As if day-to-day reality wasn’t quite scary enough, a lot of South African literature focuses on the what-ifs? of a post-apocalyptic Azania. By that, I don’t mean post-nuclear apocalypse as it might normarily apply to you good folks in the rest of the world. I mean post-liberation, post-independence, post-ANC apocalypse. Time and again, books (though rarely movies, which rely on government funding) imagine a future South Africa as a horribly failed state where corpulent, corrupt, vicious officials casually oversee a weakened and disease-ravaged populace, and where unfettered crime and violence have driven white Africans either to flee to Australia or (for those without the European passports) to barren and arid farmsteads out in the waterless bush.
I wonder if my South African alertness to the potential that ordered little life may suddenly take a very different track means that I am particularly receptive to the chilling alternatives offered by Danny Boyle’s movies 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later. The first is set in the immediate aftermath of an outbreak of a plague-like cataclysm that turns its victims into soulless flesh-eaters that can chase you really really fast. The second – which I caught on tv the other night – takes place once the virus has been contained (with no one left to kill, the zombies starved – nice) and a mission, lead by the American military, has begun to repopulate Britain.
Both movies have remarkable, mesmerising images of a hastily-deserted London – Cillian Murphy’s solo walk through the deathly quiet streets of Westminster in 28 Days is a complete wondrous thrill to anyone who’s ever been nearly flattened by a big red bus, or (worse) by a gaggle of Italian language students in brightly-coloured backpacks. 28 Weeks Later though trumps even that imagery; beautiful, shiny, devastatingly, hauntingly empty, it films London a lot from the air (which adds to the queasy sense of dislocation.)
Says producer Allon Reich on the FilmLondon website: “The unique selling point with the 28 idea is London, it really is a character in the film. Without London, the film would be something else entirely.”
Locations include Canary Wharf (massively expanded since I lived in London), Charing Cross tube station, CityPoint, Greenwich foot tunnel, Hyde Park, Wembley Stadium, the Millennium Stadium, Parliament Square, and Shaftesbury Avenue – and it’sno mean feat that the film makers make this overcrowded megapolis seem entirely desolate. Incidentally, the escape from the cottage that opens the film was filmed at Stokers Farm, south of Rickmansworth; the waterway that Robert Carlyle’s character escapes along is actually the main line of the Grand Union Canal.
Like 28 Days, 28 Weeks Later works well – in parts. The zombies are rip-roaringly scary and the action is driven by a nerve-jarring soundtrack and the kind of grim lighting that makes you feel part of the action. Yet in this movie too, there’s that dumb child cliche again; the only two kids allowed back in Britain decide to break out of the secure compound (why?), unleashing the raging havoc all over again. It’s almost criminal that they’re the only two allowed to survive.