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?

The last CANNIBAL on Earth — (“Last Man on Earth” Season 4, episodes 9-11, Will Forte)

The Last Man on Earth was a four-season American post-apocalyptic comedy series that showed on Fox from 2015-17. The protagonist (Will Forte, who also created the series) is Phil (or Tandy as everyone calls him – long story). Phil believes he is the only survivor of a mysterious virus (not coronavirus, but hard not to think about it while watching) that has killed off humanity and most other animals. He travels around the USA leaving signs on billboards asking other survivors to contact him in Tucson, but gradually goes crazy from loneliness.

Then he starts meeting other humans. As it’s a comedy, they are (nearly) all nice, friendly, peaceable people, who bicker but generally don’t bite. Until season 4, when he meets Karl (Fred Armisen), a serial-killer cannibal. In a flashback to before the virus, Karl is being socially inept, disgusting his dinner date with recollections of a boil he had just had lanced.

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The art of cannibalism stories is to disgust the viewer. Otherwise, where’s the conflict?

Karl’s modus operandi is to invite his prospective victim in for a sitting where he paints their portrait (a skill in which he is almost as deficient as his romantic conversation), then reach for his

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When his model goes looking for a refreshing drink in the fridge, Karl has to run.

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He flees to Mexico and sets up the same artistic practice, but is soon arrested and sent to a maximum-security prison, where he starts painting the other inmates, with designs to convert them into his next meal.

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Karl is also somehow immune to the virus, but has been unable to escape the prison in which he was confined for the four years after everyone else died. Karl has killed the only other virus survivor, a guard, and is wearing his uniform, to hide his status as prisoner/cannibal. Karl is nice too. Except for being a serial killer cannibal.

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Karl has an unexplained compulsion to eat human flesh, and is powerless to defy it, despite his desperate efforts to do so.

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He is obsessively drawn to a used Band-Aid, which is stained with the flesh of a burnt finger.

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He is unmasked when he is followed to a cemetery, where he hopes to satiate his longings with some well-rotted corpse-flesh, much to the disgust of the observers.

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What makes a cannibal? We have looked in this blog at several motivations such as savageism, starvation, revenge, psychopathy and entrepreneurship, and particularly at the figure of the wendigo, the mythical Algonquin spirit that inhabits the lost and drives them to an ever-escalating hunger for human flesh. Bryan Fuller implies in Hannibal that the good doctor Lecter is such a spirit, appearing as a figure with antlers, often disturbingly dressed in suit and tie. Traditionally, the cannibal required no explanation. In Classical stories, he (and cannibals were usually male) was a super-human or else hybrid figure, monstrous in appearance and easily identified as an ‘other’. In colonial times, they were tribes of savages, whose ignorance of the morals of Europe required the intervention of the conquistadors to ensure they were re-educated, which would usually involve the appropriation of their lands and the enslavement or extermination of the ‘cannibals’.

The contemporary cannibal is often typified by his inconspicuousness – acquaintances of cannibals like Jeffrey Dahmer, Albert Fish or Armin Meiwes often spoke of how normal and prosaic they seemed. Karl fits exactly into this model of the contemporary cannibal – the others like him, and can hardly believe it, even when he admits to his addiction, as if it was an AA meeting.

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There are many ethical issues raised in this apparently light-hearted comedy. Everything in the world before the virus was about voracious appetite and power, and things have not changed that much. Now of course there is no money, and the stores are full of whatever you could want, but it’s all starting to go bad, even the tins. The few animals they have found alive have usually come to a sticky end – the cow whose milk they took died, her calf was left behind when they left for Mexico, the bull was killed and eaten. They found crickets and ate them. They catch a fish with a hook, much to their surprise. Phil threatens to eat a little dog’s butt at one point. Anthropocentrism, sometimes called speciesism or human narcissism, is now the supreme ideology, even though it has apparently led to the extermination of almost all life on Earth.

The main question of this brave new world, then, is: are there any ethical constants? The survivors are mostly besotted with the idea of having babies and repopulating the world with humans: is that a great idea? And while they are satisfied to smash down shop doors and take whatever they need, they are shocked at the cannibal doing the same. To Karl, to all of us, morality is simply relative to his immediate needs. Certainly not a view confined to cannibals.

Karl suggests they all go to bed, and discuss the problem in the morning. They will have questions for him. He will have questions for them too! His morality is straight out of Trump at Charlottesville:vlcsnap-00031.jpg

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As Dostoevsky said in the Brothers Karamazov:

“…there was no law of nature that man should love mankind, and that, if there had been any love on earth hitherto, it was not owing to a natural law, but simply because men have believed in immortality…. if you were to destroy in mankind the belief in immortality, not only love but every living force maintaining the life of the world would at once be dried up. Moreover, nothing then would be immoral, everything would be lawful. even cannibalism.”

Karl exemplifies what Aristotle called the “rational principle”.