Virus apocalypse – 28 DAYS LATER (Danny Boyle, 2002)

A highly contagious virus, originating in human exploitation of captive animals, leads to the complete collapse of society. Pretty far-fetched, huh?

Do you remember back in the good old days, let’s say 2019, when “post-apocalyptic” was just a genre, a metaphor, rather than a feature of every evening news bulletin? The Director, Danny Boyle, reveals in his movies glimpses of different worlds, or rather our world, but disfigured by our appetites. In his debut film, Shallow Grave, it was money, in Trainspotting it was heroin, in Steve Jobs it was recognition. In this film, what we consume and vomit out is rage.

Chimp learning rage.

The film starts with a brief explanation of how zoonotic diseases originate; often that happens in a laboratory. In the opening scene, a chimp is tied to a bed and made to watch videos of rage: lynchings, riots, shootings.

The chimps have been infected with an inhibitor that triggers overwhelming rage. It is carried in a virus, and a highly contagious one. When a group of animal liberationists break in to free the tormented primates, the virus is unleashed as well. There is no cure; the infected humans become killing machines.

If they break your skin or their blood enters your bodily fluids, you are then infected too. The cities are evacuated, the affected killed with no warning.

Like the hero of The Day of the Triffids, the protagonist wakes in a hospital. Jim (Cillian Murphy) is a bicycle courier who has been in a coma for 28 days after a run-in with a car.

He wanders the empty streets, and the rest of the movie revolves around his efforts to avoid the infected and find those who are still, well, human. Which means they have slightly less rage.

28 Days Later is a horror thriller, but much more than that. Yes, you will jump when infected people with bright red eyes leap through the window at you, but it also portrays a profound appreciation of loss, particularly when Jim finds his parents, who have suicided, and is informed he is “lucky”. There is also plenty of humour, and some stunning scenes revealing the beauty of a world, how it could be without humans busily killing each other and poisoning nature.

Danny Boyle captures perfectly the imagery of Rainer Maria Rilke:

“Let everything happen to you
Beauty and terror
Just keep going
No feeling is final”

Jim and his survivor friends find a platoon of soldiers who have varying views of the virus. The Sergeant (Stuart McQuarrie) is a Nietzschean, who sees humanity as a temporary blip on the smooth course of evolution:

“So if the infection wipes us out, that is a return to normality.”

But the Major in charge (Christopher Eccleston) is more Hobbesian, and sees us as creatures of the jungle.

“Which to my mind puts us in a state of normality now”.

But what’s “normal”? What occurs around us, or the global scene? Perhaps it is only their country (it’s set in the UK) that is affected and locked down?

Made in 2002, the film seems very prophetic. COVID-19 is not exactly the zombie apocalypse, but the themes of the attack on nature, the unintended consequences of animal exploitation, the distrust of the authorities, the fear of infection and the pain of quarantine make this movie even more timely now.

And it’s not portraying the zombie apocalypse, because the film is not really a zombie movie. Zombies, after all, are dead, or at least undead, but this lot are living, although ravaged by the virus and prone to uncontrollable snarling and biting. Roger Luckhurst, in his cultural history of zombies, states that zombies are

“a contagion, driven by an empty but insatiable hunger to devour the last of the living… the Rapture with rot”.

Zombies are supposed to shuffle along, with bits falling off. There was an uproar when this film came out – zombies that can run! Fast zombies. Or sick cannibals?

I try to limit this blog to authentic cannibals, living humans who eat or otherwise incorporate body parts of other humans, living or dead. Once I start including the undead, well, it becomes a never ending feast – a lot of fun, but out of scope. Maybe when I run out of cannibal films and TV shows – which is looking increasingly unlikely – we can start on zombies.

The thing about zombies is they don’t actually exist (as far as we can determine). Whereas cannibals – oh yes, they are out there. But who are the cannibals – the contagious, the ones who deliberately developed the virus, or the authorities who use it to their political advantage?

Hansel, Gretel and incestuous cannibalism: WE ARE THE FLESH – Tenemos la carne (Emiliano Rocha Minter, 2016)

It’s Hansel and Gretel, Captain, but not as we know it. This Mexican film is a visual experience, rather than a traditional narrative. It is set, like many of the films we have covered in this blog, after what appears to be an unexplained apocalypse. The “witch” is a crazy old guy named Mariano (Noé Hernández) who makes fuel out of old bread and trades it to persons unknown, through a hole in the wall, for food – mostly eggs and meat. Mariano is more Satan than witch.

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He believes in chance, which, he says, is “the greatest criminal to ever roam the Earth.”

He is an aficionado of solitude, but when a young brother and sister, Lucio (Diego Gamaliel) and Fauna (María Evoli), appear in his abandoned apartment, he feeds them and puts them to work on ever more peculiar projects, such as a womb-like cocoon, made of wooden struts and vast amounts of packing tape.

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Mariano receives some meat through the hole in the wall, and cooks it for his guests. But there’s a problem: Lucio is a vegetarian. Fauna tucks into her steak, rather reversing the normal situation where Hansel ignores Gretel’s warnings and eats the gingerbread. But Mariano has laced the meat with poison that, he says, the Nazis used to kill Jews. He won’t give Fauna the antidote until Lucio eats his meat.

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So, it’s all about transgression, overcoming taboos, abandoning inhibitions, accepting pleasure rather than bothering with difficult questions of ethics. Mariano then decides that the kids need to have sex, and Lucio’s objection, that she is his sister, is dismissed:

“Do you think your cock gives a damn about her being your sister?”

So then there’s lots of incestuous sex, some of which is captured in lurid neon heat-map images. Mariano sings to them and masturbates as they perform for him, finally fainting as he ejaculates. Or dies, but is resurrected, because, as we know, the monster is never really gone.

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The Brothers Grimm was never like this. Although who knows what siblings Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm got up to before they became philologists?

Anyway, we finally get to the cannibalism, about an hour into the film, as Mariano captures a soldier, tells him exactly what they have planned.

“We won’t kill you for money. We won’t kill you for an ideology. Or for the pleasure of watching you suffer. It’s not revenge for what you have done. We are neither avengers nor executioners.”

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They sing the Mexican anthem and then slit his throat, catching his blood in a container. Various body parts are rendered into liquid and sealed into buckets, presumably to be traded through the hole in the wall.

Another girl comes into the maze looking for shelter, but is instead raped by Fauna and then Lucio.

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Have we shattered every convention and broken every taboo yet?

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Not quite. Mariano celebrates his naming day, a party in which all sorts of weirdos turn up and get it on. Mariano is to be the guest of honour, but also the main course.

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“It is also the day I’ll live inside your squalid bodies. Don’t forget that the spirit does not reside in our flesh. Flesh is the spirit itself! So I kindly ask that all you lowlifes devour me until there is nothing left.

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There’s a twist at the end, but hey, enough spoilers. Go watch it – it’s only 80 minutes.

Catherine Bray in Variety called the movie a “joyously demented portrait of humanity.” She summarised the theme very well:

“Much of its most vivid imagery is purpose-built to interrogate the moral values society projects onto biological matter: human meat ground to a slush, slopping about in a bucket; a clitoral close-up; a pipette inserted casually into a hole in a boy’s temple; a sister’s gelatinous menses dripping into her brother’s mouth.”

The stubborn belief that humans, unlike other animals, have some sort of spirit that elevates us into the ranks of demi-gods and therefore justifies the havoc we unleash on the rest of nature has crumbled. As Mariano insists, flesh IS the spirit. We are meat, driven by our appetites. Our carefully crafted moral convictions can vanish like smoke in the face of hunger or desire.

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Hansel and Gretel is a seminal cannibal text of course: innocents, abandoned for daring to expect to be fed, and left to face the voracious appetite of the outside world. Many of us probably first heard about cannibalism while sitting on a parent or relative or baby-sitter’s knee, crafting our next nightmare as they read us stories from the Brothers Grimm. Variants of the story are everywhere – a new movie is due soon (I’m looking out for it) called Gretel and Hansel. Here’s the trailer: