Zombie London in 28 Days Later

By | October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween! Since Monday we have been posting up various bits and pieces from some of our spookiest books including Ian Rankin and Val McDermid talking about crime writing, Angela Carter's Gothic Bride, the history of Halloween fancy dress and Clive Bloom on that most enduring gothic monster, the Vampire. Today we bring you an extract from our London Gothic book, in which the authors talk about the literary depiction of Zombie London in 28 Days Later as well as some other key literary works….

28 daysA patient awakes, naked, in an empty
hospital twenty-eight days after a deadly virus has been released from a
medical test facility. The city outside is also deserted. An old newspaper
headline in close-up tells of the city’s evacuation. He wanders, a solitary figure
amid familiar London sights: the Houses of Parliament, and Whitehall;
Horseguards, Horseguards Parade, and the Guards Memorial; Pall Mall and the
Mall; Mansion House, the City and Piccadilly with its statue of Eros; St Paul’s
and the London Eye. The journey offers a tour of historical and heritage locations,
places of tourism and entertainment, centres of government and commercial
power, and sites of regal and martial tradition.

The opening scenes of 28 Days Later
(Danny Boyle, 2002) replay fictional (literary-cinematic) apocalyptic
scenarios of modern urban devastation. Daniel Defoe, Mary Shelley, Richard
Jeffries laid out a pattern of modern urban apocalypse subsequently developed in
genre fictions and further elaborated on film. The Last Man on Earth (Ubaldo
Ragona, 1964), with its ‘vampires’ (that move like zombies), is set in an
evacuated modern Rome. The same story (Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend)
becomes The Omega Man (Boris Sagal, 1971), with a lonely survivor
bunkered in a Los Angeles house and harassed by radioactive mutants and,
ultimately, I Am Legend (Francis Lawrence, 2007) where New York hosts a
fast-moving swarm of zombie-vamps. 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks
(Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, 2007) acknowledge their trash zombie horror
apocalyptic forebears: Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero,
1968), with its besieged farmhouse; Dawn of the Dead (1978), with its
consumerism; Day of the Dead (1985), with its military presence; Land
of the Dead
(2005) with its corporate tower. The virus theme, too, comes
from the TV series Survivors (BBC, 1975–1977), and Resident Evil’s
(Paul Anderson, 2002) genetic experimentation and fast-moving zombie-mutants.
The reflexive awareness of 28 Days Later’s citations of its
zombie horror apocalypse precursors are given a wider frame of reference in its
very striking and recognisably unfamiliar opening scenes.

Prominent amongst the shots of London
is a sequence in which the wandering survivor crosses a rubbish-strewn
Westminster Bridge. The camera pans across the river to Big Ben and the Houses
of Parliament warmly illuminated against a gentle sky as the city sun sets.
More than a provision of a distinctive location scene for a global cinema
audience, crossing the bridge in an empty city recalls Wordsworth’s sonnet,
‘Upon Westminster Bridge’, in which London is majestic and beautiful in the
morning sun, sublimely touching the Romantic (urban) wanderer’s soul with its
stillness, its absence of crowds, smoke and noise. At this moment the city
becomes admissible to nature, rather than at odds with its rhythms. As a
singular ‘mighty heart’ lying still, the urban body is unusually peaceful and
unified, thereby containable in a single imaginative vision. The mighty heart,
however, suggests another London, a sleeping giant ready to awake and beat
faster. The other city is more apparent in Wordsworth’s poetry. In The
, London is reduced to the chaos of Bartholomew Fair, a ‘city with a
City’ that exceeds and threatens Romantic visionary unity, as a messy
multiplicity of disorganized sights, sounds, sensations, not properly humane or
natural, a ‘parliament of monsters’ (Hertz 77–80). Overwhelming individual consciousness
with an excess of spectacle, the city is seen as a place of subjective and
physical otherness in which sense and self-assurance loses itself to the
pressures of other egos: ‘the sublime renewal of our consciousness and desire
for self-presence’ both ‘frees us’ and returns us to a ‘world of circumstances
beyond our control’ (Ferguson 7). The price, it seems, paid by Romantic
consciousness to overcome the sublime threat of the monstrous urban spectacle
is utter devastation, a destruction and evacuation of all other bodies, signs,
and symbols pressing upon and competing with a singular poetic vision. It is an
apocalyptic tendency played out in various Romantic guises, Byron’s ‘Darkness’
notably. For Percy Shelley, in ‘Peter Bell III’, ‘hell is a city like London’,
a ‘crepuscular demi-world’ of commerce and politics in which ruination forms
the prelude for nature to reclaim urban space (Wolfreys 77–79). For Mary
Shelley in The Last Man, the scale of devastation is global and
destructive: a worldwide plague – a monstrous force of nature – wipes out
humanity and its centres of civilization (London, Paris, Rome) until ‘everything
was desert’ (Last Man 242).

28 Days
’s opening prepares the film’s Romantic trajectory, skipping over the
more prevalent features of the darkly modern city as charted by Edgar Allan Poe,
Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin. Poe’s story, ‘The Man of the Crowd’,
provides one of the key aesthetic figures of modernity, and outlines another
London, frightening, dark and ruined, and associated with crime and debauchery:
the other side of prosperous Victorian modernity. Poe’s crowd is multiple, but
its effects draw out a sense of a danger and contagion, a place of poverty and
crime in which the city itself ‘becomes almost a drunken mob’ (Highmore 30). The
cinematic tradition in which the film locates itself, however, is very much
bound up with modernity. Zombies, despite their colonial origins, are figures
of industrial production and mechanical reproduction. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis
(1927) provides a stark and Gothicized vision of urban life and labour in
its shots of the city, of the slow-moving and homogeneous mass of workers marched
to and from their dark, subterranean habitations, reduced to a state of
automation, ‘depersonalized, faceless, dressed identically’ (Tulloch 41). The ‘Gothic
modernism’ of Metropolis stresses the darkness of factory labour and urban
society, and links it to monstrous and oppressive technological innovations (the
scientist Rotwang and the robot double, Maria) which turn workers into a mass
of ‘dehumanized mechanical actions’ (Gunning 55).

28 Days Later’s
allusions acknowledge and transform the cinematic history of zombification and
urban modernity. From the start, and the evacuation of the city, the film plots
a Romantic arc to the Lake District. The emptying of London and of the institutions
of urban modernity, serves as the basis for imagining the reconstitution of
human, even humane, social relations based on assured individuality in the
context of an imaginary family unity and a post-Blairite masculinity. The
modern city is double, a dupli-city, both legible and illegible and, textual
and more than readable like the modern Romantic apocalypse, calling for and
confounding the limits of representation.

London Gothic– the extract above is taken from London Gothic: Place, Space
and the Gothic Imagination
edited by Lawrence Phillips and Anne Witchard. You can read the whole chapter, for free, online by clicking here.

Jenny Tighe

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