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The (Un)sleeping Dead: Zombie Apocalypse and the Annihilation of Sleep under 24/7 Capitalism

Updated: Apr 19

We are living through an unprecedented crisis in sleep. This idea is clearly alive in the popular imagination, from articles advising us on “How to Get a Better Night’s Sleep” to self-help books with titles such as The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep is Broken and How to Fix It and the huge boom in pharmaceuticals to both get us to sleep and help us stay awake. In his polemic 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, Jonathan Crary argues that sleep is on a collision course with capitalism, which, in its drive to produce a round-the-clock world of work and consumption, is rapidly eroding the former. Sleep is the last remaining state of human existence from which value is not easily extracted; it, therefore, represents a great obstacle to the voracious appetite of late capitalism. One of the conditions of modernity has been the creation of economies that function 24/7, and, under neoliberal globalization with its attendant bioderegulation,[1] the production of 24/7 subjects aligned with these new temporalities. Crary characterizes this contemporary subjectivity as “a generalized inscription of human life into duration without breaks, defined by a principle of continuous functioning” (7-8). I argue that capitalism’s crisis in sleep is embodied nowhere better in the popular imagination than in the zombie apocalypse genre. I read this genre as an allegory for the apocalyptic advancement of 24/7 capitalism, with the monstrous figure of the zombie serving in its etymological capacity, monere, to warn of a state of existence without rest from consumption. In particular, I will be focusing on a seminal contribution to the genre: Danny Boyle’s 2002 film 28 Days Later, significant for its popularisation of the high-speed “new zombie,” a trope that has characterized 21st-century zombie media, as well as a film, I contend, almost uniquely invested in sleep. Exploring conceptions of media consumption, drug use, and the utopian possibilities of sleep against the backdrop of the zombie apocalypse, my reading of 28 Days Later will illuminate the broader connections between the explosively popular zombie apocalypse genre and today’s crisis in sleep.

The zombie has long been connected with critiques of capitalism; indeed, since George A. Romero’s zombies roamed around a shopping mall in 1978, the reading of the zombie figure as a satire for the mindless consumer is, as Roger Luckhurst puts it, “less an allegory to be teased out, less subtext, than overt text” (12). David Bering-Porter characterizes the zombie as “a supernatural monster created for economic reason” (09:03-07). The close relationship between capitalism and the zombie goes back to the origins of the zombie in the Haitian plantations: the monster was originally an undead, possessed slave that was put to work without rest. Accordingly, the connection between capitalism and the zombie hinges on what Bering-Porter terms “undead labour”: “a mode of production and an impetus, at the heart of capitalism, to extract an excess of value from life and living bodies that have been pushed beyond their own limits” (02:15-25). In the zombie figure, death—which represents finitude in a capitalist hegemony that favours the infinite—is foreclosed. If death represents the most fundamental obstacle to the fulfillment of capitalist infinity, sleep is, as Crary reminds us, its most quotidian barrier. As well as being undead, the zombie is also unsleeping, a figure always at work with no respite from the demands of capital. The figure of the possessed Haitian labourer performing undead labour is thus a particularly prescient representation of subjectivity under 24/7 capitalism, which Crary characterizes as “a non-social model of machinic performance and a suspension of living that does not disclose the human cost required to sustain its effectiveness” (8).

The zombie as a monstrous figure in the popular imagination seems to have evolved in parallel to the development of capitalism; from Haiti, it moves to the U.S., where the genre is popularised by filmmaker George A. Romero, whose zombies, particularly the shuffling, brain-eating hordes invading the shopping mall in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, represent a direct critique of American consumerism.[2] The manner in which the zombie changes from worker to consumer as the economic system morphs from an emphasis on production and labour to one of consumption and service-based industries has been traced by scholars such as David McNally. Another fundamental contribution to the genre made by Romero was linking the zombie to the apocalypse: no longer a solitary monster, zombies now appeared in hordes, which heralded the end of the world. David R. Castillo argues that our fascination with apocalyptic fantasies such as worldwide zombie plagues “is fundamentally tied to the widespread conviction that there is no possible alternative to capitalism as a worldwide economic system, paired with the growing realization, or at least the suspicion, that the logical evolution of global capitalism will inexorably lead to our self-destruction” (50). Rather than reading the zombie movie’s apocalyptic setting literally as an imaginary of a post-capitalist future, I suggest it is more fruitfully understood as an allegorical depiction of present-day capitalism accelerating towards this apocalyptic telos. If the zombie represents the perfect 24/7 worker or consumer, the apocalypse is the world we live in today—or something very close to it—ravaged by a ceaseless 24/7 system. I thus read 28 Days Later, one of the defining zombie films of the new millennium, as allegorizing the conditions of life—and sleep—under the globalized neoliberalism of the early 21 st century.

28 Days Later depicts a nationwide epidemic of the zombifying “rage” pathogen, unwittingly unleashed on the British population by animal rights activists freeing primate test subjects from a laboratory. The film follows protagonist Jim (Cillian Murphy), who wakes up from a 28-day coma to find London in apocalyptic ruin, abandoned by all but the infected. Teaming up with chemist Selena (Naomie Harris), taxi driver Frank (Brendan Gleeson), and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns), the group makes their way up to Manchester and eventually the Scottish Highlands, encountering various life-threatening situations along the way.

Significantly, the rage pathogen, by which the monkeys and consequently the majority of the British population become infected and zombified, is shown to stem from the monkeys’ exposure to televised violence. The film’s opening scene consists of a screen cutting between various instances of mass violence—riots, police brutality, a public lynching—accompanied by a distorted voiceover emulating a news broadcaster. The camera pans away to show multiple screens, all showing violent television footage to which a chimpanzee, splayed out and tied down, is being subjected. The connection drawn here between exposure to violent video footage and the production of zombified subjectivities recalls Emmanuel Levinas’ theorization of insomnia. Levinas argues that insomnia is a reaction to the ubiquitous visibility of useless violence and human suffering in the modernized world—this visibility “is a glare that ought to thoroughly disturb any complacency, that ought to preclude the restful unmindfulness of sleep” (Crary 15-16). This origin sequence thus presents us with strong parallels between the figure of the zombie and the insomniac, both created through prolonged and overwhelming exposure to violence and suffering.

Matthew Wolf-Meyer characterizes insomnia as “a model for an incessant form of life—one in which we are always awake, alert, and productive” (17); the insomniac can thus be seen as the paradigmatic 24/7 subject. In 28 Days Later we see that the production of this 24/7 subject rests not only in the content of the videos but in the medium itself: the unrelenting and overwhelming nature of the video footage emulates the lived reality of 24/7 news broadcasts. Crary argues that in its introduction of these new temporalities, the medium of television has played a central role in the transition to 24/7 economies. The mass diffusion of television in the 1950s was “a turning point in the market appropriation of previously unannexed times and spaces” (Crary 63), colonizing hours of the night that were previously dedicated to sleep. Instead of sleeping, viewers were at once consuming and unwittingly being put to work since, despite no physical labour taking place, the television represented “an arrangement in which the management of individuals overlaps with the production of surplus value, since new accumulation was driven by the size of television audiences” (Crary 65). As such, television viewership provided a model for the later production of more totalizing 24/7 subjectivities. By playing with the idea that exposure to television (and televised violence) is in some way “zombifying,” Boyle forges an implicit link between the zombie and the new 24/7 subject being created by television. Furthermore, the monkeys in 28 Days Later are shown not as active viewers but as passive subjects exposed to the violence on screen. Crary cites a study that linked extended television viewing in young children—similarly passive subjects in their viewership—to growth in autism diagnoses. This study allows us to reconceive television and other related visual media as an inescapable form of exposure with ensuing physical effects and consequences. The zombie infection is caused by uninterrupted television viewing, thus preying on these fears of exposure and the inability of the 24/7 subject to “check out” of contemporary media cycles. The zombie is shown to be the inevitable conclusion of the 24/7 television viewer, who instead of sleeping, is constantly consuming and being put to work.

The zombie figure was, as mentioned previously, significantly innovated in 28 Days Later. The so-called “new zombie,” I argue, physically embodies the 24/7 temporalities increasingly imposed upon the subject. Although not the first portrayal of sped-up zombies, the film represented a tipping point in their popularity, with this latest iteration of the monster now dominating most media. Compared to the lumbering zombies seen in Dawn of the Dead, Boyle’s zombies are jerky in movement, constantly twitching, and highly alert. If earlier zombies stood for the mindless, perfect worker—and later, consumer—of the twentieth century, the zombies in 28 Days Later are that same worker or consumer on Adderall. Jordan S. Carroll notes that Boyle “increases the frame ratio of the cameras to make the infected’s movements and [sic] preternaturally quick” (52). This effect mirrors the quick cuts of the television footage seen at the beginning of the film; the zombie’s speed thus functions as an outward marker of the subject’s internalization of 24/7 temporality. In this, the “new zombie” expresses the aesthetic shock of postmodernity, a term I elaborate from Cressida Heyes’ argument that, due to the “speed, diversity, form of delivery, range and potential modulation of … sensory inputs,” experience has become radically intensified in the postmodern age (9). 28 Days Later represents this aesthetic shock in both the cause and symptom of therage virus, both of which are all-pervasive and overpoweringly fast. Following McNally’s argument that the zombie allegorizes the contemporary state of capitalism, the acceleration of the zombie evokes the accelerationist tendencies of capital itself, its incompatibility with stable forms, and its constant revolutionizing of consumption that daily reshapes experience and perception.

This feature of capitalism is thematized by 28 Days Later, not only in its depiction of zombies; indeed, the concept of acceleration is also evoked in the film’s central portrayal of sleep: the protagonist’s 28-day coma. By having its protagonist wake up from a coma to find a post-apocalyptic world, 28 Days Later poses the question of how to survive in a world that is reshaped so rapidly by capitalism that when one wakes up, it is unrecognizable. Jim is shown to be unable to deal with the challenges of the changed world; clueless and defenseless, he is soon attacked by zombies and must be saved by Selena and her companion Mark (Noah Huntley). Jim’s uselessness in the post-apocalypse is a testament to the incompatibility of sleep with staying afloat under 24/7 capitalism. Throughout the famous opening sequence, in which Jim wanders through a deserted London, littered with the detritus of the capitalist world—£20 notes, tourist souvenirs, upturned cars—there is the interminable feeling that Jim (and the audience)—has slept through something huge. Indeed he has, as the discarded newspaper headlines and walls pasted full of posters and messages for missing relatives reveal. By demonstrating the incompatibility of “checking out” with the 24/7 news cycle, this scene uncannily recreates the conditions of contemporary sleep, in which one is bombarded by messages and headlines as soon as one wakes up. Overall, this sequence sets up the film’s central question: how does one survive—and sleep—in a thus ravaged world?

One answer to this question is offered by 28 Days Later through the use of drugs, a topic with which the film is greatly preoccupied. Connecting drug use to the demands of 24/7 capitalism, Heyes notes that the aesthetic shock of modernity coincided with a large increase in the production and use of “[t]echnologies that enhance, control, deaden, or eliminate sensation” (3). Accordingly, in its focus on both soporifics and stimulants, 28 Days Later suggests two parallel coping mechanisms to the demands of the capitalist dystopia. Despite having opposite effects, the film uses both classes of drugs to suggest a zombification of subjectivity. This can be seen in the human survivors’ use of stimulating substances to cope with their daily lives in the apocalypse: in the first part of the film, the protagonists survive on sugar—mainly chocolates and sodas, stolen from vending machines and convenience stores—which is all that remains in the ruins of London. Wolf-Meyer notes the introduction of substances such as sugar and caffeine into the workforce stimulated productivity and allowed workers to continue working uninterrupted throughout the day; as such, the generalization of these substances in society has amounted to a molecular reshaping of bodies and their capacities via the forces of capitalism (18-19). Just as the rage pathogen intervenes in the biology of the zombies, turning them into relentless, hyper-alert, and unsleeping consumers, the stimulating substances ingested by the survivors reshape their bodily capacities to maintain the high-energy levels and alertness to mirror their adversaries. This diet takes its toll, however: when Jim starts crashing from the sugar high and can no longer run, the only solution Selena can offer is to “pump you full of painkillers and give you more sugar” (33:10-23). The false choice she offers between “Pepsi or Lilt” (33:24-30) is particularly suggestive, emphasizing the fact that there is no way out of the vicious cycle of reliance on stimulants to survive in a world in which inaction, rest, or repose has become impossible.

Unlike the zombies, however, the human survivors do need rest and sleep to survive—physical states that are also aided by substances. If the figure of the zombie represents the “incessant form of life” that is the insomniac (Wolf-Meyer 17), the survivors are narcoleptics, requiring drugs to both remain awake and sleep. Wolf-Meyer argues that in a contemporary society in which “we are meant to be alert and attentive when awake and deeply asleep when sleeping” (17), narcolepsy has become the rule. In this sense, while Boyle’s zombies may represent our deepest fears of a 24/7 society and the accompanying “imagined post-human future of sleep” (Wolf-Meyer 24), his survivors represent how we cope with these 24/7 temporalities. In one scene, the protagonists are shown taking sleeping pills to counteract their anxieties about being attacked in the night. In response to being offered drugs by Selena—who, as a chemist, always carries a large bundle of medication—Jim says: “Great, Valium. Not only will we be able to get to sleep, but if we’re attacked in the middle of the night, we won’t even care. Two each!” (57:00-09).

This scene is a testament not only to the narcoleptic conditions in which the characters find themselves, but also speaks to what Heyes sees as the generalization of anesthetics in the contemporary moment. We find ourselves in this present condition, she argues, in response to the aesthetic shock of modernity and the pressures of postdisciplinary time (Heyes 21). Developing Michel Foucault’s concept of disciplinary time, which describes temporality under industrial society characterized by time as a marketable commodity and the sovereignty of the clock, Heyes argues that neoliberalism requires “both that the lessons of disciplinary time be learned and that they be fractured and reapplied to the challenge of simultaneously managing multiple complex tasks” (21). One of the core aspects of postdisciplinary time is that “it reconflates work and life by introducing the potential for work into every moment” (Heyes 22). As I outlined earlier, this is allegorized by the “undead” labour and consumption of the zombie figure itself. Heyes argues that in many cases, the only viable response to these twin pressures is the use of anesthetics—–“that which deprives us of sensibility, renders us incapable of perception” (3)—as a way of surviving “in an economy of temporality that is relentlessly depleting” (22). Aside from the Valium scene, this use of anesthetics is further thematized in the scene in which, faced with the threat of sexual violence at the hands of a group of male soldiers, Selena offers Hannah a drug to deaden her senses. When Hannah asks Selena whether she is attempting to kill her, Selena responds: “No, sweetheart. I’m making you not care, okay?” (01:29:38-53). While this anesthetic serves to shield Hannah from the violence of the apocalypse, at the same time, by putting her in a numbed state, it recreates Hannah as a kind of zombified double of the real zombies attacking them. In the sequence in which the drugged Hannah wanders mindlessly around the gothic mansion where they are being held, impervious to fear, the film deliberately draws parallels between her and the zombies. In her enactment of a zombified subjectivity, she becomes part of the horror landscape of the gothic mansion just as much as the zombies. Overall, both technologies to enhance and deaden the senses are utilized by human survivors to cope with the horrors of the 24/7 capitalist apocalypse. To an extent, these drugs are shown to have a zombifying effect on the individual, both in their stimulating and numbing capacities. However, while the zombie represents the feared and yet unrealized figure of the generalized insomniac as a response to the pressures of 24/7 capitalism, the survivors are analogous to the much more present state of the narcoleptic, for whom drugs become necessary to control both waking and sleeping hours.

While the protagonist s’ use of substances paints a rather pessimistic picture of sleep under late capitalist conditions, 28 Days Later’s portrayal of sleep also gestures toward its utopian possibilities. It is in moments of sleep that many instances of community and care are depicted in the film. These moments run counter to the dominant individualist ethos espoused by the survivors, particularly by Selena, at the beginning of the film. In this, they also run counter to the atomistic nature of 24/7 capitalism, in which “sociality outside of individual self-interest becomes inexorably depleted” (Crary 71). In one of these instances, Jim, Hannah, and Selena are shown sleeping by a campfire while Frank keeps watch. When Jim, in this rare moment of peace, starts having a nightmare, Frank consoles him, to which a slumbering Jim responds: “Thanks, Dad” (58:45-59). This moment of care solidifies the group’s bond and makes Frank’s subsequent death all the more tragic. This scene shows the potential that exists in the inherent vulnerability of sleep—the potential for care in an atomized, individualist world.

This idea is reinforced in 28 Days Later’s portrayal of non-normative sleeping arrangements, highlighting sleep’s potential for fostering community in the ravaged world of the post-apocalypse. Histories of sleep underline that the conventional sleeping arrangements of the 21st century, including the norms of having individual rooms and sleeping either alone or with a partner, are a result of Western modernization driven by capitalism and bourgeois mores rather than an ahistorical or universal rule. Benjamin Reiss writes that “[i]n most times and places, sleep was social, with families, and sometimes even strangers, sharing common sleeping spaces” (12-13). 28 Days Later shows that in the apocalypse, sleep once again becomes a communal activity: when Jim, Selena, and Mark decide to spend the night at Jim’s parent’s house, rather than make their way back to their hideout, Jim suggests that Selena and Mark, the presumed couple, take his bedroom, while he sleeps in the living room. Selena rejects this arrangement, arguing they should, for safety’s sake, all sleep in the same room. The formation of these group sleeping arrangements serves to protect the individual members in the context of the apocalypse, allowing them respite from the constant alertness required of them otherwise. Indeed, it is only when Jim separates himself from the sleeping group that he puts himself—and the others—in jeopardy. The film’s undoing of the bourgeois norms of privatized sleep gestures towards alternatives to the monadic lifestyle of the capitalist apocalypse. Furthermore, since the European privatization of sleep was concurrent with the steady rise of the discourse around insomnia (Reiss 42), the film’s valorization of non-normative sleeping arrangements suggests a potential cure for capitalist modernity’s symptomatic expression in the figure of the sleepless zombie.

The sentiment expressed in these scenes echoes Crary’s articulation of the utopian possibilities of sleep. “It is possible,” Crary writes, that

in many different places, in many disparate states, including reverie or daydream—the imaginings of a future without capitalism begin as dreams of sleep. These would be intimations of sleep as a radical interruption, as a refusal of the unsparing weight of our global present, of sleep which, at the most mundane level of everyday experience, can always rehearse the outlines of what more consequential renewals and beginnings might be. (101)

And, indeed, the protagonists’ salvation comes after a long, healing, and restful sleep. The final scene, in which Jim, Hannah, and Selena end up in a bucolic cottage in the Scottish Highlands,where they are rescued by a patrolling jet, begins with Jim waking from a deep sleep. It is easy to read this final scene as a sort of conservative fantasy, with the key to salvation—and good sleep—lying in a return to the nuclear family in a pastoral setting. Indeed, this ending could be read as a retreat to an imagined past, reflecting what Wolf-Meyer refers to as the “recurrent claims to a balanced, harmonious, agrarian past… when sleep was more natural” (15). This reading undercuts the radical potential of new forms of sleep set up in earlier scenes by situating salvation in the individual’s total escape from the demands of the modern world. This escape, however, is an impossible dream. There is no escaping capitalist modernity; even the drone of the airplane, heralding their salvation, serves as a reminder of the fast-paced, capitalist world they intended to leave behind. The irony in the fact that the drone of the liberating airplane symbolizes the very same world they tried so desperately to escape seems to confirm Slavoj Žižek’s much-repeated aphorism that “it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.”[3]

Overall, while the zombie may allegorize both the workings of contemporary capitalism and our deepest fears of its effects on our subjectivity, it is in the human survivors that the critique of contemporary society is played out most effectively. Danny Boyle’s “new zombie” manages to capture the intensified 24/7 temporalities taking shape at the beginning of the 21 st century, which is perhaps why his iteration of the zombie has remained so resonant to this day. However, it is in his protagonists that we see the real human responses to the conditions of contemporary life on the brink of disaster and extinction. From our inability to check out from the overwhelming nature of contemporary experience to the reshaping of our bodies and minds through various substances, 28 Days Later depicts the multi-faceted nature of the crisis in sleep. While the ending remains unresolved, several moments throughout the film gesture towards the possibility of new beginnings, that of care, community, and salvation expressed in sleep.

Overall, the zombie apocalypse proves to be a fruitful ground for the study of the conditions of contemporary sleep. By correlating the rise of this genre with our present fixation on sleep, it becomes possible to attribute the zombie’s contemporary ubiquity in speculative fiction to its potential to provide us with a means of thinking through the—in some senses, unrepresentable—state of sleep. Despite sleep’s position at the frontier of capitalism’s reshaping of our somatic realities, the fact that the sleeping subject is both inactive and unconscious means that sleep hardly makes for compelling material for fiction. The figure of the zombie can therefore be understood as a solution to the crisis of representation in which we — as subjects of neoliberalism’s bioderegulation—find ourselves. If not directly a self-help guide like The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep is Broken and How to Fix It, the zombie film can guide us imaginatively through the effects of capitalist modernity as imposed on our very bodies.


Endnotes


[1] I use term “bioderegulation” as coined by Teresa Brennan, who argues that economic globalisation and legal deregulation have eroded “the internal constraints protecting the body” (19). Significant effects of these forces include “mak[ing] humans work harder conforming to the new rules of inhuman time” and “restrict[ing] human interaction and personal contact” (Brennan 19).


[2] Although it was in fact Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead that introduced the zombie figure into American popular culture, his later Dawn of the Dead established introduced many of the tropes of zombieism that link it directly to consumerism.


[3] The origins of this quote are unclear. It appears first in this specific form—for which it is best known—in Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, in which he attributes it to both Slavoj Žižek and Fredric Jameson.


Works Cited


Bering-Porter, David. “Undead Labor and the Uncanny Vitality of the Zombie.”

CORÉRISC, 10 March 2022, Lecture.

Brennan, Teresa. Globalization and Its Terrors. Routledge, 2003.

Carroll, Jordan S. “The Aesthetics of Risk in Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later.”

Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, vol. 23, no. 1, 2012, pp. 40-57.

Castillo, David R. “Zombie Masses: Monsters for the Age of Global Capitalism.”

Zombie Talk: Culture, History, Politics, edited by Castillo, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, pp. 39-62.

Crary, Johnathan. 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. Verso, 2014.

Dawn of the Dead. Directed by George A. Romero. Anchor Bay Entertainment, 2004.

Heyes, Cressida J. Anaesthetics of Existence: Essays on Experience at the Edge. Duke

University Press, 2020.

Luckhurst, Roger. Zombies: A Cultural History. Reaktion Books, 2015.

McNally, David. “Ugly Beauty: Monstrous Dreams.” Zombie Theory: A Reader, edited by

Sarah Juliet Lauro, University of Minnesota Press, 2017, pp. 124-136.

Parker-Pope, Tara. “How to Get a Better Night’s Sleep.” The New York Times, 20 Jan.

2022.

Reiss, Benjamin. Wild Nights: How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World. Basic

Books, 2017.

Winter, Chris W. The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep is Broken and How to Fix It.

Berkley, 2017.

Wolf-Meyer, Matthew J. The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine, and Modern American

Life. University of Minnesota Press, 2014.

28 Days Later. Directed by Danny Boyle. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2002.

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