Doomsday (Neil Marshall, 2008)

It’s September and so there was only one country we could send our resident zombie reviewer to: Scotland. 

Welcome to Scotland, home of haggis and single malt whisky, birthplace of Robert Burns. Scotland, where the historical treachery of the English government is just a curtain-raiser compared to what happens in Neil Marshall’s slab of grungy B-movie dystopia. When a virus breaks out in Glasgow, the parliamentary response is swift and unsympathetic: a 60-foot wall is built around Scotland to contain the outbreak. The population, sealed off, are left to death or social anarchy. The film then hops twenty-five years into the future; an outbreak of the virus in London, coupled with the revelation that there are survivors in Scotland, compels Prime Minister John Hatcher (geddit?) to send a small task force, led by Major Eden Sinclair (Rhona Mitra), north of the border in search of a cure.

The single most interesting thing about Doomsday is that it leaves the actual zombies in the background. Scenes of the infected spilling out into the streets of London are secondary to Sinclair’s mission. This is both a bold narrative decision and a frustrating one. Bold in that the viewer is left to imagine how swiftly the infection is spreading and how difficult it is to impose martial law, not least because the virus is blood borne and the old shoot ’em in the head routine only serves to create more zombies depending how on how widely the blood splatters. Frustrating in that the claustrophobia of the London scenes is dissipated every time Marshall cuts back to the huge rolling vistas of Scotland.

Curiously, Sinclair’s odyssey from Glasgow to the highlands is marked by a complete abandonment of horror movie tropes. The basics of her mission, the walled-off no-go area, the taut timeframe – she has 48 hours to get results – and the duplicity of her superiors are reminiscent of a certain well-known John Carpenter movie (one wonders if early drafts of the script were titled Escape from Scotland). The warring gangs she encounters once there are straight out of The Bronx Warriors, while some mortal combat at a castle owned by a feudal survivor is resembles Beyond Thunderdome with a kilt on. The ludicrously extended car chase which ends the film reinforces the Mad McMax vibe. We are, in other words, in post-apocalyptic territory, the only difference being that another apocalypse is waiting in the wings.

The central irony – and it’s perplexing that the script doesn’t make more of it – is that the new outbreak presents no threat to this independent-by-proxy Scotland. London reacts with a kind of post-Orwellian clampdown, which is thrown into brutal relief against the backdrop of cramped Victorian poorhouse squalor from which the zombies emerge. Thus is the film’s best scene occasioned: panic is met with military overkill; the streets descend into chaos; a member of the undead forces its way into the inner sanctum of government. A gunshot dispatches it. Blood splashes the Prime Minister’s face. Seconds later, alone in his office with a sandalwood box containing a handgun, he’s faced with a choice: life as a soulless, destructive, barbaric creature … or become a zombie.

Neil Fulwood’s previous reviews.

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