28 Days Later…

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**MAJOR spoilers, horror film gore, and discussion of rape behind the jump**

28 Days Later is usually classified as a zombie film despite having only minor commonalities with the traditional movie zombies. The movie shows the destruction of most of the UK population after a rescue attempt on an animal research facility releases chimpanzees that are infected with Rage: a blood and saliva-bourne virus that almost immediately transforms everyone infected into uncontrollable killing machines. Due to the ease of transmission and the aggression of the infected, the virus swept through the population, and there were reports of infection in New York and Paris just before television and radio contact with the rest of the world stopped. 28 days after the initial incident, Jim (who has been in a coma after a head injury) wakes up to find the hospital and all of London completely deserted with no idea what has happened.

I think that Jim was meant to be the viewers’ way into the story- waking up in a world where he doesn’t know the new rules, just as we don’t know quite what they are yet either- but I’m not sure how universal that ends up being. You have to expect a certain amount of genre savvy from the audience these days, and I know that I spent his first minutes on screen complaining about the rookie mistakes he was making. (If the entire city of London appears deserted, does it make sense to stop and pick up all of the money laying around? If you go into a church which quickly appears to full of dead bodies, wouldn’t most people run the moment a few of them started moving?) Luckily just as I was starting to become impatient, Selena showed up.

Selena is a very rare character in this kind of film- in her very first appearance she saves Jim’s life, yells at him for being foolish, and gives him a crash course in the rules for surviving in a world that has broken down completely. Bravery, direct action, and thorough competence from her first seconds on screen. Not only is she a strong female character, she’s a strong female character of color which is even more rare.

At the beginning she’s with a man named Mark, who winds up becoming infected after the three of them have arrived at Jim’s parents’ house to verify that they’re dead, and she does what has to be done and kills him. There is a matter of seconds before the virus takes over and changes someone- hesitation is your own death sentence. At this early juncture Selena and Jim have both been firmly painted with the characteristics usually reserved for the opposite gender- it’s Jim’s sentimentality (understandable though it is) that puts them in this particular piece of danger, and Selena is the one who steps in with immediate action to save them both. She is the one with the experience and the strength to keep them alive, Jim’s the naive and compassionate one.

Selena and Jim soon meet up with Frank and his teenaged daughter Hannah. Hannah and Frank have been barricaded inside of their apartment building, Frank choosing to stay there for fear that he should get killed leaving Hannah alone and exposed. If they’re traveling with other people there’s a back up plan in case something should happen to him. Jim wants to take Frank and Hannah with them, Selena points out that Frank and Hannah will slow them down and “they need us more than we need them”. It’s Hannah who reveals that she overheard that conversation and that Jim and Selena need them just as much as the other way around- there’s strength in numbers and they have transportation and they’ve picked up a broadcast from a group of soldiers saying they have the answer to infection.

Just as they reach the house in Manchester where the soldiers have barricaded themselves in, Frank is exposed to the virus. Selena is busy holding Hannah back from going to her father but Jim can’t quite work up the nerve to kill someone he’s gotten to know. Frank winds up being shot by the soldiers, and the three survivors are initially welcomed as part of the group. However it’s soon revealed that their ‘answer to infection’ is to simply remain there until the infected die of starvation. The radio broadcast was also transmitted with an ulterior motive in mind- to draw other uninfected survivors, specifically women. It’s a horrifying prospect for a story to set up rape as an extremely likely conclusion but it’s a legitimate question for one set in a post-apocalyptic world; when 99.9% of the population is gone women do become valuable for biological reasons.

After a couple of the soldiers attempt to assault Selena and Jim and one of the soldiers who can’t stand this idea step in to help her, the Major tells Jim how this is going to end (again his naivety shows up, she wasn’t all that shocked) and that trying to interfere will get him killed. Naturally the three of them try to run, but they’re outnumbered and overpowered, and Jim and the soldier are taken to outside to be executed while Selena and Hannah are taken upstairs to change clothes. It’s not treated as an acceptable outcome, but as something that’s happening because these men are scared and nearly out of control; there’s an awful lot of distancing going on between the women they’ve talked to and eaten with and the women they are about to assault- not referring to either of them by name and making them change out of their practical clothes and into formal dresses. (How ironic that they both wind up in red gowns, the colour of the blood-bourne virus that is so dangerous, when by the end of the film they’ll be the only two who haven’t descended to that level of violence and destruction.) There is very little that either of them can do at this point, but Selena is still scrambling for a way to survive, buying enough time alone to pass Hannah sedatives to try to minimize the trauma in the only way she can, looking for a way out.

While this is going on, outside the mansion the soldier is murdered but Jim gets away. He eventually makes it over the wall, and the two soldiers figure he’ll get killed by an infected and go back inside. Jim manages to take out several of the soldiers himself and releases one of the infected into the mansion to keep the rest busy, then finds Selena being held by one of the soldiers, whom he kills in a particularly brutal manner. The second Selena was free she grabbed her machete and was ready to kill Jim if he proved to be infected, even if she is quite fond of him by this point. Relieved to find out he’s not infected, she kisses him… only to have Hannah (who wandered off after the sedatives kicked in) run in and bash him on the head thinking Selena’s being attacked. Yay for characters who don’t display blanket trust simply because someone used to be on their side. As the three of them run from the house, they find the Major waiting in their car. All of his men are gone, and he shoots Jim in the stomach. It’s Hannah who jumps into the car and throws it into reverse, breaking the back glass and allowing one of the infected to pull him out of the car so that she, Jim, and Selena can get away.

Everyone working together gets them out, and no one person is just a hero or a victim, and that message is consistent throughout the entire film. I think that’s what makes 28 Days Later a drama-with-a-horror-backdrop rather than a straight up horror film; horror movies aren’t usually very hopeful, but I can’t think of much more to hope for in terms of female characters displaying strength and intelligence than the ones shown here.

Comments

  1. scarlett says

    I was in the process of writing an aricle about this movie. I haven’t seen it in ages but something that really bugged me at the time was that the guy in charge was unwilling to let Selena drug Hannah so the rape would be ‘more’ endurable.

    So what, he gets off on the idea of brutally raping a child? That goes way beyond a biological imperitive or even being plain old horny, that was just cruel.

  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    I didn’t see this movie, but… I’m going to spout off anyway. :D

    I get that you’re saying this woman is a great character, and I get why. I get that the rape is not presented as sexy or okay, and that it makes sense within the story, in the sense that the men are obviously cracking under pressure. But there is something bothering me.

    You describe a woman who is obviously superior to these men who are cracking under pressure – who might threaten sexist young men in the target audience. Cool! And then… she gets raped, if I’m reading you correctly and the attempt is not thwarted. Less cool. It’s like, “No worries, boys! Even when they’re so tough they’re like men, you can still make them remember they’re a woman, in the most shaming way possible.”

    Let me know if I’m misreading anything there.

  3. MaggieCat says

    I don’t think that was what it was- when Selena first handed the pills to Hannah, Hannah asked if she was trying to kill her. I assumed that the soldier in question made the same mistaken assumption. (I don’t remember that being Major West but another one of the soldiers, and I saw this again on Sunday for whatever it’s worth.)

  4. says

    “There are parallels between the group of potential rapists and the infected who are essentially no longer human…”

    This was what made the movie for me. It was a good rush until then, and then this plot bit started and I was all “oh, no, they are so not going to…” and they didn’t and I loved that they didn’t and the way that they didn’t.

    “I assumed that the soldier in question made the same mistaken assumption.”

    It’s been a while since I watched it, but I had the same impression, layered with the understanding that it wasn’t so much that he was getting off on brutally raping a child, but that in order to justify brutally raping a child he was rationalizing away the fact that it was rape and thus also the brutality of it, so why would she need to be drugged anyway? Allowing her to be drugged would mean admitting he was in the wrong, and he was waaaaaay past the ability to do that.

  5. MaggieCat says

    I guess I didn’t make it clear, but at no point are any of these characters actually raped- the threat and the intention are there, but it never happens. There are parallels between the group of potential rapists and the infected who are essentially no longer human, with Selena even momentarily mistaking a non-infected friend for being infected because of the brutality that this situation has brought out. She is superior to those men, as are Hannah and Jim (who was at least working with good intentions when he killed someone barehanded) and the soldiers end up dead while the three of them get away with the only major injury being Jim’s gunshot wound.

    If it had played out like your description, that would have completely changed my opinion of the movie.

  6. MaggieCat says

    Allowing her to be drugged would mean admitting he was in the wrong, and he was waaaaaay past the ability to do that.

    That’s a good point. There were so many different levels of rationalization going on there, so many different motivations, all of it happening in a state of barely controlled panic that it’s hard to find them all.

  7. scarlett says

    That may be something. As I said, I haven’t watched the movie since it’s cinematic release, but I recall Selena trying to explain what she was doing and the major just not caring. POssibly he didn’t believe her and thought she was trying to Kill Hannah anyway, possibly Mickle is right and on some level he thought drugging her to spare the pain acknowledge that it was rape, the brutal rape of a child nonetheless, which is wrong, and he didn’t want to admit to being wrong.

  8. Jennifer Kesler says

    Ah, okay, that’s what I wasn’t quite sure about. Now I get it. :)

    The soldiers ending up dead is a bonus: whether you take it as punishment for their intended actions or for the defeatist attitude all their actions seem to imply, that’s a sort of “movie karma” I can get behind.

  9. MaggieCat says

    whether you take it as punishment for their intended actions or for the defeatist attitude all their actions seem to imply,

    To me it reads as a little of both. The soldier who intervened during the first threat of assault was clearly unstable from his first lines (before we knew what the rest were planning)- he was decompensating quickly, and was (apparently) rambling about how the reports of infection in other countries was a lie to keep people from leaving and suggested the rest of the world had simply quarantined the UK (which is actually the truth).

    So you have the one soldier who’s actively resisting becoming like the infected looking fairly insane and being murdered for trying to do the right thing… only to later see a military aircraft overhead, and the end of the film has Selena, Hannah, and Jim making a giant banner to signal another plane.

    On the other hand, the ones who seem to be the sanest degenerate into behavior strikingly similar to the behavior of the infected they’re fighting. Making choices based on situational ethics which are based on the world that the infected have created leads to them acting no better than what they hate. And they’re the ones who wind up dead or infected themselves. It’s downright Nietzschean. :-)

  10. scarlett says

    Something else that bugged me… the major basically justified the rapes with desperate horniess… they wanted me to believe that these young, fit men who were all desperately horny and gay sex wasn’t rampant??? It’s like their mentality was that the rape of a woman and child, even with the justification of desperate horniness, may have been abhorrent, but gay sex under the same circumstances was so beyond the pale that it wasn’t mentioned.

  11. MaggieCat says

    the major basically justified the rapes with desperate horniess…

    No he didn’t. It’s pretty clear that he’s justifying it in a survival-of-the-species way. When Jim was shown they were keeping an infected soldier chained up to see how long it takes for them to starve to death, West explains that the infected is telling him that he’ll never plant crops, never have a future, never be anything more than the monster he is now (I’m surprised I can’t find the exact quote online, but that’s the gist). When he’s explaining the rape situation to Jim he does exactly say “Women mean a future”. Before that he had said “secondary to protection, our real job is to rebuild, start again.” West was thinking long term, that’s what keeps him from being the standard sadistic military stereotype.

  12. scarlett says

    OK I’d have to watch it again. But if he was thinking in tertms of biological imperitive, why rape Hannah?

  13. MaggieCat says

    Assuming the character was intended to be the same age as the actress, Hannah is 15/16. That doesn’t make the whole thing any less horrible, but the logic still holds up.

  14. scarlett says

    She struck me more as 12-13. I should probably watch the movie again before I go spouting off my opinion s :p

  15. Jess says

    I never considered the gay sex that had to have been going on, but from the way the characters were presented I’d imagine it wasn’t anything more than a desperate measure. None of them would define themselves as gay. I wonder if that wouldn’t help motivate them to get a women no matter what it took, just to convince themselve they aren’t, gasp, homosexual.

    Usually, you see the rape subplot coming a mile away and it’s simply used to invoke emotion in the viewer. In this movie it really wasn’t. I think that had the movie not included atleast mention of rape, it would’ve been dishonest. The way that it was handled was nontraditional, especially for the horror genre.

  16. SunlessNick says

    It is in keeping with the British form of male homophobia to grasp at any alternative to shagging another man (there isn’t really a clause that says it doesn’t “count” if you’re the one doing the penetrating).

  17. Jennifer Kesler says

    Usually, you see the rape subplot coming a mile away and it’s simply used to invoke emotion in the viewer. In this movie it really wasn’t.

    Yeah, now that is precisely the distinction that makes all the difference in the world to me.

  18. says

    “She struck me more as 12-13. I should probably watch the movie again before I go spouting off my opinion s :p”

    Even if she was 12-13, that would likely still work, if the average age for puberty in the Uk is similar to the US (which is now around 11-13).

    “When he’s explaining the rape situation to Jim he does exactly say “Women mean a future”.”

    When he talks about them being a morale booster, it’s evident that they are a morale booster not because the guys can now fuck, but because they now have hope for a future.

    I need to re-watch the movie again myself, but that is the one part I remember really well, because I remember thinking “that makes sense. Very Very Wrong!, but at least makes sense.” The making sense part is what makes the situation so scary, because you know he’s not just some stupid idiot who is likely to underestimate them, and the reasoning makes it clear just how desperate they all are – which makes them more determined and dangerous.

  19. MaggieCat says

    Hannah never read that young to me, maybe because according to IMDB the actress is only 5 years younger than I am.

    but that is the one part I remember really well, because I remember thinking “that makes sense. Very Very Wrong!, but at least makes sense.” The making sense part is what makes the situation so scary, because you know he’s not just some stupid idiot who is likely to underestimate them

    This is definitely why this is one of the few movies in this genre that has really unsettled me. I have a fairly high tolerance for both suspense and violence, but this one avoids the clichés of:

    A) Making the antagonists so thoroughly evil that it’s completely impossible to see where they’re coming from- humans are much, much more frightening than a caricature could ever be.

    B) Dumbing down the antagonists so that the protagonist can prevail, thereby causing you to lose all respect for the threat you thought they posed- which also has the unfortunate side effect of diminishing the accomplishments of the protagonist.

    Not coincidentally, the second is a very common occurrence in action films with female leads. Probably due to the need to reassure a certain part of the audience that a woman can’t beat a man unless he makes a stupid mistake.

  20. scarlett says

    but that is the one part I remember really well, because I remember thinking “that makes sense. Very Very Wrong!, but at least makes sense.”

    A) Making the antagonists so thoroughly evil that it’s completely impossible to see where they’re coming from- humans are much, much more frightening than a caricature could ever be.

    I think that’s why I found Saw I and II so creepy, because you could understand the bad guy’s logic, and added to the creepiness was the realisation that sometimes, the bad guys win.

  21. thisisendless says

    Sort of off topic but if anybody cares… 28 Weeks Later is GREAT. Very plausible and very scary and disturbing.

  22. scarlett says

    I had an issue with the way Scarlet became zombie food when Doyle got to be the self-sacrificing hero. It reeked to me of ‘let’s give the guy something heroic to do and the woman can… just die’. And what was with not telling the kids about the immunity thing, you know, in case precicely what happened happens???

    But yes, it was great. The abject selfishness the dad shows at the begining? It worked because some part of knew you had the capacity to be selfish like that. I think the whole concept of the movie made it so creepy, that it COULD happen.

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