Perversion and corruption overlap quite a bit: they both concern the filthy, the ruinous, the unethical… But there’s an important distinction between them, because perverted things can still be enticing while corrupt things are completely offputting. Think about it like this: when a politician gets embroiled in sex scandals it tends to be as transfixing as it is disgusting, but if they get caught taking a bribe it is just infuriating.
That same distinction can be applied to types of monsters. Vampires and werewolves are perversions of humanity – they are disturbing creatures, yes, but they are also enticing in their own way; they represent a devil’s bargain where you can attain great power and immortality if you are willing to lose your soul. Zombies, on the other hand, are corruptions - they are rotting, vicious and dumb, and there is no upside to joining their ranks. As such, movies about vampires and werewolves tend to mix poetry in with their horror - but zombie movies, well, those are generally just ugly.
Consider 28 Days Later, a zombie film from 2002 which is grotesque through and through. It opens with a team of animal rights activists trying to rescue some monkeys from their cages in a medical research facility – but alas these would-be do gooders don’t realize that the monkeys are infected with a super-virus that is transmittable to humans, and that by freeing those chimps they are also unleashing a zombie plague on the world. 28 Days Later's opening is gruesome in that it features some shocking bloodshed, but it is appalling on a deeper level, too – it establishes that everyone in this movie, even the well intentioned characters, are going to be equally complicit in humanity’s downfall.
The cynicism continues from there: the story cuts to a hospital where a bicycle courier named Jim is just waking up from a coma. All of London was destroyed while he was unconscious, and he spends several forlorn hours wandering around the deserted city hoping to encounter someone, anyone, who can explain to him what's going on, but all he finds are piles of trash and memorials to the dead. That is until some hungry zombies find him...
Just when it looks like Jim is going to be a goner some well armed survivors show up and save him. However, his rescuers aren't as generous as they initially seem - when the trio of humans are all safely back in their reinforced hideout they tell Jim point blank that if a situation arises where they have to choose between saving themselves or saving him then he's toast. Jim - who managed to miss the traumatic events that scarred his newfound allies so deeply - spends the night struggling to understand how exactly society descended into savagery so quickly.
Eventually Jim and his compatriots meet up with a father / daughter team and then the combined unit escapes the city together. They share a brief respite in the country that rejuvenates their spirits a bit, but their brief moment of peace is very brief – they have one night of quiet and then the next day Jim has to bludgeon a zombified child to death at a gas station. Then Frank, a nice guy and doting father, gets infected in a fluke accident, and he has to be put down while his daughter watches.
The film’s final act takes place on a make-shift military base that was set up on an old English estate. The beauty of the surroundings is in sharp contrast to the people who live there – most of the militia members who patrol the estate's well fortified grounds are vicious dimwits who pose just as much of a threat to Jim’s ongoing existence as the undead. The soldiers quickly decide to rape both of Jim’s female companions and our reluctant hero decides to unleash an imprisoned zombie in the hopes that it will occupy the soldiers long enough for his party of traumatized travelers to escape.
28 Days Later does have a happy-ish ending, but it is worth noting that there are two alternative endings on the DVD and both of them are bleak - and that both of the alternate endings are better fits for the material at hand. The theatrical ending isn’t a complete sell out, but its optimistic tone isn’t really of a piece with the rest of the aggressively paranoid movie. This is a movie that starts with disaster, continues tragically, and it probably should have ended unpleasantly, too.
But this film isn't just conceptually ugly - it is also ugly to look at. Director Danny Boyle uses a lot of handheld shots and when the action speeds up - which it often does - the images can become blurry and chaotic. Furthermore, his camera tends to linger on the ugliest parts of the abandoned London - there are times when he crops the frame tightly around his actors, but for the most part he lets their blighted surroundings leak into the frame, too. However, the main way that 28 Days Later is ugly to look at is that it has a very digital look - it is blotchy and its colors are washed out. Honestly, I could deal with the murder and rape a lot more easily than I could deal with the ghastly cinematography.
28 Days Later is relentlessly grisly in practice and in spirit. It stacks suffering on top of suffering, and it punishes the old and the young, the men and the women, the guilty and the innocent with equal abandon. Its script is quite sure that there are monsters hidden in all of us and that civilization is an empty facade which could crumble at any time. In other words, it is a pretty damn solid zombie movie, since zombie movies are almost always interested in exploring the darkest parts of humanity...
Which is exactly why I don’t really care for it. I’ve always found movies about corruption to be misanthropic and unappetizing, especially in comparison to movies about perversion. I understand that fear is compelling and that any horror movie that scares its audience is doing its job well - but personally I would much rather be offered a devil's bargain than just be sent to hell, and I would rather watch a movie like Bram Stoker's Dracula where the monsters have their human side than watch a movie like 28 Days Later where the people are as inhumane as the beasts. Horror flicks work best when they trap their audience between "I can't bare to look" and "I can't look away" - but when it comes to a film like this which is rotted inside and out I find it surprisingly easy to avert my eyes.
Winner: The Cat