by Megan Schillereff, Ball State University
In the film 28 Days Later, director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland give us a post-zombie apocalypse London struggling for survival, complete with a small group of survivors eking out a living from the zombie-scorched earth. Not surprisingly, these survivors have to fight to evolve and adapt to their new world, which is evidenced by their ever-changing use of the word ‘hello’ throughout the duration of the film. At first glance, it may seem redundant to call attention to one of the most popular words in the English language; however, upon further consideration, the use of the word ‘hello’ is interesting because of how it evolves over time. This evolution is important to the idea of apocalypse because it shows how previously concrete and familiar things in our society can shift and change under the stress of catastrophe. In a similar vein, the shifting definition of ‘hello’ throughout the film shows humanity adapting to its apocalyptic environment. ‘Hello’ moves with fluidity in this film, ranging from a word used to make a human connection and alliance to a word used to sense out danger. Jim, one of the survivors and the film’s main protagonist, offers the primary example of using the word “hello” on such a spectrum.
Jim had been in a coma, one that kept him separate from the zombie apocalypse—– unlike the majority of London. Upon waking, Jim stumbles from his hospital bed and attempts to rejoin the world, only to find it empty and desolate. Jim wanders around the vacant hospital for a little while, crying “Hello” (00:07:33-00:07:55) in random intervals. And then, as the sunlight fades, Jim steps out of the hospital and calls out, “Hello?” (00:09:37-00:10:05). But, as Alex Garland’s screenplay explains, “Aside from a quiet rush of wind, there is silence… no movement. Not even birdsong” (8). Both of these examples of ‘hello’ show Jim using it in the most basic form—– a way of seeking out connection to fellow human life.
As the movie progresses, we see Jim approach an abandoned church to seek shelter for the night. Once inside, he comes to the main room and is met with an unspeakable level of horror— dead bodies piled all around the church’s altar. Jim is understandably traumatized, but then he notices four people standing, facing away from him. Unable to tell if they are alive or dead, Jim calls out, “Hello?” (00:14:56). The four heads whip around to reveal their zombie-selves, and the creatures proceed to attack Jim. This marks the first instance of the word ‘hello’ becoming associated with danger. Here, the use of ‘hello’ can be used to show the uncanny connection between zombies and humanity. Freud explains “That the uncanny is that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar” (124). Normally, ‘hello’ is a greeting used to ingratiate oneself to a fellow person. However, with zombies, who used to be human but who now are the living dead, the word ‘hello’ is now being used by Jim as a trigger word to search for danger among the lost humanity—hence; ‘hello’ has become uncanny.
Later in the film, Jim joins up with other survivors, and they are all on their way to a safe haven. On the way, they pause to refuel their car at a truck stop diner. Jim goes inside and, after taking note of all the dead bodies, he raises his weapon. With a steely glint in his eye, he asks “Hello?” (00:51:45). As an eight-year-old zombie boy launches himself out of the darkness at Jim, the zombie child is promptly met with a baseball bat to the face. This shows that the uncanny and evolving definition of the word ‘hello’ for Jim. It is now infused with the connotation of danger. It is no longer the familiar way to reach out to an ally; rather Jim now uses the word ‘hello’ to draw out zombies in the same manner that a gunshot is used to startle up prey.
Cut to the end of the movie, Jim has been injured, and in his fevered dreams, we see a flash of the word ‘hell’ (01:45:00) laid out in a big field, which no doubt describes the hell on earth that Jim has just survived. Once Jim wakes, we learn that the gang of survivors has overcome countless obstacles and is now in a safe house surrounded by rolling green hills and clear sky. We, as the audience, hear the sound of a jet approaching, and all the characters begin to scramble, dragging yards of fabric out in front of the house. The recon jet passes overhead, and the camera pans over the characters jumping and shouting in joy to finally reveal the full word, a giant “HELLO” (01:47:39) made from the fabric: a sign for the pilots of the jet to know that the survivors are human and that they are reaching out to make a connection.
The ‘hello’ is the evolved and completed version of the flash of ‘hell’ that viewers were shown moments before. Adding the ‘o’ onto the end of “hell” and creating “hello” shows viewers the full spectrum of what Jim has survived, hell to hello. Jim survived an apocalyptic hell on earth and made it out the other side, to a place where he can begin to rehumanize and make connections with his fellow man. This use of ‘hello’ shows how the word has come full circle, having adapted over the course of the movie to work with Jim’s new apocalyptic environment; as Jim advances through the stages of apocalypse, his working definition of ‘hello’ is able to evolve alongside him. In order to survive the apocalyptic world that he was thrust into, Jim was forced to alter and abandon some facets of his reality and language so that he could adapt to fit his current apocalyptic circumstances. However, once Jim finally reaches a safe place, he is able to begin rebuilding his humanity, to lay the uncanny definition of ‘hello’ to rest, and to return to using the word as he does at the start of the film, as a word of greeting and connection.
Boyle, Danny, director. 28 Days Later. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2002.
Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny, edited by David McLintock and Hugh Haughton, Penguin Books, 2003, pp 124.
Garland, Alex, screenwriter. 28 Days Later. Fox Searchlight Pictures 2002.