Rage Was Always the Virus: 28 Days (And 20 Years) Later

The classic apocalyptic film galvanised horror as a genre but also foreshadowed contemporary life 20 years on, finds Kathryn Finch

There is a moment late in 28 Days Later, when Sergeant Farrell , one of a group of soldiers holding up in an abandoned country home, muses about the extinction of humanity. In contrast to how it feels, it should be considered a return to normality. The arc of Earth’s history, he argues, has been characterised more by our absence than our presence. “Normal”, it turns out, is relative; and the characters’ conflicting concepts of normality make 28 Days Later eternally relevant.

Pandemics, fictional and otherwise, have enjoyed a very particular global relevance in the last few years. 28 Days Later was released on the eve of SARS; 20 years and at least seven pandemics on, its themes of community, contagion and rage endure. In 2022, the image of Jim searching an abandoned London for other people resonates a little too well. 28 Days Later is often credited with the introduction of the “fast zombie” into the culture. Two years after its release, even George A. Romero’s zombies were retooled into speed-demons by Zack Snyder in 2014’s Dawn of the Dead. But in 28 Days Later, the dead stay dead. Instead of mindless zombies, the infected are afflicted with pure rage; an accidental result of an attempt to pacify the masses.

Through the superficially even-keeled Major Henry West, the film suggests that what is happening is nothing more out of the norm than “people killing people”. In West’s mind, the distinction between the infected’s rage and the atrocities he has seen throughout his career in the military is narrow, if it exists at all. But this characterisation of their new rage-decimated reality as nothing but the continuation of normality is as dishonest as it is ridiculous. The end of (British) days has driven him mad; its hopelessness too much for someone so closely self-identified with the maintenance of “normal”. His determination to downplay the severity of the rage plague is unsettlingly familiar. Faced with a loss of control, this leader both underplays their situation and overestimates its universality, providing us with an insight into the nature of how violence and rage shapes the world for those who face it. For all its preoccupation with death, 28 Days Later concerns itself with what it means to be alive.

There is, undoubtedly, an element of truth to what the Major says. He had, through both his military career and his experiences of the British-end-of-days, become resigned to human cruelty. It is the perceived absence of a future, not the increased violence, which causes the Major to come undone. He possesses the same essential pessimism, which prompted the experiment causing the rage outbreak. The “Us vs Them” nature of the virus serving only to crystallise what he always believed about the world. As a “father” to his men, having nothing to offer them fundamentally undermines his place in the world. The relative peace of their existence in their fortified mansion is notable. Their violence doesn’t have the character of necessity that Serena’s had when we first met her. Their thick walls, weapons and pre-made connections with each other shielded them from the worst of the new world. Their mansion-turned-base is a visceral contrast to the familiarity of the small London homes from earlier in the film. Jim and Serena’s survival was based on a little bit of luck and quick wittedness. As illustrated by Mark’s death, either could have died at any time. Yet it appears that only one of the soldiers’ group has succumbed by the time we meet them. Without the continued peril and violence of the early days of the virus, the reality of their situation threatens to sink in. At the opposite end of the spectrum to Sergeant Farrell’s gentle nihilism, West’s hope to “get back to normal” has become terminal to any remnants of decency which might have clung to the officer. They maintain the aesthetic of a united peace-keeping military force, while they plan to torture civilians. West’s lingering gentility is cover for his evil ends. He looks to maintain his position through bread and circuses; a familiar trick.

The film presents this more explicitly through its examination of paternalism. Very early in the film, Jim is almost killed when he follows an infected priest into a church. Later, Jim’s own father is implied to have been kind but is completely absent from the events. He has, along with Jim’s mother, taken his own life. His hope for Jim’s death misplaced, he escapes a fate to which he leaves his son. There is no malice, but as 28 Days turns Jim’s parents’ home into a deadly trap, it effectively communicates how badly things have gone. The domestic is as dangerous as the military. Nowhere is safe.

The difference between these prominent fathers highlights the film’s point. Frank first enters after his makeshift signal has drawn Jim and Serena into danger in his stairwell. Dressed in borrowed police riot gear, Frank’s saviour and welcoming of them into his home allows a respite from the necessitated inhumanity described by Serena. Frank recognises the need for human connection, something echoed by Major West in his own justifications. For Frank, however, such connection is grounded in kindness, in goodness. His patriarchal force is positive and comforting, serving to unite the survivors as a makeshift family. His death, and replacement with Major West, warns of the dangers of a compromised father, of compromised leaders. While Frank recognised that the survival and happiness of his family relied on it (re)gaining members, West’s aesthetic agreement with this conclusion only highlights the dangers of tribalism. For him, his responsibility does not stretch to Jim, Serena and Hannah. His summons, more explicit and far more slick than Frank’s, is also a lie. The trappings of his authority are just that: a trap. The first to fall into it is Frank, whose death is more implicitly deliberate. Unlike him, the uniformed saviours leave him to his fate, lying in wait for an opportunity to get at the women. Where he was fatherly and protective, they are predatory and selfish. That’s what gets them all killed.

By only caring about his “boys”, Major West sets in motion their deaths both deliberately (the execution of Sergeant Farrell) and passively (the slow starving of the infected Private Mailer resulting in the decimation of the base). Such a narrowly defined “in-group” denies them the true community which may have saved them. Unlike Jim, Serena and Hannah have no chance of being truly included in the protection of West’s paternalism . Femininity is a danger, the ballgowns they are forced into by the soldiers are as potent as chains. It has taken only a month to render their humanity irrelevant; they are chattel, of value only in relation to their ability to distract the men. Crisis, as it so often does, has taken more than human life: it has poisoned the souls of the people who are left. It is telling that after his transformation, Jim’s first action is to free the Private Mailer. By removing Jim from the class of “[his] boys”, West forces his hand.His people are no longer the herd, immunity cannot belong to them. In times of crisis, to prioritise one group over another is a fool’s errand. Until we are all free, we are none of us free.

The specificity of the film’s casting also serves to communicate and anchor its themes. The relative prominence of Christopher Eccleston and Brendan Gleeson (alongside the then-unknowns who make up the rest of the cast), triggers a reaction like Jim’s. We cede our trust to them because of their familiarity. Director Danny Boyle also makes the most of the social and political landscape of the contemporary British Isles. The survivors of London consisting of a Black woman, a Northern Irish man and two working-class people feels particularly poignant. Their potential alignment with Major West is by no means inevitable, whether or not the land is in crisis. The authority which seeks to oppress them has always done so in one way or another. Even at the end of the world, they aren’t deemed worth protecting. By maintaining old class divisions, West ensures that all they have in common is rage. His clipped officer’s accent “corrects” his Scottish Sergeant, the stage has already been set for the conflict which will claim both of their lives.

With every fresh disaster, we are faced with the same choices as those faced by Jim, Serena, Frank and Major West. As inescapable as major world events may be, what we can decide is how we deal with them. Whether it’s a war, a superflu or a tragic scientific failure; rage, more than anything else, will always be the virus.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today