that the chemicals in its body would never tell it that it's feeling peckish.

I don't even have to be a hardass and say that a zombie wouldn't move because there's no electrical signal to make its arms and legs and jaws move. I mean that, even if you accept moving dead creatures, they wouldn't experience a chemical thing such as hunger. It's as likely that undead women would still have their cycle, and undead men would still get erect.

It really is crazy to me how we're supposed to believe that, at the moment of zombi-fication, some corpse stops decaying, becomes impervious to the elements, and mindless/murderous hunger sets in. That works if a demon is causing it or something, but many horror pix don't really play on that idea. One of the best, of course, does raise the idea that Satan's loose or the End Times done come or whatever - then again, Night of the Living Dead has talking, taunting, mean-spirited zombies:

Never trust an Englishman to wrestle for your life unless it's Statham. Just run!

But hell, that's advanced stuff. On a simple level, the body of a zombie would have to continue to rot after it dies. I can't believe that any kind of virus would let the dead move, but not let them think, yet would still somehow keep their bodies from fighting off putrefaction. Death is something we all know, and that does not match up at all. 

So, first off, people in warm climates would be well-off, as zombies would probably decay too fast to present much of a threat. And folks who are in cold climates would be lucky, as zombies would become too stiff to move - slowly or otherwise. Zombies might deter (or worse, infect) various animals that feed on carrion, but insects and whatnot would be a problem. 

It's not so scary when the zombie reaches for you and its maggot-laden arm falls off. It would be scary and disgusting, but it wouldn't be scary like writers and directors want them to be. 

In the end, the very concept of zombies doesn't make any sense as a credible threat unless we're talking about the Devil raising the dead, or some very unlikely form of science. And that last exception specifically means e.g., 30th Century science that might as well be magic. 

28 Days Later, then, is a revelation. And I don't just mean that it was a great indie movie, a fine horror film with real themes and whatnot - I'm saying that 28DL finally did this idea right, and all without ever using the word "zombie." Reanimated bodies should decay and stiffen and whatnot, but 28 Days features a disease that wipes out the mind and leaves only incredible anger toward anyone who's not also infected. 

This idea may not be perfect - why don't their bodies give out without sugar? - but it is far more plausible than a non-religious or non-magical concept of the living-but-thoughtless-dead. For that reason, I will always count 28 Days Later as an amazing addition to the horror genre; and it's part of why I'll always consider it a brilliant, refreshing take on the zombie trope.

It's also scary and intense and funny and very satisfyingly-dramatic. There's a world of reasons to check out Danny Boyle's film...


  1. Yeah, I'm completely with you here. I seem to like movies and books about the living dead more than you do, but to me zombies are and always have been just a garnish for the apocalypse that accompanies them.

    At its core, the nightmare is the breakdown of our world and civilization, what the zombies bring to the table is relentlessness and mindlessness: they can't be dissuaded or scared away, and the only way to stop them is a bullet to the head. The fact that zombies are fantasy creatures actually makes their kind of apocalypse less scary than a more realistic one like what you see in The Road.

    Leaving aside the pedantry of zombie purists, the rage disease from 28 Days accomplishes just about everything a zombie apocalypse is supposed to: it leaves the survivors in a lawless, post-civilized world where they're under constant threat. The infected are just as mindless and homicidal as undead zombies, and like undead zombies they're our friends and neighbors in a post-human state. The infected have the benefit of being quicker and much more plausible than reanimated corpses, so we don't experience the disbelief gaps you mention while trying to parse out a given movie's zombie rules. The fact that the infected are alive and killable doesn't really impact how dangerous they are, compared to the undead, because nothing but a mortal wound seems to stop them.

    [SPOILERS down below]

    The only "downside" to their threat--which isn't really revealed until the end of the movie--is that unlike most zombie concepts the infected can and do starve to death, so it is possible to outlast them by hunkering down in a secure location and wait for them to run out of food. Since the hopelessness of an eternal war against the dead is a key element of many zombie stories, I guess that's a minus.

    But that aside, I say moan like a zombie, mob together to kill humans like a zombie? Dude, you're a zombie.

    1. Nice, DJ, thanks! Yeah, I just think that - again, unless it's some magical/demonic zombie thing, it is beyond stupid to have zombies that are permanently undead and have no problems with the elements or putrefaction, and yet they feel hunger. That entire idea is, to me, thoughtless horses--t.

      But Romero's original was very chilling, and I loved the ideas at play there - and I love what Boyle brought to the table in 28DL. Being able to wait them out doesn't make it unfair when the rage-infected will chase you for a mile.

    2. The credibility problem something I have less trouble overcoming in print than in film, because you need a greater bandwidth of information than film allows to get into this sort of thing. The book World War Z does a pretty good job of establishing a universe with zombies where some things are explained and other things can be waved off with a "we haven't figured out why they don't rot..."

      As a general principle, the more a zombie movie/TV show makes you think about the nature of the zombies, the less effective it is. When the Walking Dead tried to scientifically explain zombie-ism in their show, it was a crapfest that made things less believable, not more.


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