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The decade of the dead: How 28 Days Later, World War Z, and zombies took over pop culture

On the left, Brad Pitt stares in fear. On the right, Cillian Murphy stands alone in a deserted London.
(left) Brad Pitt in World War Z; (right) Cillian Murphy in 28 Days Later Image used with permission by copyright holder

Ten years ago this week, the biggest zombie movie ever made raced ravenously into multiplexes. World War Z, starring Brad Pitt and hundreds of screaming extras, was the apotheosis of a craze that spread across 21st-century pop culture like, well, a highly contagious virus. At a budget of $200-million-plus, unprecedented for stories of the walking (or sprinting) dead, it felt like the peak of an outbreak — the moment when the genre’s omnipresence metastasized into pure Hollywood spectacle.

Of course, every plague begins with a first infection. And almost exactly 10 years before World War Z took our collective zombie fever to a planetary scale, a much smaller variant dripped into theaters, poisoning the collective bloodstream with its vision of humanity beset by swift ghouls and pushed to the brink of apocalypse. Yes, this month also marks a significant anniversary for 28 Days Later, a patient zero of the modern zombie movie.

Our enduring fascination with the undead obviously predates that fashionably gloomy Danny Boyle thriller, released in America 20 years ago next week; you could say George Romero’s zombies walked so that Boyle’s could run. Yet 28 Days Later was an early harbinger of the obsession that would pass unchecked through 2000s horror cinema, and then outward into other genres and mediums. In fact, you could call it one bookend of a full decade of the dead, with World War Z on the other end.

A man walks down a hospital corridor in The Walking Dead.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Between the releases of these two movies, the popularity of zombies exploded. They invaded comedies, stalked Simon Pegg and Woody Harrelson, and made moon eyes with YA heroines. Bookstores were filthy with the ghastly things, which turned Marvel superheroes into flesh-eating monsters, corrupted the pages of English-lit classics, and made a literary mint for Max Brooks, author of the book on which World War Z was based. Romero, godfather of the shuffling undead, saw his Dawn of the Dead frenetically remade, before cranking out three more sequels of his own. And of course, that same 10-year period brought the dawn of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, whose first issue hit stores a few months after 28 Days Later; it would begin, by seeming coincidence, the same way, with a man waking in a hospital to find the world on fire. The adaptation of the comic arrived a few years later and soon became the biggest show on TV.

28 Days Later (2002) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

Written by Alex Garland, still a few years off from launching his own directorial career, 28 Days Later was released at the beginning of the trend, and helped propel it through sleeper success: Here was a zombie movie that felt old and new, reviving the apocalyptic dread of Night of the Living Dead and its sequels, while giving it a jittery turn-of-the-century makeover. This was the film that resurrected Boyle’s flagging career after a couple of flops, in part by perverting and literalizing the end-of-the-world urgency of his breakthrough, Trainspotting, a different kind of zombie story. What is its freakishly fast “infected” but the scaremongering image of the tweaker, mind destroyed by laboratory substance, life as dead end as they get?

The film seemed plenty topical at the time. It opened with televised images of civil unrest that positioned its fictional madness and horror on the same continuum as the real, breaking-news variety. It was through pure, unhappy accident that it anticipated the SARS outbreak—and, more unhappily still, that its relevance has been renewed in the age of COVID. Its most enduring choice is making the virus a kind of manifestation of mass rage, the blinding anger that’s only seemed to further engulf society in the years since. Really, the only thing that looks especially dated about 28 Days Later now is its harsh early-digital-video aesthetic—ironically, another element that made it feel inherently fresh and modern back in 2003.

For all the film’s deliberate timeliness, Boyle was really tapping into the timeless graveyard spirit of Romero’s classics—digging up the doomsday loneliness of Dawn of the Dead and the military-base bleakness of Day of the Dead, reviving the “we’re the real monsters” messaging that’s made that director’s zombie touchstones deathless fodder for thesis papers. Of course, plenty of protective Romero junkies couldn’t get past the superficial deviations of 28 Days Later. Were these really zombies if they didn’t hanker for flesh or brains? And what heresy was it that they dashed instead of shuffling? “Death isn’t an energy drink,” Robin Williams would quip in World’s Greatest Dad, summing up the opposition’s line of traditionalist thinking.

World War Z Official Movie Trailer 2

World War Z, which you could almost confuse for a prequel to 28 Days Later (so here’s what happened while Cillian Murphy was taking a very long coma nap), would push that divisive uptick in limberness and velocity, that adrenaline rush, even further. Its infected hordes move like swarms of insects, piling into a hive-mind formation to scale towering barriers and barricades. Their behavior is really, as the movie explains, that of the cells of a virus, twisting human bodies into instruments of mass contagion.

At its un-beating heart, WWZ is an outbreak thriller, the zombies a catalyst for episodic globe-hopping adventure. If 28 Days Later put pockets of melancholy quiet between its screeching set-pieces—relishing the nomadic and purgatorial state of its character’s lives within the rubble—World War Z has the relentless forward motion of its main attraction, be that the rasping infected or the movie star fleeing them. It’s the zombie movie as feverish blockbuster, and monumental evidence that, by 2013, the craze had gone fully mainstream, contaminating the economics of the Hollywood studio machine.

Zombies try to grab on to a helicopter in World War Z.
World War Z Image used with permission by copyright holder

Like 28 Days Later, the movie owes debts micro and macro to Romero. As in Dawn of the Dead, there’s an early stumble through an overrun apartment complex, a temporary escape by helicopter, a scene of ostensible sanctuary breached. But director Marc Forster cuts around the gnarliest violence, offering zombie horror of a less explicit, PG-13 variety. One is reminded of how Romero once entertained visions of a metropolis flooded with the dead, before downscaling to preserve the graphic dismemberment he would have been forced to sacrifice for a bigger budget. In a way, World War Z belatedly realizes some version of his original vision for Day of the Dead, compromises and all. What it lacks in entrails-out gore, it arguably makes up for in the sheer jaw-dropping scope of its pandemic pandemonium.

Perhaps even more so than Boyle’s movie, Forster’s now carries the chill of grim prophecy: It’s positively littered with uncomfortable parallels to our current world, ravaged by a fast-spreading bug. Panicked civilians raid grocery stores and pharmacies. Experts trace the origins of the virus to East Asia. A military bigwig whispers of Spanish Flu and solemnly notes that “the airlines were the perfect delivery system.” However zombie fanatics received World War Z as a super-sized entry in their subgenre of choice, there’s little denying that it now rivals Contagion for spooky prescience, accidentally anticipating the nightmare conditions of our now.

A Black Man carries a torch in Night of the Living Dead.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

But then, zombie movies have always pointed funhouse mirrors at civilization. Even if life fully returns to the semblance of a pre-pandemic normal, these plague stories will continue to shudder with the echoes of any destabilizing threat to our essential structures. That’s the real impact Romero’s gut-munching classics made on the genre, for better or worse: They saw the shadow of the real world, with all its real horrors, in the lumbering gait of the dead. 28 Days Later and World War Z, situated on opposite ends of a big decade for the “zekes,” cast the same shadow … even if it moves more like an Olympic athlete after the gun has been shot than a drunk staggering out of a pub at closing time.

World War Z is currently streaming on Netflix. 28 Days Later is available to rent or purchase from the major digital providers. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, please visit his Authory page.

A.A. Dowd
A.A. Dowd, or Alex to his friends, is a writer and editor based in Chicago. He has held staff positions at The A.V. Club and…
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