A 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 Later (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 Prelude, 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 Later’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.
- 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.