Nasty, brutish and undead

This post is a perfect example of the kind of thing that absolutely fascinates me. Many other people, I have slowly discovered, couldn’t care a whit about things like the political subtext of genre zombie movies. These people confuse me, which is not a good attitude to have about the vast majority of people I will interact with on a daily basis.

I’m addressing, at the moment, an essay by a Williams College professor named Christian Thorne, called “The Running of the Dead.” Right at the top, I know I’m going to like the essay:

The first thing a person is going to need to know about Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, from 2002, is that it’s one big trick. That’s one good reason to like the movie, in fact–that it is punking you. I don’t think I can explain the movie’s trick right away; we need to do the groundwork first, but it is the point to keep in mind: 28 Days Later is a bit of the thimblerig. Don’t let your eye off the ball.

The second thing to know is that of all the zombie movies, 28 Days Later is the one most steeped in political philosophy.

Thorne grounds his essay in a famous statement by President George W. Bush:

I listen to all voices, but mine’s the final decision. … I hear the voices, and I read the front page, and I know the speculation, but I’m the decider, and I decide what’s best.

And jumps immediately to the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who before he was famous as the namesake for a comic strip tiger wrote some massively influential works. Chiefly, Hobbes took the arguments of anti-royalist arguments and used them to justify absolute monarchy:

Yes, all power was originally with the people, but even if you are convinced of that idea, you should still sign on to something rather like dictatorship

This was true, Hobbes argued, because without kings, the inherent violence of humanity in the “state of nature” without rule of law. The risk to life, liberty and property (as another contemporary philosopher, John Locke, would put it) was so great that the people’s well-being was improved by sacrificing their liberty to a Sovereign dictator.

Thorne then moves to zombie movies. Zach (“300”, “Watchmen”) Snyder’s “Dawn of the Dead” remake and its chronological predecessor, “28 Days Later,” both broke zombie movie convention by feature fast, deadly zombies instead of slow, shambling beasts.

This doesn’t just make the zombies scarier, Thorne concluded:

It turns out that up-shifting the zombies from slow to fast changes everything; it entirely re-frames the zombie movie as a genre. I find this utterly fascinating. It seems like a small change, little more than a tweak, like defragmenting your hard drive. And it leaves nothing untouched.


Because zombies, like all horror movie monsters, are ripe in symbolism. Vampires are all about sex. Werewolves are about the bestial nature beneath civilized humans, our capacity for mindless violence.

And traditional zombies, the slow horde, are about conformity, civilization, capitalism – societal dangers of daily life that will consume your individuality.

Snyder’s “Dawn of the Dead” remake (which, in full disclosure, I have not seen), starts with images of “Muslims at prayer; riots someplace poor–India, perhaps, or Pakistan; and, if you keep watching, armored police; barricades; minarets.”

The central concern of fast-zombie movies, Thorne argues, is “the war of all against all, which Hobbseans think is the condition of life in the absence of strong governments.”

And despite the images of Muslims and poor Third World rioters, it’s not racial:

The Dawn remake openly instructs you to think of zombies as Muslim terrorists … except then it isn’t actually about Islam or the Taliban, not even allegorically so, since none of the zombies substantially resemble Sunnis or Shiites or Arabs or Middle Easterners or Afghans. The rampaging dead are neighbors and fellow countrymen, almost every last one of them, to the point where, by the time the movie is over, those opening credits could seem like an odd intrusion. The fast zombie, in other words, is the terrorist minus the vexing overlay of race. Like radical Islamists, but not radical Islamists: Americans. Like terrorists, but not terrorists: You.

And here’s where the political subtext of Snyder’s zombie movie comes in:

Authoritarianism reveals itself to be a universalized fear of savagery, a generalized racism in which the category of “the lesser race” expands uncontrollably to include all people.

This comes from Hobbes, and his solution:

What makes society possible? How does any group of people make the leap from primal chaos to safety and comfort and achievement? And his answer is: Authority–authority so strong that you can’t talk back to it. Civilization requires someone you are not allowed to argue with. It should be clear by now that this is a politics driven by fear–not by the other emotions commonly found on the Right; reverence for the old traditions, say, or love of country–but by sheer blithering panic: a Politics of the Heebie-Jeebies.

Indeed, “Fear of the mob has usually been the hallmark of an anti-democratic politics.” Just look at the arguments Hosni Mubarak is making in Egypt against resigning – if he leaves, chaos will break loose. We laugh because chaos is already breaking loose, but Mubarak’s argument is perfectly consistent with anti-democratic theory.

Now Thorne moves to “28 Days Later,” which starts out a lot like Snyder’s:

We know that Boyle’s zombies are terrorists, because his movie has almost exactly the same opening as the Dawn remake: video footage of riot police, Muslim street violence, European protestors getting rowdy.

Further, the ones to blame for society breaking down and mob rule (in the form of the zombies) are leftists, animal rights activists: “The Left doesn’t understand that if one breaks down too many barriers, everything will spin out of control. Such is the alliance that the movie brings into view and demands that we fear, the standing threat to our ordinary lives: angry Muslims, obtuse student-activist types, and Hottentots.”

Early scenes show how the zombie invasion has caused the end of family, the end of religion, the end of the government – all the institutions that provide order and stability. The hero, who has slept through the uprising in a coma, can’t believe it: ”There’s always a government,” he says:

The movie wants to snap you out of your usual blithe confidence in the government as the sun-that-will-always-rise. It wants you to stop taking the government for granted. That is how a movie can give you a crash course in seventeenth-century political philosophy, at least at the level of your gut. Fast-zombie movies offer up emotional lessons in Hobbesean thought, forcing you to contemplate the state of nature more effectively than Hobbes ever managed to, simply by bringing it to life before your eyes. The idea, I think, is that once you have had to play that scenario out in your heads–life without government–then you should learn to love government, love the government that promises to keep you safe, love it deep down, learn to feel grateful for it, learn not to question it, because you have had to imagine how sad you would be if it were gone.

There’s a lot more great analysis I’m skipping over here, so you should be sure to read the whole essay yourself. What’s important is that after making all these points, “28 Days Later” makes a crucial political switch:

The first half of the movie follows a group of survivors as they straggle across a de-populated England trying to get to whatever is left of the state: the Army’s last uninfected platoon, garrisoned in an old manor house, chanting the Hobbsean mantra: “We are soldiers. … Salvation is here. … We can protect you.” One of the civilians has preemptively echoed the point: “The soldiers could keep us safe.”

At this point I might as well just out and say what the movie does to this fantasy, which is that it explodes it into little bits.

The soldiers turn out to be just as much a threat to the heroes as the zombies, threatening to enslave and rape the female heroes, and to kill the male protagonist when he objects: “It sets you up to want the soldiers, to be desperately pro-military, and then once you get your wish and end up face to face with the Tommies, it makes them creepy–not exactly like the monsters–the distinction will matter–but in their own way fiendish.”

In a final sequence, it becomes unclear whether the hero, as he tries to kill the soldiers – the symbol of Authority – has been infected with the zombie virus or not:

The hero is trying to destroy the bearers of authority; our ordinary word for that is revolution. So by the end of 28 Days Later there are three positions available to the characters where earlier there were only two: 1) The savage or the terrorist; 2) the state and its protections; and now 3) the revolutionary. So in these shots the movie is posing another tough question: Is the hero zombie or human? Can you tell the difference between a savage and a revolutionary? Or more to the point: Can you tell the difference between a terrorist and a revolutionary? That’s a profound question, one that has lost none of its moment.

You can also pose a version of that question from inside the revolutionary’s head. The revolutionary has to ask himself what he is doing when he unleashes his own rage or taps into the rage of other people. Can you set that violence loose, direct it, and still rein it in once it has done what you needed it to do? The movie becomes a meditation on the basic problem of revolutionary violence. And the movie doesn’t stay up in the air on this issue. It resolves the paradox by deciding, via its own writerly dictates, that you can do this–you can direct violence to good ends. It comes down on the side of the revolutionary, although revolution is depicted here as a good old-fashioned quest to rescue the maiden from the lair.

I liked “28 Days Later” when I first saw it. Reading Thorne’s essay makes me appreciate Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning genius to an immensely greater degree. He’s not just entertaining us, he’s posing Big Questions. And thinking about them makes me appreciate a movie like “28 Days Later” on an entirely different level.

If you had the same experience reading Thorne’s essay, we should definitely be friends.