Monday, May 14, 2007

28 Days Later?

Here's a review of 28 Days Later from Amanda at Pandagon.

I quit reading Pandagon pretty soon after Ezra left, but I happened upon this today. 28 Days Later is my favorite zombie movie--and I'm quite the zombie aficionado. But I'm also fairly dumb about movies, so take that into account.

At any rate, my question is: is she right? One commonly reads reviews of this kind--reviews that confidently assert that some kind of political or philosophical point is obviously being made...but it's often just not that clear to me. Now, I say this as someone who once denied that Dr. Strangelove contained any Freudian consider the source...

At any rate, Amanda writes:

...28 Days Later indicts the culture of violent machismo, thus the zombies move quickly and puke up blood and bile in an attempt to spew it all over their victims and infect them, too. Taken in context of the War on Terra , the symbolism is almost too obvious—rage and violence beget rage and violence and it continues to spin out of control, sucking everyone into it. Attacking Iraq in the name of fighting terror manages only to create more terrorists, as our violence and rage touches the lives of others and converts them into violent zombies like us.

Not an unreasonable interpretation...but not obviously and uncontroversially the right one. If offered as a genuine hypothesis--with the appropriate indications that it's a guess at an interpretation, hence likely to be false--that'd be one thing. What tends to puzzle me about things like this, however, is the confidence with which they're so often said.

A slightly higher-level point/question: is the claim here that the writer and/or director intend to make this point? If so then we could just ask them. I realize that appeals to authors' intentions are considered retrograde in Our Postmodern World, but that'd be the first thing I'd do, if I were really interested in this.

At any rate, if the movie were really intended to have an anti-violence message, you might expect the principals to suffer for fighting back against the zombies...but they don't. Of course it would be difficult to make a hard-core pacifist point in a movie like this, since the pacifists would be eaten apace... Still, maybe the thesis can be narrowed so that it's really anti-"rage" rather than anti-violence. But that might make the movie insufficiently metaphorical.

Thing is, I'm never sure to what extent specific bits of a movie are just story and to what extent they're intended to point to something bigger. Are the military psychos in the movie just...a band of psychos? Or are they really, as Amanda asserts, intended to say something about the military in general, men in general, etc? I can rarely tell.

Anyway, I'm rather cranky about movie interpretations since I saw some bozo (identified as a philosopher, but unknown to me) on the Children of Men DVD claim that that movie was a re-make of Y tu Mama Tambien. That's the thing about a lot of literary and film criticism--it seems like you can basically say anything you want and get away with it.


Blogger The Mystic said...

I'd just like to point out that when she says

"28 Days Later indicts the culture of violent machismo, thus the zombies move quickly and puke up blood and bile in an attempt to spew it all over their victims and infect them, too."

She appears to be stating a premise and drawing a conclusion. Like,

x = the movie indicts the culture of violent machismo
y = zombies will be fast and puke blood and bile in an attempt to infect everyone

If x, then y.

lol. Seems funny to me.

10:45 AM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

Like it's some cultural mandate of America that zombies be fast and puke infectious blood and bile because we're MEN'S MEN. That's what a man's man's zombie does, damn it.

If it was slow and didn't puke infectious blood and bile that turns people into zombies, well..

It'd just be a girlie zombie.

10:47 AM  
Blogger tehr0x0r said...

Sometimes a movie has deep meaning and social implications. Then again sometimes a movie is just a cool movie with guns, explosions and rather creepy zombies. I'm not buying what this lady is selling.

12:02 PM  
Blogger Mike Russo said...

Oh God, did you see the commentary Zizek did for Children of Men? I haven't watched that myself, but he tends to be so self-consciously "provocative" that I usually find him hilarious. Admittedly, I don't have the background to understand his more Lacanian and theological arguments, but his pop-cultural interpretations tend to be entertainingly wrong-headed, to my mind (he wrote a review of 300 in which he argued that Sparta as depicted was a good model for a liberal democracy, if we juse magically abstracted out the patriarchy, militarism, slaveholding, etc. etc.)

As to the thematic content of films; I dunno, cueing off of authorial intentions is always tricky, but I do believe that just about anybody making a "serious" film does have a pretty robust set of thematic and cultural resonances figured out (basing this partially on the friends I know who've tried writing screenplays, and my own approach to writing a novel, not to mention countless DVD commentaries where directors talk about the deep, pretentious meaning behind particular storytelling choices). Concerns of story usually come first, but most drama is stronger if it has some larger meaning, after all. And anyone making a zombie movie has to be aware of the large role social criticism has played in the genre.

Beyond authorial intent, though, I think it's perfectly valid to look at the meaning a film takes on by virtue of its position within the larger cultural landscape. To bring up 300 again, it's very unlikely that the filmmakers' take on Frank Miller's take on a several thousand year old story was much informed by contemporary tensions with Iran, but the political situation in the Middle East was very much a part of the backdrop against which the film was projected; understanding fully the meaning of the film, what it's doing and how it functions, does, to my mind, require lookng at the broader context. Or consider the music video for the Ryan Adams song New York -- it was filmed on like September 9th, 2001, and prominently featured the World Trade Center. Clearly, when they were filming, nobody involved was trying to make any kind of statement about terrorism, but it's impossible to watch the video without having 9/11 filter one's reading of it.

These are maybe higher-contrast examples, but I do think the point stands -- good criticism often does need to look beyond authorial intent to understand the cultural logic and function of a piece of work. And at least in my experience, artists -- even "pop" artists like scriptwriters and directors -- are very conscious of these broader dimensions of their work.

12:19 PM  
Blogger Susan Howson said...

Film theory (and literary theory as well) isn't about what the author intended to do at all, it's about how a work of art is a product of the social and historical and psychological conditions surrounding it. For a contemporary example, if the mass audience of a film is all fired up about terrorism, they're going to react strongly to a movie that features some sort of threat to an established institution. For instance, American sci-fi films took the place of American horror films briefly in the 50s because America was completely paranoid about foreign (alien) influence. That sort of thing. Movies about deranged children (Halloween, Child's Play, etc.) play on our fear of the breakdown of family goes on and on. A lot of film theory is about explaining cultural phenomena - why did the musical die out? What exactly was Marilyn Monroe's appeal? How come everybody is making so much money off of superhero movies right now?

So basically, yes, you can read into books and movies anything you want, but that's because you're a legitimate commenter as a member of the film's audience. You're part of the conversation because you're part of the construction of the film. That also allows any other viewer to disagree with you, and nobody's right and nobody's wrong. Anyway, that's just how I see it. It makes school a lot less boring when you can apply it in some practical fashion to the world around you, you know?

9:31 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


Zizek! THAT'S the goofball who started out his commentary by asserting (again, without a hint of tentativeness) that Children of Men was a "re-make of Y tu Mama Tambien." I thought I'd never stop laughing.

That's a great example, that Ryan Adams/WTC example. Gonna be hard to find a higher-contrast example than that.

However, it's a little hard to argue for the conclusion "that video means x" without some fairly heavy-duty qualifications if x is something that requires knowledge about 9/11.

Yeah, I'm sort of aware of those views in contemporary literary criticism... But they just seem wildly controversial to say the very least. For one thing, if all that's at issue is the interpreter's imaginings and fleeting reactions, then we're not really talking about the *meaning* of the book or movie. Meaning's a much more complex phenomenon than that, and it includes things like authorial/speaker intent, reference and so forth. Furthermore, if the interpreter's response IS all that's being talked about, then it's extremely weird to write in, e.g., the way Amanda does in the review in question...that is, without a hint that all she's talking about is her own fleeting subjective impressions, but rather with a kind of absolute confidence bordering on dogmatism about what the film's about. (She's not alone in writing that way about's kind of standard among those engaging in lit-crit.)

So, though you may be right about the state of contemporary lit-crit, it's a pretty sorry state. But I'm far from the first person to note that...

10:18 AM  
Blogger Susan Howson said...

Ha, that's true! Maybe there should be lit-crit-crit.

11:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a semantic quibble, but "28 Days Later" is not a zombie movie. It's about disease-infected crazies; zombies are corpses that have returned to life. "28 Days Later" is like a zombie movie, since (1) the rage-infected psychos share many features with zombies (lack of reason, desire to kill normal living people, etc.)and (2) it is inspired by a tradition of great zombie movies (Amanda notes its indebtedness to George Romero's zombie movies). "28 Days Later" clearly falls under the rubric of disease-horror (e.g.Cronenberg's "Rabid," Eli Roth's silly "Cabin Fever" and more recently Robert Rodreguez's contribution to "Grindhouse").

Also, since Amanda noted that "28 Days Later" is in the tradition of Romero's movies, I was surprised that her review did not make any reference to the striking parallels between the military complex scene in "28 Days Later" and George Romero's "Day of the Dead." An obvious moral of Romero's "Day of the Dead" is that living under the tyranny of other people can be worse than freely fighting the blind violence of zombies. I think that Romero's moral is clearly present in the last 1/3 of "28 Days Later" and it also resurfaces in "28 Weeks Later." Romero's moral is more obvious than some kind of Laconian deconstruction.

12:31 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Yo, Dan, what up?

I think you're clearly right about the latter point.

As for the semantic one...well, I think everybody who calls 28DL a zombie movie is using 'zombie' in a broad, possibly even tongue-in-cheek sense. The infected are basically zombies, though I'd agree not technically so.

Think about Joss Whedon's commentary on _Serenity_ (oh, now the geekiness is really comin' out...) in which he says it's really a zombie movie, and points out that the reaver attack is "really a zombie attack scene."

Anyway, my take on 28DL is that it's really and fundamentally a zombie movie, though there's a step in the direction of realism and novelty--it's a disease and the "zombies" are (technically, medically) alive. But there basically zombies.

Anyway, no doubt about it, though, you're point's right.

8:24 AM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

omg WS used "you're" instead of "your"

/me cries

10:45 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Well, homophonic typos only happen in about one out of every one of my posts...

10:27 AM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

Aw, I wouldn't go that far.

Maybe won out of every too.

8:46 AM  

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