A good friend of mine and I debated the breakdown of society motif used in Alex Garland’s brilliantly written running zombie film, 28 Days Later (2002) My problem with the film had nothing to do with people turning into zombies, but more how the survivors became so amoral in such a short period of time, in this case, 28 days. I felt, despite the natural desire to survive, and the dire choices one needed to make in the face of madness, I found it implausible people would go from normal, to willing to gang rape a twelve-year-old, in such a short period. My friend disagreed. “That’s exactly what would happen, “ he said, “Ever seen what happens around here when there’s a snowstorm? People lose their minds, and that’s not even 28 hours.” My friend resides in Washington D.C.
I thought about his point. I’ve personally witnessed people; in line for coffee, at the bank, at school functions, suddenly erupt in anger from zero to ten for seemingly small, or even perceived, infractions. One only needs to scroll through social media to see endless examples of raging strangers caught on mobile phones for internet eternity. Now imagine adding apocalypse to the mix.
William Golding’s brilliant novel Lord of the Flies, besides having spawned two worthy film adaptations, in 1963 and1990, is normally considered the quintessential example of the breakdown of society motif and has spawned countless imitators. The imitators span nearly every genre from, Horror, Sci-Fi, traditional Dramas, and even Westerns. Part of what makes movie going a fun experience, is putting oneself in the place of the hero. Would you have thought or that? Would you have made that same mistake?
But my question is this: Regardless of what type of Armageddon that has brought you to this place, at what point do you join the apocalyptic motorcycle gang and give away all your morals?
Lets take a look at some examples:
Dawn of the Dead (1978/2004)
Both these films do an amazing job with the breakdown of society motif.
Putting the zombie part aside, in the original 1978 version, we are given a brief glimpse of the beginning of how it all falls apart as seen through the eyes of two Philadelphia SWAT officers. In the thrillingly gruesome opening, we see the initial outbreak occur inside a housing project. Realizing all hope is lost, the two officers, along with a female local news reporter, and her boyfriend helicopter pilot, steal away to the hole up inside a shopping mall outside Pittsburgh.
After making the mall zombie free, the fearless four create a temporary utopia inside. That is, until the bikers show up, and mess it all up. Watching the bikers break into the Monroeville Mall is a bigger comment about societal collapse than the zombies are. A biker gang always seems to climb very fast to the top of the food chain in a world gone wild. The bikers gleefully revel in the mutilation of the undead, vandalize storefronts, and even get into a food fight with cream pies. They ultimately lose of course. After all, the movie isn’t called Dawn of the Bikers, but it does comment on how bad people flourish in a society with no rules.
Dawn of the Dead’s tagline (1978): When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.
In Zack Snyder’s 2004 reimagining, while keeping the key elements from the original, most notably the shopping mall, we are given a different, and larger, group of characters on which to judge societal breakdown.
There’s still a cop, played by the wonderful Ving Rhames, but most of the rest of the group are made up from everyday people. There’s a nurse, a truck driver, a gang-banger, his extremely pregnant Russian wife, and a kindly Best Buy TV salesman, to name a few. The notion being, these people have been brought together completely by random circumstance. Had any of them had the time to think, or plan, they might have had more powerful positions in the food chain.
Since the movie didn’t rely on stars (at the time) the viewer could truly pick who to identify with. Does the viewer identify with the young lovers brought together by the horrors of the zombie apocalypse? Do they identify with the smart resourceful nurse, played by the amazing Sarah Polley? Or, do they identify with the smarmy boat owner, played with devilish charm by a pre-Modern Family, Ty Burrell. Snyder gives the viewer a choice, this time without any bikers.
The breakdown of society comes from the hierarchy of the group itself, starting with the self-important shopping mall guards, led by the always amazing Michael Kelly. The hapless mall cops are caught between the notion of continuing to do their silly job, and slowly realizing their worth has diminished even further in the apocalypse than in normal life. Further societal breakdowns continue as the group wrestles with the moral dilemma of trying to save the guy at the gun store (yes, there’s a gun store, it’s a fun movie) located across the mall parking lot lined with an ocean of zombies. When faced with the reality their mall utopia will invariably collapse, they have to enact an impossible escape.
Dawn of the Dead’s tagline (2004): When the undead rise, civilization will fall. Both versions of Dawn move fast and it’s fair to say both films take place in less than 28 days.
The Trigger Effect (1996)
Written and directed by the brilliant David Koepp, this little known sleeper, is one of the best examples of the breakdown of society motif.
What’s most unique about this film is not only the absence of zombies, it’s the absence of actual apocalypse. A blackout occurs cutting out all communications. Is the blackout local or is everyone affected? Was it caused by terrorism? Was it the grid? We don’t know. The only way to check is obviously cut off.
In an extremely short time, far less than 28 days, we witness complete societal breakdown. We watch seemingly law abiding, mild mannered people, buy guns, steal, contemplate adultery, make horrible decisions based entirely on fear, and eventually kill.
Koepp based his screenplay about “man’s inhumanity to man” in part, on the iconic Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” (1960) which depicted neighbors going crazy during a power failure. When that episode originally aired the “monsters” viewers were most afraid of were communists with nuclear weapons. Only two years after this episode aired the Cuban Missile Crisis brought people’s worst fears to life when the world came to the brink of nuclear war. I imagine kids who had school drills where they hid under their desks found the notion of societal breakdown a very real thing.
The tagline for The Trigger Effect: When Nothing Works, Anything Goes. Way less than 28 days.
The Incident (1967)
If you’ve never seen this film directed by Larry Peerce, you should.
The Incident’s title refers to what happens when two hoodlums decide to terrorize a New York subway car in the middle of the night and it is a perfect example of the breakdown of society motif. The societal breakdown in this case isn’t from what the collective mob does, but from what it doesn’t do. Tony Musante and Martin Sheen, making their film debuts, play a couple of young punks who decide to hold a subway car hostage for fun. Even in the middle of the night, the car is filled with people, mostly played by amazing character actors including: Ruby Dee, Brock Peters, and future Johnny Carson sidekick, Ed McMahon.
A young Beau Bridges plays a military private who is crippled, not with fear, but with an arm in a heavy cast. With the soldier seemingly out of commission, the late-night riders are easy pickings for the terrible twosome. Musante and Sheen weave their way through the subway car cruelly dolling out one humiliation after another upon the hapless passengers who remain mostly silent, as they don’t want to be the next victims. The movie takes place in public, on a moving train, no zombies. The inaction of the victims shows a horrible mirror up to nature.
The gritty realism of this film makes direct correlation to the terrible murder of Kitty Genovese three years prior to this films release. Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old bar manager was killed outside her apartment complex in New York, in the late hours of March 13th 1964.
Her cries for help, though heard by at least thirty-eight people, went unanswered mostly due to the fact “no one wanted to get involved.” This movie is a haunting and brutal look at what happens when people wait, or fail completely, to do the right thing. (For a great documentary on the tragic Tale of Kitty Genovese, Check out The Witness)
The tagline for The Incident: A Bold, Gritty, Terrifying Story Of Inner-City Terror. Way less than 28 days.
What Would You Do? (ABC 2009 – )
Hosted by John Quinones, What Would You Do? is a social experiment hidden camera reality TV show that essentially judges an unsuspecting “Mark’s” ethics.
In watching the scenarios play out, the viewer can decide if they would, or would not: have spoken up, told someone, or bravely stepped in. It’s like a reality TV version of The Incident with far lower stakes. What Would You Do? (the title is the logline) does a great job in challenging when something is, or is not (as Kitty Genovese’s neighbors never understood) minding your own business.
It also takes place in far less than 28 days, sometimes less than 28 minutes, and there’s not a zombie in sight.
To be fair, the entire Mad Max film series (1979, 1981, 1985, and 2015) show worlds that have far exceeded the 28 Day mark.
And it’s even worse! Societal breakdowns exceeding 28 days are the darkest downward spiral there is, especially in a bleak apocalyptic future. It would seem the only thing you can do to survive is learn to drive a monster truck, shave your head into a Mohawk, and hope you get to play the flaming guitar.
Also, living in Australia helps.
Fear sells more than sex. People make decisions based on fear everyday. Sometimes major decisions, sometimes really bad decisions. If the breakdown of society were a reality, and not simply a motif, what would you do? I’ve seen this very conversation played out at every bar, party, and PTA meeting I’ve been to in the last twenty years.
Zombies, or no zombies, bikers or no bikers, what would you do to survive? Would you kill? Would you be cruel?
Would it take you longer than 28 days?
I’m curious to hear your picks for the best breakdown of society motif movies and shows. We will compile a list of the top fan fifty. – Fred