"28 Weeks Later" – Right Now
"I bet a lot of these people have no idea what they're about to see," my viewing companion confided as we took our seats. I agreed – though we were about to view the sequel to the popular and much-discussed 28 Days Later, the novelty of a free advance screening doubtlessly drew those unfamiliar with the subject matter.
A flurry of promotional giveaways whipped the crowd into a surreal materialistic frenzy – not exactly the mood I might have expected from theatergoers anticipating an apocalyptic flick. In between the procurement of swag and the dimming of the house lights, an older Asian woman turned toward my friend. "Do you know what this movie is about?" she asked.
My friend patiently explained 28 Days Later lore. Her first use of the word "zombie" elicited a startled murmur from the Asian woman. "I thought it was about a virus," she said. As my friend explained that the movie is about both, I realized we would lose this particular seatmate soon after the opening credits.
A few minutes into the film's violent, gut-wrenching opening sequence, the woman left, murmuring, "I can't look at this. It's too scary." I glanced around the nearly-full theater. Surely at least a few people in the diverse crowd believed in the law of attraction and willing thoughts into being. Why, I wondered, are the rest of us staying?
The success of the horror genre is commonly attributed to the safe provocation of fear, eliciting the thrill of adrenaline without danger. However, the recent spate of popular near-future thrillers suggests another factor. Apocalyptic films provide a socially acceptable way to consider the near-inevitable disasters on our horizon. Through the lens of fiction, it is possible to contemplate future events too paralyzing to even consider otherwise. The increased popularity of these films may represent a willingness on the part of the viewing public to consider the themes and archetypes represented, as long as they are comfortably distant from real life. This opens up a potentially potent role for horror movies in the years to come: they may serve as a kind of mass-media psychic rehearsal for real-life catastrophes right around the corner.
While the 28 franchise taps into the very real possibility of biological contamination, it also addresses a pressing but buried question: in the event of regional or global catastrophe, what are survivors to do? At the moment, we are focused on avoiding or de-escalating large-scale catastrophe – and rightfully so. But there is a deep psychic need for survival knowledge beyond the apparently inevitable tragedies to come. In a review of 28 Days Later on boxofficemojo.com, C.A . Wolski notes that it is "more than one of the best end of the world horror flicks in a long time, but a treatise on what it means to be a civilized human being when civilization evaporates overnight." Given that we face multiple possible collapses of civilization in the near future, these films serve a far larger purpose than mere entertainment.
The questions asked in 28 Weeks Later will become particularly important: At what point does material survival cease to make sense? Will an apocalyptic event alter the perception of heroism, or redefine the concept entirely? Is it more important to survive at all costs or sacrifice material life for a near-hopeless but noble cause? These questions have no clear answer in the film; they are raised, and the audience is left to draw its own conclusions.
These films also present a potential reality of devastation: empty streets, deserted shops, abandoned cars on freeways, utter silence. Should we live through a catastrophic event resulting in such a landscape, it's possible we may experience less cognitive dissonance and panic due to previous exposure to the visual concept. As myth has prepared mankind for a variety of patterns through the ages, so our pop culture – at its best – prepares us now. Many present-day "average joes" who take clever action to halt a violent act later mention pinching the details of the act from television dramas. Similarly, viewers of apocalyptic films may ultimately have sufficient "mental rehearsal" to act rather than react when catastrophe hits home.
On an entirely different level, the 28 franchise may serve as a metaphoric cautionary tale about what will drive sudden apocalyptic collapse in the first place. The biological pathogen turning average people into destructive zombies is dubbed "the rage virus." Certainly rage (of a less bloodborne sort) infects our current society and causes those afflicted to behave in violent, mindless ways. In the films, the infected display a startling but not particularly unfamiliar pattern of greed, feeding on the momentary suffering of others before moving on to another target with unwavering, bloodthirsty persistence. Transmission and infection is swift. Eradicating "rage" proves an almost impossible task – and escaping it often involves, in the films, material death. Since we do not, as yet, have a proper culturally-identified symbol for enlightenment into higher states of being, perhaps death is the only possible transformation out of "rage" depictable in a mass-media format.
Interestingly, 28 Weeks Later takes great pains to show military personnel not as a part of the problem, but as sensitive individuals with heroic commitment to the protection of civilians. We may do well to ponder the profound works possible by trained, compassionate, selfless military personnel if the present "us vs. them" military structure becomes obsolete in the wake of apocalyptic catastrophe.
Perhaps most alarmingly, 28 Weeks Later is not rooted in any given morality. The selfish and mean-spirited outlive the gentle. Compassionate acts result in death and failure, sometimes on a catastrophic level. There is often no direct cause and effect visible – unusual in film life, perhaps, but disturbingly familiar in reality. It is possibly this trait that infuses the film with the serious, realist mood that has garnered so much attention and interest.
At the end of the film, I turned to my viewing companion, smiled, and announced: "I am exhausted." For the rest of the evening, both of us felt simultaneously wrung out and rejuvenated, energized by the survival of such a harrowing mental exercise. Perhaps we can look forward to a similar global exhausted jubilation after our own apocalyptic event, if only we are properly prepared for it.Tweet