28 Days Later is a 2002 post-apocalyptic horror film directed by Danny Boyle and written by Alex Garland. It stars Cillian Murphy, with Naomie Harris, Christopher Eccleston, Brendan Gleeson, and Megan Burns.
Inspired by such George A. Romero films as Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, as well as John Wyndham‘s Day of the Triffids, Garland replaces zombies with the great majority of the UK population being infected with “Rage,” a highly contagious virus that induces aggression and replaces speech with mindless growling; the result is civilizational collapse.
The film was released to both critical acclaim and commercial success, reinvigorating the zombie genre. It has been featured in several “best of” film lists; Time Out magazine ranked it #97 on its list of the 100 Best British Films ever.
A sequel, 28 Weeks Later, came out in 2007, and in the same year, talk of a third film, 28 Months Later, came about with Boyle and Garland being among those interested, with Murphy showing interest in reprising his role in 2021.
28 Days Later has maintained a following, with the COVID-19 pandemic giving the film an especial relevance in recent years.
Here is a link to quotes from the film.
The film begins with shots of chimpanzees, all infected with Rage, kept in cages and made to do such things as watch footage of riots and protests on TV screens; this is happening in a laboratory in Cambridge, where a group of overzealous animal rights activists have broken in, with the intent to free the chimps.
The combination of our learning that the virus is called “Rage” by the doctor who tries to stop the activists (in a “Rage” of their own) from so rashly freeing the chimps, that there’s footage of angry rioters and protestors, and that the infecting of everyone in the UK will result in civilizational collapse, all leads us to an understanding of what Rage symbolizes.
28 Days Later isn’t a direct critique of capitalism, but when we see that the prescient film presents the aftermath of civilizational collapse (a collapse we in the 2020s are in danger of experiencing, due to the global financial meltdown exacerbated by–and, as some of us suspect, masked by–COVID-19 and the fall in value of the petrodollar caused by the sanctions on Russia), we can see in the film an indirect critique of a mode of production that Marx predicted, in Capital, vol. 3, would one day collapse from its own contradictions.
Rage, in this context, represents the collective trauma we’ll all feel under such a collapse of society. This trauma has already been felt in all the mass shootings that keep happening in the US. We can only expect more of it in the near future. The plague of wars brought on by US/NATO imperialism, having begun its worst phase–perhaps fittingly–around the year of the release of the film, has manifested “Rage” all the more vividly.
The thing about trauma and extreme stress is that they activate the most primitive and animalistic parts of the human brain (e.g., the amygdala), causing one to lash out in fight-or-flight mode. Seeing a Rage-infected chimp attack and infect one of the animal rights activists when it’s been freed is thus also symbolically fitting. Rage reduces us all to animal instinct.
Related to this idea that Rage reduces humanity from the rational, thinking, cerebral cortex level to the instinctual, animal, amygdala level is the loss among the infected of the ability to use language. Lacan‘s notion of the Symbolic Order is our healthiest mental state, for it brings us, via language and its signifiers, into the world of culture, custom, and society–what we need to live together and function in harmony with each other.
The infected have forever lost the ability to communicate verbally, having replaced it with the pre-verbal form of communication (as WR Bion conceived it) coined by Melanie Klein as projective identification. Instead of saying words, the infected either growl unintelligibly, bite their victims, or spit their infected blood on them, causing the victims to be infected almost immediately afterwards.
By biting or spitting their blood, the infected project their pathology onto their victims (as Romero’s zombies do), who are then forced to contain an intolerable pathology. When Bion wrote of projective identification, he usually referred to a mother receiving her baby’s projections of agitation from irritating outside sensory data; the mother would, through what Bion called ‘maternal reverie,’ contain her baby’s agitations, detoxifying them by soothing it, then return the detoxified feelings to her baby in a form acceptable to it. As a therapist, Bion would play the role of the mother and similarly contain the agitations of his psychotic patients, his ‘babies,’ as it were. (Read here for more on Bion and other psychoanalytic concepts.)
With the infected, however, it is impossible to do such containing and detoxifying of their Rage. So instead, one is forced to confront a negative form of containment (Bion, chapter 28), wherein Rage is never soothed, but rather turned into a nameless dread. To fuse Bion with Lacan, therefore, in this nameless dread, we see a shift away from the healthy, sociable state of the Symbolic, whose signifiers allow for mental clarity and differentiation of all things, to the traumatizing, undifferentiated state of the Real.
For the infected, there is no socializing, planning for the future, intellectualizing, or any of the normal human functioning that is conducive to survival. There is only undifferentiated, traumatic, meaningless Rage–the Real.
Rage, as a contagious virus, is thus a metaphor for the mindless destructiveness of a people overcome with, and overwhelmed by, the alienation that results from the contradictions of capitalism. People in this mental state don’t try to replace their oppression with a building of socialism; they just destroy, destroy, destroy…
After the incident with the chimp in the laboratory, we jump ahead…twenty-eight days later. I can’t help but wonder: why was the chosen number twenty-eight, of all possible numbers? It’s the exact equivalent of four weeks, but what is the significance of that?
Twenty-eight days is also the number of days of the shortest month–February. It’s too warm in the year for the movie to take place anywhere near that month, but could that time period indicate a symbolic February, with the time before it a symbolic January, and the time after a symbolic March? Please indulge me, Dear Reader, as I explore this possibility.
Since January is derived from Janus, the god with two faces, one looking back to the past year and the other looking ahead to the future of the new year, we can see the time preceding the twenty-eight days as the time when people could still envision a past and a future. Since March is derived from Mars, the god of war, we can see the time after the twenty-eight days as a time of war between the infected and the non-infected.
In this symbolic schema, the twenty-eight days–between the laboratory incident and Jim (Murphy) waking up from his coma–are therefore the symbolic month of the Februa, when such festivals of the purification of Rome as Amburbium and Lupercalia were observed. In the case of this film, ‘purification’ can be seen as either dialectical irony, a failed attempt at purification, or…here’s a thought…maybe it’s the infection itself that is purifying the world of the sickness known as the human race.
In any case, Jim wakes up from his coma in a London hospital after he, a bicycle courier, was hit by a car. Like so many of us, he has ‘woken up’ far too late, after all the damage has already been done to society, the damage resulting in the trauma, social alienation, and civilizational collapse that Rage symbolizes. He is shocked to find not only the entire hospital deserted, but also the streets of London.
He goes about the streets shouting “Hello!” over and over again in all futility. He wants to connect with people in a world where human connection is all but completely annihilated.
The link, however indirect, with capitalism is evident when we see all the billboard ads and the uncollected trash on the streets, including unused commodities and money, this latter being picked up by Jim and put in his white plastic bag (in which he has also put such commodities as soda pop cans he’s taken from their vending machine in the hospital), him imagining he’s actually going to have a use for it. He sees “EVACUATION” on a newspaper headline.
He finds a church and enters it, where graffiti on a wall says, “Repent, The End Is Extremely Fucking Nigh.” No, not even religion will save us from Rage. He says another of his pointless “Hellos,” only to get the attention of the infected in the church, including a priest.
They chase him out of the church and back onto the streets, where he meets and is saved by Selena (Harris) and Mark (played by Noah Huntley), the first people be’s been able to communicate with in a long time. They hide in a grocery store, where his new comrades explain how the virus spread.
Significantly, Selena begins the explanation by saying, “It started as rioting.” Just as with that TV footage of riots and protesters that a chimp in the laboratory was watching, we can conceive, through Selena’s opening words, that the virus should be understood as a metaphor for an epidemic of civil unrest resulting from capitalism’s growing oppression of the people, causing their despair and wild acting out in a world where no effective organizing is possible. One is reminded of the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “a riot is the language of the unheard.”
Mark, when Jim has later found his dead parents, gives his own story about the beginnings of infection in which he and his family are trying to escape. They find themselves on a hill of people lying on the ground, a mix of infected and non-infected. Having climbed up this mound of people and on top of a kiosk, Mark looks down on the people, unable to see the difference between the infected and non-infected. Again, this origin story shows how the virus should be understood as a metaphor for the general breakdown of society.
In such a breakdown, the pain of the loss of family is especially keen, of course, so Jim is anxious to find his parents, though Selena and Mark assure him that they must be either infected or dead by now. When it’s safe to go out, the three find his parents’ house, where the two are found dead in bed, having killed themselves by overdosing on pills. Indeed, when society collapses so extremely, despair can be too overwhelming for one to want to rebuild.
Jim’s mom’s choice of words in her suicide note is apt. She says that she and his father have left him sleeping. Now, his mom and dad are sleeping with him, and he must never wake up.
In such a hopeless situation, the comparison of death to sleep reminds us of the soliloquy of despairing Hamlet: “To die, to sleep,/No more, and by a sleep to say we end/The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation/Devoutly to be wished, to die, to sleep…” (III, I, 60-64)
To prevent this kind of despair is why it’s so important to organize the people and be ready when the inevitable societal collapse comes, a collapse symbolized in the film by the Rage virus, and soon to come in our world as a result of the following problems. First, there was the economic meltdown of the 2020s; next, its exacerbation due to the response to the pandemic; third, inflation brought on by the backfiring sanctions on Russia. Added to these problems are the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, and all the billions spent on the military rather than on the struggling American people. Such reckless spending is creating a ticking time bomb of a deficit which, when it finally blows up in our faces, will be made all the more painful by the decline in value of the petrodollar.
To get back to the film: some of the infected attack Jim’s parents’ house, and though Selena, Mark, and Jim manage to kill the infected, Mark is bitten in the arm by one of them. Selena doesn’t hesitate to hack her screaming comrade to bloody pieces with her machete. In a tense situation where solidarity is so crucial, it is especially difficult to have to eliminate a comrade on the mere suspicion that he’ll turn against you, becoming a traitor, a wrecker of the organization, an agent provocateur, or someone bringing in a gang mentality–these being the kind of problems that bitten Mark can be said to represent. Selena’s killing of him seems rash, but it is necessary.
She, Mark, and Jim have had to eat the junk food of places like the grocery store, obviously because it’s the only food to be consumed quickly and the only kind that won’t go bad. Its consumption is also representative of how the survivors are still dependent on the kind of commodities–now merely use-values, rather than exchange-values, because money has become useless–once produced by capitalists. Like capitalism, junk food is bad for you, but it’s all they’ve got. It ironically won’t yield a profit for the companies that made it, but the survivors are limited to eating it. This fact is another indirect link from the movie to a critique of capitalism.
Selena and Jim see, far off in the distance in the cityscape, an apartment building in which one of the higher-up apartments has Christmas lights flashing in its windows. This means of attracting survivors is a double for the one to come later, when the army men try to lure women into a trap of sexual slavery and forced impregnation.
This first lure, however, happens to be a benevolent one. Here, Selena and Jim meet Frank (Gleeson) and his teenage daughter Hannah (Burns). The sight of Christmas lights, contrasted with the army’s later promise of “Salvation,” makes for a chilling juxtaposition.
Frank and Hannah offer protection and hospitality to Jim and Selena, again, in a way that compares ironically with the protection and hospitality of the army men, when one considers the honest motives of the former against the predatory motives of the latter group.
Soon enough, though, all four of them hear the army’s radio broadcast from Manchester, and after a brief argument over whether it’s wise to go and find people who might be dead by now, for all they know, they decide to go. On the way there, we see shots of beautiful green grass, wind turbines, and at one point when the four briefly stop, even a group of horses running about. These are all reminders to the survivors that there’s still some good in the world.
The sound of religious music is heard during this drive to Manchester, too: Ave Maria, and “In Paradisum” (from Fauré‘s Requiem in D Minor). It is during this time that the four see, from a distance, all of Manchester in flames, a chilling omen that they aren’t about to enter paradise, but hell. Just as with Jim’s first encounter of the infected having been in a church, of all places, face to face with an infected priest, the four are about to confront their ‘salvation’ as a kind of damnation.
They arrive at the army men’s blockade, surrounding a mansion, but at first they see no one there. Frank is disappointed and goes off alone for a moment, sitting where a nearby crow is cawing and bothering him. A drop of infected blood from above hits him in the eye. Hannah comes over at that moment.
This is a touching, heartbreaking scene. Frank knows he’s about to change, and he has to repel her…out of love. While he can still speak, he tells her he loves her very much, but then angrily demands that she stay away, even pushing her away. The Rage virus represents our mutual alienation, an alienation so severe that it estranges even loving family members from each other.
Selena and Jim know that Frank must be killed, but do they have the heart to kill him…in front of his daughter? The soldiers can do it, of course, and they shoot him as soon as they finally appear.
At first, the soldiers, especially Major Henry West (Eccleston), are cordial in their welcoming of the surviving three. Pretty soon, though, Jim is made aware of the unsavory things that West is capable of doing. West shows Jim an infected soldier, Mailer, as a chained captive in a small yard outside the blockaded mansion. West wants to use his captive to learn about the infected, concluding that they have no future. Eventually, his captive will starve to death, as will all the other infected.
At dinner, West reveals a bit more of his unsavory character in a philosophical disagreement he has with Sergeant Farrell (played by Stuart McQuarrie). Farrell speaks of the normalcy of the vast majority of world history, before the beginning of humanity, and of how the Rage virus’s wiping out of humanity can be seen as a return to normalcy (recall, in this connection, my interpretation above of the twenty-eight days as a metaphorical February, purifying the world of man).
West contrasts Farrell’s analysis of the situation with one of his own, saying that infection is just “people killing people,” which had already been going on throughout human history, and would doubtless continue after the virus is (presumably) annihilated, making killing perfectly normal.
Now, as ugly as West’s analysis is, it’s correct as far as 28 Days Later is concerned, since as I’ve said above, the Rage virus is a metaphor for how alienated and fragmented we all are, and have increasingly become, in a world that oppresses the great majority of the population for the sake of maximizing profit and exporting capital outside the Western empire and into the Third World.
What eventually becomes clear to a horrified Jim, then to Selena and Hannah after the soldiers have fought off an attack of infected who penetrated the blockade, is that West and his men have offered “salvation” as a ruse to lure in women to be raped and impregnated to repopulate the UK. Their pretense of protection against a threatening outside world, only to be revealed as a repressive and oppressive life inside that sphere of ‘protection,’ is thus symbolic of fascism (one is reminded of the forced prostitution in the Nazi concentration camps), which arises whenever the capitalist system is in crisis or under threat, as it is in a time of societal collapse, as we see in this film.
The fascist mentality of far too many soldiers, who dehumanize those they kill, is made clear when Corporal Mitchell (played by Ricci Harnett) laughs and says of one of his kills, “He bounced!” The dehumanizing continues when Mitchell and the other troops return from the shooting of the infected, finding Selena and Hannah. Mitchell takes away Selena’s machete, symbol of the phallic woman, thus taking away her power while chauvinistically promising to give her his protection, as well as childishly playing with it as if it were an extension of his cock.
This juxtaposition of the promise of protection with chauvinistic dehumanizing is inherently fascistic, both in this scene with the girls as with the previous one with the infected kill who “bounced.” Now, seeing this mentality among individual troops is one thing, but seeing it justified by their commanding officer, with his chilling line, “I promised them women,” is something else entirely.
One of the greatest dangers of societal breakdown is the emergence of fascism as an attempt to restore order. Since we are seeing signs of such an imminent breakdown in the US, combined with so many Americans having right-wing views and espousing open carry, the emergence of fascism there when the breakdown comes is not some fanciful, paranoid fear.
West’s rationalization for keeping Selena and Hannah, making them forced mothers, is that “women mean a future.” Recall above when I described pre-infection UK as a symbolic January, with Janus’s faces looking to the past and to the future; while the UK after the twenty-eight days exists in a symbolic March, the month of the war god, in which–because of the endless fighting off of the infected–there is no Janus-face looking into the future. One can understand West’s predicament, not wanting his boys to kill themselves over a future with no meaning in life beyond just fighting off the infected, a future with no wives or future families to raise. But those wives, of course, must be willing wives.
Since neither Jim nor Farrell is willing to cooperate with West and his would-be rapists, the two are to be taken out and shot. Farrell laments over how the island of Great Britain has been quarantined and left in the lurch while the rest of the world carries on normally (Earlier, Selena mentioned reports of cases of infection in Paris and New York, though we don’t know any more of how that has developed.). During societal crises of this magnitude, abandoning a huge section of the world’s population is conveniently easy.
Jim manages to escape being executed by Mitchell and Private Jones (played by Leo Bill), their least effectual soldier and hopelessly incapable cook. Jim returns, though, meaning to rescue Selena and Hannah, whom Selena has made high as a kite on Valium so she “won’t care” when the men rape her. Jim releases Mailer, the chained-up, infected soldier, who goes on a rampage throughout the mansion, infecting a few of the other soldiers. Since the hitherto-non-infected soldiers, as potential rapists, are hardly any more civilized than the infected, then what difference does it make if they, too, become infected?
Mitchell tries to escape, forcing Selena to come with him, so Jim (who by now has already begun a sexual relationship with her) has to kill him. Jim does so in a particularly brutal way: by stuffing his thumbs deep into the eye sockets of screaming Mitchell. Covered in blood, Jim looks to her as if he’s infected–is he? Again, we see that, in terms of being prone to violence, the line separating the infected from the non-infected isn’t so clear or well-defined.
Jim, Selena, and Hannah are about to escape the blockade in a car, but West, the sole survivor of his band of brothers, has been hiding in the back seat of the car, and surprising Jim, shoots him to avenge his troops. Since West has been a father figure to his now-dead troops, saying to Jim, “You killed all my boys” before pulling the trigger, it’s useful to note the reproduction of Laocoön and His Sons in the hallway of the mansion (which our three protagonists have just run by in their escape attempt). Just as Laocoön and his sons are attacked by sea serpents, so have West and his “boys” been attacked by the infected.
Indeed, Hannah saves the day by backing up the car so infected Mailer can grab West from behind, pull him out the back window, and infect him. Since Jim is going to die from his gunshot wound if he isn’t given medical treatment as soon as possible, Hannah has to ram the car through the blockade gate.
Another twenty-eight days go by…another symbolic February, by my interpretation.
[Now, all three alternative endings, as given on the DVD, show Jim having died–one from his gunshot wound, this being the one that was filmed. Another version shows the outbreak to have been a dream (including shots of him as a bicycle courier up to the car hitting him), and another version, given in storyboards, shows Frank being given a blood transfusion, an exchange of his with Jim’s, instead of the soldiers shooting Frank, after he gets infected.]
The more optimistic, official ending, with Jim surviving and recovering in a cottage in Cumbria, shows the infected lying on the roads, emaciated and dying of starvation. Shots of hills of beautiful green grass remind us of the good there still is in the world. This second symbolic February, as it were, is showing a world being purified of infection. It’s as though our symbolic months have gone backwards in time, ending with a second symbolic January, with Janus’s faces looking backwards and forwards again, with a past and a possible future.
There is hope for renewed communication when Selena has knitted up a huge cloth banner saying “HELLO,” to be laid on the grass so jets flying over their location may see it. If the pilot of the Finnish fighter jet has spotted them, the three can be rescued.
The cure to Rage, and to societal collapse, is communication.