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Fantastic Fest 2013: Going Down Swinging: Why 28 Days Later is Not a Zombie Film

On Saturday, September 21st, at John’s Gym in Austin, Texas, during Fantastic Fest, I defended what I have come to see as a fairly unpopular opinion: 28 Days Later, one of the most important and lauded horror films of the past decade, is not a zombie film.

Despite being mired in pedantry, the decade-long debate over the appropriate sub-genre into which 28 Days Later should be placed is an important one. The zombie sub-genre has evolved tremendously over the past two decades, with the archetypal zombies created by George Romero serving as a blueprint, rather than a model that should be strictly adhered to.

My opponent was my good friend Jacob S. Hall. A writer for OneOfUs.net, Movies.com, and ScreenCrush.com, Jacob is a fairly physically intimidating individual, if only for the fact that he’s 6’4”, has a six-inch reach on me, and significantly outweighs me. For perspective, I’m 170 pounds on a very small 6’0” frame, so the decision to hop into the ring was predicated less upon my belief in the topic and more upon the fact that I am an attention whore and desired 15 minutes of fame. But Jacob was game for some friendly sparring, and while we were both nervous, we were both confident that we would win.

Fantastic Fest 2013: Going Down Swinging: Why 28 Days Later is Not a Zombie Film
The video below, filmed by my friend Andy Triefenbach of DestroytheBrain.com, comprises the bulk of the debate and the entirety of the fight. It starts in the middle of my opening statement, where I shouted, spewed forth obscenities, and did everything I could to get the crowd riled up. But as you’ll see, the fun begins when I lay down my rebuttal when I use Jacob’s own writing against him. Clearly flustered, Jacob attempted to respond, but the crowd had turned on him, sending forth a volley of boos as he tried to defend his own words. It made me cocky, but it made Jacob angry, and once the podiums were removed, it was on.

I was slaughtered.

Before we stepped into the ring, I was given some brief training by a local boxer. Cover the jaw with my dominant hand, push away with my left, and so on and so forth. Let’s just say that logic goes out the window when a locomotive comprised of fists is raining Hell upon your head. In the first round of the actual fight, Jacob charged at me, swinging wildly while I desperately tried to push him away. I attempted to respond in kind, desperately hoping one of my wayward punches would connect. My friend Jeremy said I had no form, which is admittedly true, if only because it’s difficult to have form when you’re absolutely terrified you’re about to die. At about the halfway point I felt that refusing to give up was far more important than outright winning, and as a result I got a surge of adrenaline and connected a few wild hits to Jacob’s head, apparently resulting in a mild concussion.

Fantastic Fest 2013: Going Down Swinging: Why 28 Days Later is Not a Zombie Film
So did I win? If you ask the audience and Owen Egerton, the hilarious MC who made the ultimate decision…no. I did not win. If you ask the several dozen people who came up to me throughout the week saying I was robbed, then yes. But that’s okay. The whole thing was for the sake of fun, and in the end, Jacob and I embraced as good friends do and had a laugh.

Before the debates I made an attempt to construct a coherent argument on the matter at hand. You can find it after the video. Whether you agree or disagree, sound off in the comments.

Before any sensible debate concerning 28 Days Later’s role within the zombie film canon can begin, it is first necessary to not just define “zombie,” but to place it in the proper context. If you were to walk up to 99% of moviegoers and asked “What is a zombie?” their response is likely to be “a reanimated dead person,” or some variation thereof. While variations on the zombie have existed since the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” and perhaps more specifically within the history of West African Vodou and other cultures, the context in which this response is placed, and in which the film in question exists, comes from the archetypal zombie effectively created by George Romero in 1968. They may shamble or run, serve as pets to bored housewives, or need brains to survive, but every zombie post-1968 is directly inspired by Romero’s creation. As such, every single time a creature, or, in the case of 28 Days Later, Rage-infected individual, “acts” like a zombie – that is to say, essentially mindless and/or violent toward humans – those seeking to contradict my viewpoint are working within a specific frame of reference that is essential to understanding the genre as a whole.

Fantastic Fest 2013: Going Down Swinging: Why 28 Days Later is Not a Zombie Film
This is why appealing to my seemingly purist viewpoint and referencing the aforementioned West African Vodou zombies is a faulty argument. Since they, and by extension the movies that focus on them, are not based on this archetype, their inclusion in this argument is irrelevant. It’s merely detractors trying to find the exception that proves the rule in any way they can. Vodou zombies are born out of a historical context, whereas the archetypal zombie is born out of fiction. A distinction needs to be made, otherwise a “zombie” is simply too nebulous to define, and can thus be ascribed to anyone or anything that acts out of the realm of normal human behavior. The whole “if it walks like a duck and acts like a duck” argument automatically pigeon-holes any film wherein a character acts crazy or violent against those not affected. You have to separate the comparison from that which is being compared: just because something acts like a zombie doesn’t make it a zombie. 28 Days Later isn’t a zombie film despite the characters acting in a manner that could reasonably be compared to zombies. Given the vagaries of the genre, you can logically state that the infected are “zombie like,” but when presented within the context of the archetype upon which they are based, they are not zombies.

Furthermore, the zombie sub-genre is protean by nature, adapting and evolving to changing ideas and perceptions. As a result, it has become ill-defined, and ultimately create more arguments than it solve. As a result, we need to use a barometer for classification, and one that needs to be utilized on a case by case basis. The overarching theme or focus is essential in helping to classify the film. Taking this into account, it’s correct to say that 28 Days Later is a post-apocalyptic thriller. All of the elements are there, replete with the utter breakdown of rational behavior of mankind; by the end of the film, the soldiers become almost animalistic in nature, yet are capable of rationalizing their horrific behavior. The infected are thus not the antagonists of the film, they are the catalyst through which Boyle explores the themes of man vs. man and even man vs. him. Set against the backdrop of an abandoned England and using the infected as a metaphor for the bestial nature of mankind, Boyle’s film is firmly entrenched within the post-apocalyptic sub-genre, rather than the broader zombie sub-genre or the more focused “post-apocalyptic zombie” sub-genre. Genre classification is a harsh mistress indeed.

Whatever your viewpoint may be, you need to understand that this is nothing more than a matter of semantics. Whether they’re a metaphor for mass consumerism or simply the consequence of a shitty budget, the one defining characteristic of a zombie is “once dead, now alive.” But this is an argument about whether or not it’s a zombie movie, not whether or not the infected are zombies – there is a difference. I think Carriers is a drama with horror elements and not straight horror, and I know of plenty who disagree with me. Does that make me wrong? No. Your opinion is going to be dependent on how you view the sub-genre. Despite my firmly held belief that 28 Days Later is not a zombie film, there is no wrong answer, there is no right answer, there is only passion. If you have that passion behind your argument, you can never be wrong.

Check out the entire Debates video below. For more information visit Fantastic Fest’s website. You can also follow the festival on Facebook and Twitter.

Fantastic Fest 2013: Going Down Swinging: Why 28 Days Later is Not a Zombie Film
Fantastic Fest 2013: Going Down Swinging: Why 28 Days Later is Not a Zombie Film
Fantastic Fest 2013
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Brad McHargue