Countdown for the Apocalypse Philosophy in 28 Days Later

Countdown for the Apocalypse: Philosophy in 28 Days Later

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he doesn’t become one”.

– Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

From George Orwell’s Animal Farm to Walt Disney’s adaptation of Alice in Wonderland (1951), social allegories in literature and film have been used as ways to interpret political, economic and social tribulations in the world. Defined by Webster’s New World Dictionary, an allegory is:

The representation of abstract ideas or principles by characters, figures, or events in narrative, dramatic, or pictorial form (Agnes 17).

Social allegories seem simplistic at a glance. They generally deal with topics and

issues that have been discussed repeatedly (such as time, individualism and survival), and then branch off into multi-layered, ambiguous symbolism. They can range in tone from sarcastic and satirical to sinister and sorrowful. Many film genres today can be used as social allegories: the Western allegorically represents Vietnam War; but of all the filmic allegories represented in contemporary cinema, the zombie film as social allegory is perhaps the most pervasive and striking. 28 Days Later, directed by


Danny Boyle (Trainspotting), and written by Alex Garland (The Beach), is an

interesting cocktail of a social allegory and a rage-driven, zombie infested horror

picture. Executive producer Greg Caplan aimed to market this film for the box office for horror-loving film junkies as well as the intellectual film enthusiast. From the combined efforts of Boyle, Garland, and Caplan, comes a film that pleases not only the eye, but the mind as well.

The zombie film has been around since the early introduction of the horror genre from the Hollywood studios. Films like White Zombie (1932) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943) paved the way for the zombie genre, but in 1968 George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead really transformed the look and ideology of the zombie film genre. With a low budget and a grainy film stock, Romero’s film depicted a zombie filled city that seemed more believable than the works of his predecessors. After Night of the Living Dead, many films emulated that style, but the zombie film slowly became less and less popular after the late 70s. It wasn’t until recently that Danny Boyle and Alex Garland decided to reinvent the zombie genre with their haunting, symbolic film. 28 Days Later is a contemporary social allegory (the end of the world) that incorporates the philosophies of Nihilism, Existentialism and Darwinism.

One critic writes:

A hybrid of a George A. Romero genre thriller via Kubrickian morality tale with a turgid taste of black humor mix into a highly intoxicating cocktail of lurid emotionally fused melodrama. A rare treat: horror movie and social fable

intertwined (IMDb).

In the film, a group of animal rights activists break into a lab to liberate animals. Unfortunately they also release a blood-born virus that induces a zombie-like rage within 10 to 20 seconds of contact.

Within Twenty-eight days, all of Britain has succumbed to the rage-virus. “28 Days Later could best be described as the thinking man’s zombie movie” (IMDb). It is a postmodern, semi-nihilistic take on the genre. No longer are the zombies created from toxic waste that we settled for in the past, these zombies are the by-product of scientific experimentation on our society.

The establishing shot in the film begins with scenes of police brutality, global warfare, rioting, nuclear explosions, and supreme anarchy. The shot zooms out to show that these images are coming from a television in an animal experimentation lab. These heavy images are symbolic of how humans treat each other. It is, essentially, survival of the fittest. We are weeding each other out until there is no more existence.

From there the world is overtaken rapidly by the virus that transforms people into mindless zombies whose only intention is to kill. The depiction of the zombies is completely original. Some of the aesthetics of the zombie must be credited to George

A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, but instead of the zombies walking slowly and grunting, these horrific creatures are running and spitting vile blood from their insides. One drop of the “infected” blood into a survivor’s bloodstream, and it is all over.


When the protagonist Jim (Cillian Murphy), a young courier, wakes up in an empty hospital, he walks around the hauntingly quiet streets of London. Here the director shows images of emptiness, desolation and sorrow that strike hard at the audience. He shockingly comes to the realization that humanity has been lost. Jim decides to visit his parents’ house, only to find them lying dead in their bed together. At this point, Jim begins to cry and complain about how his parents died in such an awful way. In response, one of his fellow survivors tells Jim how his family was eaten alive at a subway station. Jim then drops his mouth and apologizes. Money, love, and time especially; as Jim finds out are elements that all modern human beings adopt to use as a way to live our lives. In a post-apocalyptic world, none of these things are important. Dr. Alan Pratt, a professor at Embry-Riddle University, writes in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy about the concept of time. He states: Time is not present in general relativity, and that a temporal

variable is probably not a fundamental part of the universe (Pratt).

The theory of time being irrelevant is essentially nihilistic in nature. 28 Days Later deals with nihilist theory in many scenes. In one scene in particular, an army soldier tries to explain to Jim about time and humanity. He says:

If you think about it, humans have only been around for a blink of an eye. So when we all die out, that is a turn back to normality (Garland 89).

If one were to take a step back and realize the ephemeral existence of humankind in terms of time, one can see how the post-apocalyptic world that is created in 28 Days


Later is a filmic interpretation of a social allegory. For centuries, dating back to

Socrates, humans have always questioned the significance of time and what the film’s writer, Alex Garland, is stating is purely another example of a social allegory. Later in the film, the survivors or the “uninfected” find brief salvation when they encounter a military base. There, they eat dinner with a commanding officer who, in a stern tone, tries to make sense of all the madness that has occurred. He says:

You know what I see? I see people killing people; and I saw that the day before yesterday and the day before that and all of my life. It’s just people killing people (Garland 95).

In this speech, the message of Darwinism appears. What the officer is saying is

simply, we are all zombies who kill and destroy. Throughout history there has always been conflict, death and destruction, and even in a post-apocalyptic society, we are still killing. So what makes humans now any different from a zombie who eats flesh? Dr. Walter J. Veith, a Zoologist, writes:

Living organisms, such as humans … survive the process because they are fitter, and they are fitter because they survive… (Veith 249).

What Dr. Veith is saying is essentially, the stronger or fitter one is, the more likely

one is to survive. In 28 Days Later, the “uninfected” are fighting for survival, and the only way to ensure safety is to kill. One look at our world today and it is evident, we are fundamentally doing the same thing; killing by whatever means necessary. The term “survival of the fittest” was coined by Biologist Charles Darwin, but the concept


of humans killing humans for survival has been represented in literature since before. Survival is a frequently discussed concept in social allegories, and in 28 Days Later, survival is one of many underlying themes.

28 Days Later at its very core questions human existence, which is primarily

an Existentialist thought. The film asks its audience, “What is the point of living if all we do is kill and destroy one another?” Another film relevant to this same philosophy is Larry and Andy Wachowski’s The Matrix. In this film, Agent Smith (a machine that hunts humans) explains to the protagonist, Neo, how his robotic world views the human species. He says:

…as a species, human beings define their reality through

suffering and misery…The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the Matrix was redesigned to this: the peak of your civilization (Wachowski 156).

Agent Smith is saying that the only way humans know how to live is through

“suffering and misery.” Even if we knew how to live in a perfect society, it wouldn’t happen because human beings are flawed animals that ultimately are alive for their own survival.

Right now, we are living at the peak of civilization. Never before in history have we been so pampered and reliant on materials and objects that will “improve,” but eventually complicate our life. Just as the stock market crashed in 1929, once we reach our peak in social, economic and political evolution, the only way to go is

down. Matt Savinar, a graduate of the University of California at Davis, makes an interesting analogy to human existence. He writes:

Bacteria in a Petri dish will grow exponentially until they run

out of resources, at which point their population will crash. Only one generation prior to the crash, the bacteria will have used up half the resources available to them. To the bacteria, there will be no hint of a problem until they starve to death. Before that happens, the bacteria will begin cannibalizing each other in last-ditch efforts to survive (Savinar 112).

But humans are smarter than bacteria, right? You would think so, but the facts seem to indicate otherwise. The first commercial oil well was drilled in 1859. At that time, the world’s population was about 1 billion. Less than 150 years later, our population has exploded to 6.4 billion. In that time, it has been projected that we have used up half the world’s recoverable oil. Of the half that’s left, most will be very expensive to extract. If the experts are correct, we are less than one generation away from a crash. Yet to most of us, there appears to be no hint of a problem. If we are one generation away from our demise, then we are as clueless as bacteria in a Petri dish.

Questioning existence and the importance of humankind in relation to the universe are both topics discussed in social allegories. This idea is a theme in The Matrix , as well as 28 Days Later. On the first day of realizing that the world as he knew it was over, Jim asks a survivor about the status of the British government:


Where is the government? STEVE


There is no government, everybody’s dead!


What do you mean there is no government? There is always a government! (Garland 32).

Having been so dependent on the structure of Democracy, it is impossible for Jim to fathom a life of disorder. When society fails, the basic human instincts become more relevant. In order to survive, Jim must fight, eat, and find shelter. Essentially, he has become his own government- a rudimentary idea of anarchy.

In the social allegory Animal Farm, George Orwell questions the necessity of governmental institutions and corrupt regimes. In 28 Days Later, Garland’s pivotal characters question the legitimacy of government and the vague obligations of the military. The query of government and politics is again another form of a social allegory.

28 Days Later is simple and powerful. It was made on eight million dollars (fifteen times less than Pirates of the Caribbean’s one hundred twenty five million dollar budget). What 28 Days Later lacks in effects, it makes up for with a mind-altering story and excellent acting. There are a few arm-chair gripping, jumpy moments but it is the intellect and intricacy of this movie that make it so powerful. The set design is unique and creative. In fact, for a whole day, the cast and crew had to block off many popular sections of London to create a desolate, disturbing vision of a post-apocalyptic England. The acting is top notch and the lighting, for their very limited budget, is used to perfectly accent a wonderfully dark story. If you were to rent 28 Days Later at the movie store, you would find it under the horror section; but this movie is way more than a simple horror film. It is a social

allegory reflecting aspects of our society combined with a unique zombie plot. From the writing, directing, acting to the cinematography, all the elements that help distinguish this film are made to open the eyes of the masses in order to realize if we, as a society, do not choose to change the way we live our lives, then supreme devastation may arise.

28 Days Later is a clear warning sign for the past, present and future. In

Victorian Literature, H.G Wells, “the father of science fiction” (The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau), warned the world that scientific experimentation would eventually lead to a societal collapse. In that same mentality, director Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland are trying to explain to the masses, through a zombie film, that if we do not change the way we all behave towards each other, then who knows? Maybe a zombie will be coming after us.