This should go without saying, but SPOILERS!
Danny Boyle’s 2002 film 28 Days Later isn’t just one of my favorite scary movies; it’s also one of my favorite films, full stop. When Cillian Murphy’s character Jim wanders through the deserted streets of London, the effect is chilling and beautiful whether it’s my first or fifteenth viewing. The threat of the “rage virus” and the snarling hordes of infected people feels big and real, while the digital video and lived-in performances give the film an indie restraint that belies its apocalyptic subject matter. Murphy, Naomie Harris, and Christopher Eccleston are fantastic in their respective roles.
Some people complain, though, that the movie falls apart in its third act when the survivors finally arrive at the military outpost near Manchester only to find a handful of crazed soldiers and their queasily charismatic leader (Eccleston). Detractors argue that the movie shoehorns in political commentary with a trite message that reads like “Who’s the real monster here?” Does 28 Days Later muddy the water by throwing a human threat, the deranged inhabitants of the military camp, into a landscape already populated by raving, mindless flesh-eaters? I understand these criticisms because the movie raises several murky issues of morality that it doesn’t seem ready to solve in a definitive way. For me, though, the final sequence (in which Jim goes cuckoo, allows the soldiers to become infected, and slaughters them one by one) is consistent with one of the themes the movie has established: humanity isn’t just “people killing people,” as the major says – in extreme circumstances, the intentions behind our violent actions do make a difference. The movie teases moral ambiguity on the surface, but I’d say it draws a fairly clear line in the sand about who is naughty or nice, and it does so by showing the attitudes each group (Jim’s group vs. military) has toward the infected.
Our heroes, Selena, Jim, and Hannah, take no pleasure in killing. They understand that they are killing sick, living people, rather than faceless ghouls; but that sentiment can’t get in the way of survival. Selena tells Jim that she would hack him to death “in a heartbeat” if he ever gets infected. It’s not personal, just survival. In most “zombie” movies, the undead are treated with contempt, as if they were enemies with real agency rather than just walking corpses, and the heroes often gloat when they take the zombie down. This makes some sense in the context of a true zombie film, because the “enemy” is already dehumanized. But the kills in 28 Days Later are treated as self-defense; Selena reacts to her attacks with shocking violence but she never gloats.
Jim, most of all, is sensitive to the humanity of his adversaries, far gone though they might be. In the beginning of the film, he says, “Sorry, Father,” somewhat comically, after striking an infected priest who attempts to attack him. Jim later kills an infected child in the diner and is clearly disturbed by what he has done. No matter how monstrous or aggressive these people have become in their illness, Jim still sees them as people who no longer have control over their actions. This sensitivity could be explained by his comatose state during the outbreak, making him a newcomer still adjusting to this nightmare world, but the film seems keen to establish Jim as a fundamentally decent and empathetic man.
Contrast this against the attitude of the solders who treat killing the infected as a kind of game. Tucked safely away in their country manor with guns, food, walls, and barbed wire, they don’t need to kill to survive. Jim is sickened when he sees the soldiers’ glee over using the infected as target practice and their laughter at watching them get blown up in the landmines. At first their reaction seems natural to me as a viewer, because this is how I’m used to seeing survivors of the zombie apocalypse react – with a coping mechanism that finds humor or entertainment in the grim situation, or relieving stress by harming the people/things that terrify us. But it’s clear from Jim and Selena’s revulsion that there is something darker behind the men’s enjoyment, a lack of empathy and a sick pleasure in dehumanizing the enemy. Does this mean that Selena, Jim, and Hannah are righteous, compared to the soldiers? When Jim reaches his breaking point near the end and slaughters the soldiers wholesale, is he justified in his actions?
It’s never entirely clear if the film is inviting us to join Jim in his judgment on the men or if we have to judge him, too, for his barbarity. Are we meant to remember the general’s pronouncement that the infection changed nothing, that all you have, ultimately, is “people killing people”? The film wants us to ask whether Jim is really any different than the infected, or if he is really any different from the warped and depraved soldiers, but I call a bit of bullshit on that. Jim dispatches solders and infected both without discrimination because they are equally dangerous threats that have to be put down. The soldiers are pathetic by the time they meet their end, panicked, hunted, spreading infection, and they are clear objects of pity despite their previous distasteful actions. Yet still, neither Jim nor Selena gloat over their deaths. Maybe Hannah, a little bit — but she is a teenaged girl, after all. Personally, I’ve never taken issue with the film’s morality. The ending seems consistent with the rest of the film, since the characters do what they have to in order to survive.
So, the film represents three kinds of people. In the first group you have the infected who, through no fault of their own, have become slaves to their destructive instincts and no longer control their own actions. In the second, you have the fundamentally decent people who kill because they have to but choose to retain their human characteristics: warmth, empathy, and familial connection. And finally, there are people who have the capacity to choose good over evil, but give in to their more primitive and dangerous desires. On the surface the three groups might look the same, especially when they’re soaked in blood, but it matters what’s in their hearts and minds. That’s actually kind of sentimental, if you think about it. (Danny Boyle, you big softie)
Final thought. One very interesting moral sticking point is this: the infected are killed because they don’t have control over their actions, while the soldiers are killed because they do. What should one take from that?
In honor of October and Halloween, I’ve started watching a lot of horror movies. “A lot” of horror movies for me is pretty relative, considering I watch them any time of year and, in my mind, the Halloween season started at least a month ago. I get really excited about fall.
For a while, I’ve been mulling over the question of whether there is some “ultimate” fear, some fundamental, primal trigger that unites us all in terror, and whether that ultimate fear is manifested in all horror films. Of course, “death” seems to be the obvious answer since it’s always a prominent feature of horror, either in the form of ghosts or actual corpses. But not all horror films rely on death (or threat of death) as the main source of tension; in some cases, characters are afraid of what they can or can’t see, afraid of living with a terrible guilt, or afraid of being permanently maimed. One could argue that all of those things connect back to death at some point, and I believe they do; but I also want to go one step further to argue that fear of death might actually represent an even greater, deeper fear.
To start with, let’s quickly go over what I see as the four most common fears represented across the many genres of horror. First, we have fear of the end of civilization (zombies, vampires, plague, apocalypse). Second, we have fear of pain and mutilation (torture porn, body horror, rape/revenge). Third, we have fear of people who are evil or crazy (slashers, possession, home invasion), which may overlap with fear numero dos considering that crazy/evil people are often responsible for a fair amount of mutilation. And fourth, we have fear of loss and uncertainty (ghosts, monsters, general supernatural).
For me, what all of these things have in common is loss of control. Nothing scares us more than feeling like we don’t have control over our own destinies, actions, desires, or physical agency. Helplessness.
Even worse, there are the situations where you do have control at the start, but a wrong choice suddenly takes the outcome out of your hands. The horror comes in knowing, on some level, what’s happening to you is your fault, that somewhere along the way you made a tiny mistake that set horrific events into motion.
Nothing is more terrifying than the moment you can’t take back. The left turn you made before realizing how close the oncoming traffic was. You can see your doom coming but it’s too late to stop it. Scream all you want, but it won’t make the seconds tick backward to undo what you’ve done.
Those are the twin fears that underlie all horror: powerlessness and regret. They don’t always co-exist, but stakes (and tension) are higher when they are found in combination.
In horror films, it goes like this: you say Bloody Mary three times into the mirror; you watch a video tape and wait seven days; you run up the stairs to escape a killer even though there’s nowhere to go but down; you ignored the warnings not to go into the woods; because you weren’t paying attention, a zombie bit you and now you’re infected.
Not only do you die, you know you’re dead before it even happens and there’s nothing you can do except watch yourself die. Live your final moments with the knowledge this could have been prevented.
If only you weren’t the way you are: too stubborn, too curious, too brash or arrogant or oblivious or skeptical.
Maybe horror films are our Greek tragedies, catharsis through pity and fear in situations created by a character’s fatal flaw. The horror and tragedy of Oedipus wasn’t that he killed his father or entered an incestuous marriage unknowingly; the horror was the realization that he was not in control of his destiny and that his actions, while predetermined, exposed the lie of free will and destroyed his life.
The people who make genuinely scary horror films understand the potent cocktail of helplessness and regret. All horror deals with the things we can’t fight.
When the end of humanity comes, the threat is too big; the infection spreads too quickly, the undead rise in numbers too great, the desperation of survivors turns everything to chaos. A character’s every decision becomes weighted with life or death significance.
When a character falls into a trap (which may or may not be of her own making), she is bound, hobbled, and mutilated. She is physically overpowered and intellectually outwitted. Assuming she makes it out alive, she is psychically wounded; she also has no control over the traumatic memories that haunt her in the aftermath.
When confronted with true evil or true insanity, the character fails because he has mistakenly believed all humans to be rational. He has prided himself on his empathy and ability to reason with other people. But evil resists. Crazy does not find him charming and does not care that he has a wife and three kids.
And lastly, when confronted with the supernatural, the character finds that, having released the vengeful spirit into the world, it’s simply not possible to fight a ghost. She can’t fight the unknowable and the unseen. The uncertainty. What she can never really comprehend is loss, absence, or grief. By the time it’s all over, she is afraid of being afraid.
So could the ultimate fear be powerlessness, mixed with regret? Sounds a lot like death, after all. Dying is scary because of those things, because it silences us and takes away our agency. No more body, no more mind.
It’s also possible that loss of power is my personal deepest fear, and thus influences the things I find scary or compelling in horror films. It would be potentially foolish for me to assume that my ultimate fear is something primal and universal to all of humanity. Fear is one of the most personal things in the world. I tried to explain to my mother once why The Ring got under my skin so much. I told her that the seven day window o’ death scared the hell out of me because I couldn’t stand the idea of knowing that something terrible was going to happen to me, and that I didn’t know what, and there was nothing I could do but just sit and wait for it to happen.
She just laughed at me and said, “Oh, Candice. You’re such a control freak.”
I started reading this book with caution after noting that both authors, David Janssen and Edward Whitelock, are English professors; I feared the prose might be too academic, but while this proves true at times, Jukebox offers an enjoyable tour through the American landscape that has perpetuated apocalyptic anxieties in rock and roll. The fascinating first section, “Apocalypse USA,” details events that converged in the 18th and 19th centuries (the “rain of fire” or meteor shower in Alabama, a “dark day” caused by ash from forest fires, and the Millerite sect’s prediction that the world would end in 1844), creating an American society that has historically been fixated on the “end times.” Combined with nuclear power and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the stage was set for apocalyptic imagery in all facets of pop culture.
The discussions contained in the book are not quite as literal as one might expect from the title; this isn’t a suggested playlist, nor does it attempt a comprehensive catalogue of songs and artists that deal with the end of the world. At times, Janssen and Whitlock delve too heavily into literary criticism: the inherent sexuality of bombs (explosion = ejaculation), competing theories of the grotesque, (which I actually quite enjoyed — I’ve read my Bakhtin like a good little grad student), and the distinctions that must be made between a feminist apocalypse and a masculinist one (still scratching my head over that one). Sometimes the authors get too bogged down in the particulars of symbolism that they lose sight of the matter at hand — the music. Sometimes a bomb is just a bomb.
I was a bit disappointed in the chapter on R.E.M. because the writers attempted to explicate Murmur, an album that critics have already declared impossible to decipher — a fact that the authors themselves spent most of the chapter explaining. The thesis, that the album’s inability to communicate is an apocalyptic act in itself, seems like a stretch. Why take that route, rather than devoting ink to a more overtly apocalyptic work? The final section, titled “Apocalypse After 9/11,” seems promising but it doesn’t deal directly with much music actually written after (or in response to) 9/11. The chapter on Laurie Anderson is engaging, but the songs that she performed during a September 11th concert were written prior to the tragedies. The fact that they seemed “prophetic” in retrospect doesn’t actually prove anything about the influence of eschatology on pop music. The densely theoretical chapter on Sleater-Kinney lost me in its explanations of “anti-apocalypse” and the differences between apocalypses for men and women.
Apocalypse Jukebox was never a dull read even though it frustrated me at times with (what I felt were) thin connections between the music and their supposedly apocalyptic themes. Among the book’s many bright spots was the especially enjoyable chapter on Devo’s art-rock experiments and their “theory” of de-evolution. The discussion of carnivalesque/grotesque imagery in Bob Dylan’s and Leonard Cohen’s albums over the course of their careers also provided a nice overview for someone (sadly, me) who isn’t intimately familiar with their bodies of work. I was surprised when the final chapter, dealing with Green Day’s American Idiot, provided one of the most compelling points in the book. This chapter examines American anxieties about the future generations (particularly in the adolescent phase), from flappers, to hippies, to punks, to our current set of technologically over-saturated teenagers. The sense of apocalypse comes, not only from adults fretting that “kids these days” will destroy the world, but also from adolescents themselves; the young are infantilized well into adulthood (due to both our “youth culture” and the economic necessity of more education before settling down), yet punished by a legal system that recognizes them as adults. The teenager’s sense of walking between two worlds but belonging to neither is the most convincing explanation for the recurrence of apocalyptic (and post-apocalyptic) imagery in pop music. Rock and roll belongs to the rage, desire, and frustrations of teenage rebellion. Jukebox briefly explains Jean Baudrillard’s theory that the end of the world occurs “when meaning ceases to mean anything under the weight of its collective mass over-production.” Any high school student with even the vaguest grasp of existentialism (and a need to “find” himself) can tell you that. I just wish that Janssen and Whitelock had dwelled on this adolescent influence a little longer (and, not to mention, sooner).
I come away from this book with a strong urge to track down a copy of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and Love’s Forever Changes. Apocalypse Jukebox might be a little academic, but in the end (of the world), it’s all about the music, man.