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?

Would you like virus with that? EBOLA SYNDROME (伊波拉病毒) (Herman Yau, 1996)

Director Herman Yau has made a bit of a career from telling stories of “innocent cannibalism”, in which diners in restaurants unknowingly eat human flesh. His 1993 film The Untold Story was based on the “Eight Immortals Restaurant murders” of a family of ten, which took place in August 1985 in Macau. Portions of the bodies were never found, leading to speculation – yeah, you got it.

Following Gordon Gecko’s statement that “greed is good!” in Wall Street (1987), the 1990s saw a spate of films about entrepreneurs selling human flesh for fun and profit. Beside The Untold Story, Untold Story II and Ebola Syndrome from Hong Kong, we saw Delicatessen from France, Aranyak from India, The Deathmaker from Germany, Perdita Durango from Mexico, while the Americans contributed Ice Cream Man and Fried Green Tomatoes.

You see what I’m up against, trying to update you on all these masterpieces?

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This film gets even weirder, because there is also a pandemic involved – Ebola, the so-called “flesh-eating” disease. Ebola never really got the public going like COVID-19, maybe because it only affected people in places like the Congo and so did not keep the rest of us awake at night. Also, it spreads much more slowly but, if you do get it, you have a 50-90% chance of dying, and it isn’t “just” pneumonia – it is haemorrhagic, meaning that you can bleed out “through your wazoo”, as they say in Last Man on Earth.

“People with Ebola first have symptoms of influenza, but within 72 hours after infection, the virus will dissolve the internal organs”

Ah Kai (Anthony Wong) is an escaped criminal from Hong Kong who bolts to South Africa after killing his former boss, his boss’s wife and another employee. Here is an image showing Hong Kong industrial relations in action.

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In South Africa, he works at a Chinese restaurant and one day travels with his boss to a Zulu tribe that is infected with the Ebola virus [NOTE: there is no record of Ebola among the Zulu]. He comes across a woman dying of the disease, and decides to rape her – he’s that sort of guy.

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He is immune to the effects of the virus, so becomes a living carrier, spreading the disease to others through his bodily fluids. He kills his new boss and his boss’s wife and cousin (seems to be becoming a habit), but he has already given the virus to them, so when he cuts up their corpses and serves them as hamburgers in the restaurant, he spreads the virus all over South Africa.

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He heads back to Hong Kong with the boss’ cash and moves into a fancy hotel, where he proceeds to spreads the virus to the prostitutes he hires, and everyone else he encounters – dramatic music accompanying each new infection.

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Cannibalism as a carrier for pandemics seems apposite right now. Cannibalism and incest, Freud said, were the two great taboos of civilisation, but their prohibitions also define civilisation, so it is not unreasonable to expect at least one of them to pop up in a civilisation-wide disaster. COVID-19 hasn’t been spread by cannibalism yet, or incest (as far as we know) but this movie looks at more than just crime and disease as social disrupters. Ah Kai is aggressive and violent to anyone whom he believes bullies him, usually the rich people who take advantage of his fugitive status. In South Africa (not a place known for Ebola), he is subject to casual racism from the whites, including prostitutes who refuse him their services. The whites, he complains, treat him like a black, and the blacks treat him like a white. He and his victims are dehumanised, which is a precondition for cannibalism – humans are animalised, animals are objectified and become meat.

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Chinese restaurants, where he works, use a lot of pork, and several scenes problematise the close proximity of pigs to humans in the way they look and, according to some informants, the way they taste. The Ebola is caught at a Zulu camp where multiple people are dying from it; Kai and his boss are there because the racist white butcher is charging too much for pigs.

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When they go to pick up their purchases, Kai uncovers human bodies instead, before he finds the pig corpses.

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Is there really such a difference between corpses? More than 75% of emerging diseases originate in other animals. COVID-19 is said to have originated at a fish market, where close contact between humans and live animals in a small space made it easy for the virus to jump species. Other coronaviruses, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), not to mention bird flu and swine flu, all spread due to the human appetite for flesh.

We used to assume that exotic diseases came from wilderness areas where they had been hosted in exotic animals, which then, like the dying Zulu, were used and abused by humans. But a lot of current research seems to indicate that it is actually our destruction of habitat and biodiversity that causes the spread of diseases like Ebola and COVID-19.

“We invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, which harbor so many species of animals and plants — and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses. We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”

David Quammen in the New York Times January 28, 2020

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Really?

Dread Central summed up the movie:

“The horrid acting and paper thin story are forgivable only for the hilarity with which it’s presented.”

That’s a bit harsh! Chinese movies are not as a rule exemplars of subtlety, but Anthony Wong as the virus super-spreader gives it all he’s got, and a bit more too. It’s a rollicking yarn, and it asks some serious questions too. I was surprised to find I quite enjoyed it.

The full movie can be watched at: