- The Rise of the Outbreak Genre:28 Days Later and the Digital Epidemic
The opening of the twenty-first century has witnessed what film scholars have described as a "zombie renaissance" (Bishop, "Dead Man" 16–25; Bishop, American Zombie 16; Dendle, Encyclopedia 172; Hubner, Leaning, and Manning; Kee 12) or a "post–9/11 zombie movie craze" (Roche), in reference to the high number of movies and extra-cinematic cultural artifacts that have plagued popular culture with hordes of living dead creatures. Ever since George A. Romero set the conventions of the genre with his influential living dead trilogy, which dissociated the zombie from its Haitian voodoo origins, these monsters have been commonly understood as metaphors providing insightful commentary on sociopolitical and ideological concerns.
Zombies have been read as allegories of such diverse topics as post-colonial fright and forced labour (Dendle, "Barometer" 46; Williams); mass consumerism (Bailey); representations of race (Dyer 157–60), gender (Shaviro 87), sexuality (Moore), and displaced peoples like immigrants and refugees (Stratton); ecological disaster (Pollock); post–9/11 terrorism (Bishop 29); the so-called "risk society" (Luckhurst 11); and concrete historical episodes like the Vietnam War, usually underscored in accounts of Romero's 1968 Night of the Living Dead (Bishop, American Zombie 14), [End Page 49] to name but a few examples that give an idea of the extended literature that has been (and continues to be) written on the subject. The figurative capacity of the zombie, its "polysemic, opportunistic quality" (Boluk and Lenz, "Introduction" 9), allows for these varied interpretations and re-appropriations of the monster to appear, confirming its value as a repository of circumstantial anxieties. This historical and ideological approach has proven to be especially adequate for understanding the rise of the zombie in the rather tumultuous postmillennial context.
One of the main novelties of this new cycle is the greater emphasis placed on the notion of contagion, which becomes in many cases the central premise of these narratives. Movies such as 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle 2002) and its sequel, 28 Weeks Later (Juan Carlos Fresnadillo 2007), rely on the idea of a disease spreading through the population rather than on the supernatural premise of dead bodies rising from their graves. This aspect, mostly disregarded by film criticism until very recently (Lauro; Boluk and Lenz), not only provides a touch of scientific verisimilitude to the survival horror genre but, as I argue here, it aptly serves to encapsulate the gist of the current viral, digital era.
28 Days Later is recognized here as a pioneer both of the emerging scientifically inspired virus genre and of the use of digital technology. Boyle's film meaningfully blends these two elements by resorting to the rich rhetorical qualities of the virus. Released right at the opening of the twenty-first century, the film incorporates visual techniques and narrative elements that advance the later "outbreak" both of postapocalyptic tales and of digital cinema. This article offers a generic, aesthetic, and technological analysis of the film that aims to disentangle the interconnections existing between the epidemic genre and a culture of viral flows that render the film relevant nowadays.
The zombie and the virus
In her renowned article "The Imagination of Disaster," Susan Sontag makes a distinction between two types of dehumanization processes that take place in science-fiction movies. On the one hand, the old vampire-like fantasy by which human cordiality is converted "to monstrous 'animal' blood-lust (a metaphoric exaggeration of sexual desire)" (47), as in the paradigmatic Dracula (Bram Stoker 1897). And, on the other, the opposite process by which human beings become more efficient, "the very model of technocratic man, purged of emotions" (47), as in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel 1956) or Village of the Damned (Wolf Rilla 1960). According to Sontag, science-fiction films of the 1950s and 1960s usually [End Page 50] opted to represent their creatures following that second over-rational self-contained model, characterizing the menacing individuals as emotionless machinery. Sontag understands this historically specific trend as an allegory reflecting the depersonalizing conditions of postwar urban society in a period of deep anxieties surrounding nuclear scientific advances. More...