Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The "28...Later" Films, Sex, and Infection

I'll get this out of the way, first: I just saw "28 Weeks Later", and it was surprisingly weak. In order for the film's central conflict to occur, we have to believe that an elite military force charged with the sole task of containing and protecting the only civilians in all of Britain fail this task monumentally, and fail monumentally twice in short order: two escaped children are allowed to make trouble for at least 20 minutes from the time they're spotted leaving their safe zone in the Isle of Dogs; and a building superintendent is not only given fully access to all sections of the base, but he retains that access even after his biohazardous wife is found by the children and subsequently quarantined by the military. There are other moments of 'why wouldn't this strike a trained military force as a bad idea?', but I'll leave it at that. The film is legitimately frightening, but the biggest frights are restricted to the first 10 minutes, which ask nothing of our ability to suspend disbelief.

What occurred to me, though, and especially when one compares "28 Weeks" to "28 Days", is that this zombie franchise is operating on a subtextual level that's very different from other zombie films. Where Romero's movies are commonly taken as critiques of 'modern life' and consumerism, Boyle and Garland's burgeoning series seems to be take aim at the germ-free society, free sex, and our anxieties over the meeting of contagion and sex - sexually transmitted infections.

Take, for instance, the scene from "28 Days" in which the soldiers intend to rape Selena and Hannah, the two female survivors who had been traveling with Cillian Murphy's Jim. The moment in which the soldiers become totally consumed with assaulting them is the same moment in which the Infected overwhelm their defenses and proceed to kill them all - the intimation of sexual violence is linked to infection and a painful death.

"28 Weeks" presents a subtler link to sexuality as such, though the links themselves are more numerous. The new outbreak begins with a kiss between spurned wife and guilty husband in a scene that's played as if he had cheated on her (well, he did leave her behind when the Infected attacked) and must beg forgiveness. Though it's certainly up for debate, the wife appears to know that she's a carrier for the infection and looks perversely satisfied as she watched the infection take hold, panicking only when she realizes that she's doomed herself, too. The unfaithful partner is met with the vengeful gift of an STI.

The suggestion that the wife can even be a carrier also links the infection to early AIDS discourse. Rose Byrne's medical researcher, the ostensible world's expert in this disease, notes early in the film that she doesn't know how such a thing is possible but that they hardly know anything about the disease in the first place. And, regardless of the wife's lack of symptoms, her blood and saliva are highly contagious. Okay, so the saliva bit is real in the film and turned out to be a myth with regard to AIDS, but the notion of a carrier was popular at one point - a person who could contract HIV and pass it on but who would never get sick him or herself. Whether the carrier in the film would have eventually developed the symptoms of an Infected is unknowable - she's killed by her husband, after all, in yet another bit of spousal revenge - but the danger in tossing around terms like 'carrier' and 'immunity' with regard to a little-understood disease are made perfectly clear: don't swap spit without protection. (There is undoubtedly a moralizing gesture here too, though that's a subject for an entirely different blog entry.)

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