Alex Nguyen examines Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, its iconic use of zombie tropes, and its descent into the chaos of a broken society.
It’s been over two and a half years since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University reports over 609 million cases and 6.51 million deaths worldwide. Governments have largely failed to control the virus, and containment and mitigation efforts are falling short. Many countries, including the United States, have downplayed the danger of the outbreak, sidelined health experts, deployed slow and flawed testing methods, and conducted inadequate tracing, isolating, and quarantine protocols, leading to a far greater number of infections and hospitalizations. In particular, the United States government’s decentralized pandemic response has revealed and exacerbated deep-seated racial and economic inequities in health care.
The arrival of vaccines has been a welcome success, but many countries worldwide still lack access to them. Although these vaccines have been proven to reduce the risk of transmission, certain groups resist them, instead taking to conspiracy theories and alternative therapies. Governments have eased regulations and restrictions in areas with improvement, leading to spikes in infections. This widespread indifference towards COVID-19 keeps the threat of the virus alive, allowing new variants to emerge.
The current state of the pandemic world makes 28 Days Later (2002), which turns 20 years old this November, much more relevant. The film envisions a world where the bloodborne Rage Virus spreads rapidly through Great Britain, with infected individuals entering a state of extreme aggression. The societal collapse occurs largely offscreen as the story follows Jim (Cillian Murphy), a bicycle courier who awakens from a coma 28 days after the initial outbreak. However, the film gives context to what happened from Selena (Naomie Harris), a fellow survivor, who tells Jim, “There’s no government.” Selena, callous in the wake of the virus, kills her companion, Mark (Noah Huntley), without hesitation after infected blood comes in contact with a wound on his arm. Later, she promises Jim that she will kill him “in a heartbeat” if he ever becomes one of them. Her hardened character represents those abandoned by society, left alone to fend for themselves.
Instead of the prototypical zombie corpses that hobble around in search of human flesh, director Danny Boyle hired retired athletes as savage running rage-infected humans to better portray the terror of violence in the absence of social order. Historically, the zombie genre represents society’s deepest fears, extending past simple aesthetic horror to tackle larger subjects from race relations to nuclear destruction. These films reveal societal failures that become more timely with age. Consider the racial commentary in the closing scene of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). It loses none of its impact, reflecting a horror of the past that still remains in the present. More than anything else, filmmakers use zombies and zombie tropes as metaphors for the fear people have for one another. In horror cinema, this exists as a virus that topples infrastructure, leaving violence and rage to rise to the surface.
28 Days Later demonstrates the ineffectiveness of institutions and realizes disaster is closer than people would like to believe. The crisis of foot-and-mouth disease that ravaged the United Kingdom in early 2001, which led to the slaughtering of millions of cows and sheep, inspired screenwriter Alex Garland. Although conceived well before the events of September 11, 2001, the film anticipated many of its resulting anxieties. Disease and natural disasters were no longer the only threats to civilization—there existed the danger of one another. The United States fell into a state of paranoia, with the war on terror bringing about anti-Muslim sentiments, images of violence, and chaos onto televisions and into our homes worldwide. The film effectively portrays a society teetering on the edge, unable to maintain control in the new, fast-paced 21st century. Government institutions were ill-equipped to deal with these issues, often choosing self-preservation over aiding the public.
The illusion of society is a central theme of 28 Days Later. People believe in institutions because they promise to protect us from disorder. However, the rage that permeates the film is in response to the violence committed by these same institutions. Scientists created the virus when they tried to identify the specific neurochemicals that lead to human anger and aggression. To create an inhibitor for these emotions, they forced lab chimpanzees to watch footage of riots, public hangings, and protests in a scene highly reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971). However, the virus mutated, causing the inhibitor to have the opposite effect and fill its host with an uncontrollable rage. The film suggests that this rage is retaliation against institutions. The inhumanity necessary to support the infrastructure—a system that pits individuals against one another for personal gain—can only result in violence.
However, 28 Days Later does offer a glimmer of hope, namely, the value of community and connection. Midway through the film, Jim and Selena meet the father and daughter Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and Hannah (Megan Burns). They bond, beginning to care for each other like a family—something improbable in the face of social collapse. Boyle intentionally displays their happy moments driving through the countryside or raiding an empty grocery store. They grow to fight for not just their own survival but to protect each other.
In the film's third act, soldiers hold Selena and Hannah captive at a military encampment and send Jim off into the woods for execution. In his primal rage, Jim kills them one by one, with Boyle shooting this sequence as if Jim is one of the infected. Notably, Boyle portrays Jim’s rage against the soldiers as a positive act of violence, positing that rage in isolation is not necessarily harmful. In fact, it’s a reasoned response to the current state of the world. Boyle and Garland stated that the key is how that rage is directed. Is it aimed at each other or the institutions that oppress their people?
28 Days Later captures how institutions designed to protect humanity create a false sense of security. The film sees an opportunity to grow an alternative form of civilization that relies less on failing systems and more on one another. The military wishes to reinstate the current system of hierarchy and inequality, but perhaps a brighter future exists where the power of community, cooperation, and empathy take precedence. Instead of a societal system that places people in opposition to each other to progress, the film imagines a time when it exists to support people as a whole. Much like Selena and Jim's journey, it requires a balance of well-directed rage and humanity—only then will there be the capacity for true change.
Alex Nguyen is a New Jersey-based freelance entertainment writer with a passion for music and film. His bylines include features in Collider, Inverse, Spectrum Culture, and many other media outlets.