What’s really terrifying about 28 Days Later

In Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, the humans are as deadly as the zombies. Laura dissects one particularly terrifying moment...

I’m not really one for zombie movies. Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate the social critique of Night Of The Living Dead. I admire the gorgeous and spooky world of The Serpent And The Rainbow. And I laughed along with everyone else at Shaun Of The Dead. But as a genre? They’re not really for me.

I love 28 Days Later, however (appreciating there’s debate over whether it can be classed as a zombie movie or not). I’m not going to pretend that part of it isn’t due to Cillian Murphy and Christopher Eccleston, two of my favorite actors. Both did an excellent job on the film. And yes, as an action flick fan, I liked the explosions, fast-moving ‘zombies’, and the scenes of a devastated London.

But what really makes the film for me is something that appeared to be virtually ignored by a lot of the reviewers. It’s sometimes dealt with in passing by other apocalyptic films, but Danny Boyle actually highlighted it: the special dangers women would face in such a world and, as we can now see by reading news stories online, which they currently face in our own.

Many of these films will include an obligatory scene in which a female character (sometimes the heroine, but it rarely matters) is nearly raped by one out-of-control male in order to be saved by another, thus exhibiting the moral and physical superiority of our hero and savior over all the other men around him.

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And while this does, in fact, happen in 28 Days Later, the difference is the out-of-control rapist is neither out-of-control, nor a rapist. And the fact that he’s neither makes him all the more terrifying. 

So we know that there are rapists who are not out-of-control (since rape is all about control). But how can a rapist not be a rapist?

Christopher Eccelston’s Major Henry West appears to be the leader of the last outpost of civilised humanity in Britain, having sent out a radio message encouraging survivors to join him and his men in the safety of their northern retreat. When Hannah, Selena, and Jim arrive, they are initially welcomed, but the Major quickly informs them of the real reason for the radio signal.

“Eight days ago, I found Jones with his gun in his mouth. He said he was going to kill himself because there was no future. What could I say to him? We fight off the infected or we wait until they starve to death… and then what? What do nine men do except wait to die themselves? I moved us from the blockade, and I set the radio broadcasting, and I promised them women. Because women mean a future.”

The way West presents this, “women mean a future,” sounds somewhat noble and coming from the seemingly earnest Major seems to reinforce this impression. But as Jim quickly realises, and the soldiers just as quickly illustrate, this isn’t about the fact that women are the bearers of children and thus necessary to our survival as a species. It’s not about the appeal of the feminine spirit and the pining for lost mothers, daughters and sisters. It’s about sex.

Monstrous is the only way to describe the behavior of West’s men. They separate Jim from Selene and adolescent Hannah, making it clear they have no problems sexually assaulting both of the females. They taunt them and even make their victims dress up in preparation for their rapes. 

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Yes, the women escape their attackers, and yes, Jim saves the day.

But consider for a moment. The Major who has orchestrated the entire thing, this panderer of rapists, isn’t just any man. He is the last representative of the government. He is a highly trained professional soldier who has sworn to protect the people of Britain. He is order in the face of chaos. And because his men want sex, he deprives the only women he believes are left alive of their right to say no. He reduces them to the role of toys.

He doesn’t even order his men to spare young Hannah (Megan Burns was about 14 when the movie was filmed). In fact, he does nothing to rein in his men, regardless of the outright brutality they seem to be looking forward to inflicting on the women.

It’s hard not to see the parallel to the current discourse around men, women and rape. Why is it, feminists and others ask, that we spend all of our time as a culture telling women how to avoid being raped and so little of the time telling men not to rape? How is it that a woman can be condemned for ‘asking for it’ based on how she dresses or acts to the point where the guilt of the attacker is almost eclipsed? Why is a woman’s sexual past often admissible in court while the entering into evidence the attacker’s own violent or sexual past is seen as too ‘prejudicial’? These are elements of misogyny so deeply embedded in our psyche that it’s taken us literally thousands of years to even begin to acknowledge (at least in the Western world) that the responsibility for a rape lies only on the shoulders of the rapist. (Oh, and before anyone climbs on their high-horse, yes, men can be victims of rape too, but that’d be a different movie entirely.)

So why do I enjoy a movie about something so disturbing? 

Because I think Danny Boyle is doing something important here. There is no reason why the outpost held by Major West and his men needed to be military in nature. Most zombie movies reveal the military to be inept and it’s generally the fierce band of previously unaffiliated civilians who work together to deal with the zombie threat. So we should assume that this was a conscious choice.

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It’s easy to blame individual men or groups of men for prevailing attitudes towards women on this subject. It’s quite another to acknowledge the systemic devaluing of women to the point where they are little better than meat thrown to dogs. Boyle, by putting the words and motivations into the mouth and person of Eccleston’s Major – the last defender of civilisation – takes this to a whole new level, upping the societal ante and rationalising it in a way that almost convinces. To quote Shakespeare: “the world must be peopled.”

But this isn’t about restoring the human race. That can be done through consensual sex. Rape is not necessary.

What Boyle points out, consciously or not (I’m going to go with the former since he’s hardly a careless director), is that however far we think we’ve come as a society in relation to women’s rights, we are still too frighteningly close to having made no progress whatsoever. If men want sex, women will be made to provide it. It’s not a particularly well hidden message in the film.

Major West rationalises women’s lack of rights to their own bodies in the same way, with the same tone, that we have grown so accustomed to in our political and social discourse. He dresses it in the sanctity of continued life, as so many do.

What I love about Boyle’s film is that he treats this kind of rhetoric and attitude like exactly what it is: a horror.

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