David O’Hara, Malcolm McDowell
It begins ‘like so many epidemics before…’ with cells dividing. ‘It doesn’t hate or even care, it just happens.’
In the future Glasgow of 3 April 2008. ‘The Scotland’ newspaper headlines blare ‘Mystery Virus Kills Hundreds In Days’.
We’ve been here before. SF has inflicted exterminating plagues on humans since its very earliest manifestations. There’s a convincing argument that Mary Shelley invented the genre with her ‘Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus’ (1818), she followed it with ‘The Last Man’ (1826) in which, first late-twenty-first century Europe, then the world is ravaged to near-extinction by a mysterious plague. Movies have dealt with contagions and epidemics more frequently than you’d imagine. ‘World War Z’ (2013) uses the zombie metaphor in which Jerusalem is quarantined within its walls, and yet is overrun. Just as the jaded aristocrats of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe-derived ‘The Masque Of The Red Death’ (1964) cavort within the illusory safety of their stronghold amid a plague-stricken countryside. Then the mid-credits graphic sequence in ‘The Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes’ (2011) shows how the ‘Simian Flu’ pandemic travels and branches around the globe in a matter of hours. On an increasingly integrated planet with mass migrations happening on a daily basis this is less a probability simulation as it is a real-life projection.
This is more real than you’d think. In living memory society has withstood the assault of HIV (Aids), Ebola, the SARS virus, Influenza A H1N1-2009, as well as the Corona virus Covid-19. In some ways, terrible as they have been, governments have managed them through persuasion, consensus and information rather than imposed repressions. There have been voluntary, rather that totalitarian Lockdowns, despite whatever the Conspiracy Theorists might claim. Although critically mauled as derivative and commercially underperforming at the box-office, ‘Doomsday’ effectively captures the madness and skin-crawling desperation of Britain collapsing into chaotic disorder as the horrifically grim ‘Reaper virus’ rips unchecked through the populace.
The writer-director Neil Marshall had already made his big-screen directorial debut in a spectacular fashion with ‘Dog Soldiers’ (2002), a highly visceral nerve-scraping group-jeopardy movie in which a squad of soldiers led by Sergeant Harry G Wells (HG Wells!, played by Sean Pertwee) are under constant attack in the Scottish Highlands from a werewolf pack. Pertwee, with Emma Cleasby, Chris Robson, Craig Conway and Darren Morfitt will all transition into the ‘Doomsday’ cast. Another unorthodox horror venture – ‘The Descent’ (2005) takes a group of six women into a cave system where they struggle to survive against troglodyte flesh-eating Crawlers. Craig Conway and MyAnna Buring (who is Sam) will be carried over into the next project, which is ‘Doomsday’.
The England-Scotland border is closed soon after the outbreak begins, 9:17pm 20 June. The national separation the SNP agitate for is achieved overnight, although hardly in a way Nicola Sturgeon would have wanted. The 1707 Act of Union is severed, with Scotland placed under quarantine. Trump’s Shining Wall is erected along the contours defined by Roman Emperor Hadrian two thousand years earlier, but this is a thirty-foot high armour-plated monolithic structure with lethal automated defences, stretching from sea to shining sea. During the film’s opening sequence, fleeing victims are machine-gunned, a soldier is mob-attacked in a retaliatory riot. A mother (Emma Cleasby) shields her wounded daughter (Christine Tomlinson) behind their abandoned car, then forces the child onto a military helicopter as it lifts off towards England, as the gates close – on someone’s hand!, and primal savagery consumes north of the wall.
The second sequence leaps forward to London, 2035, which is NOW!
The girl has become Eden Sinclair of the Department of Domestic Security, who uses the pop-out electronic-eye implant that is the legacy of her escape from Scotland, in a bloody shoot-out to bust a people-trafficking gang. But she also has the buff envelope her mother gave her, bearing her distant home address. She’s convincingly played by Rhona Mitra with all the female-centric resourcefulness shown by the cast of ‘The Descent’. Rhona had already played support parts in movies such as ‘Hollow Man’ (2000), a spin on ‘The Invisible Man’ theme in which she’s raped by an invisible Kevin Bacon. And she’s Rachel Talbot in ‘Skinwalkers’ (2006), a widowed mother in the midst of a werewolf community. She easily and confidently assumes the action role of the team-leader with an electric eye, all of which naturally leads to her role in ‘Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans’ (2009) as vampiric Sonja. Eden’s movie mentor is Bill Nelson (Bob Hoskins very much playing Bob Hoskins), who is summoned to a National Emergency briefing with a ‘bloody hell, George, what’s got your knickers in a twist?’
An isolated pariah state, England teeters on the brink of economic and social collapse, and when diseased derelicts are discovered in the Whitechapel ‘Urban Containment Facility’, vacillating Prime Minister John Hatcher (Alexander Siddig, ‘Dr Julian Bashir’ of ‘Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’) is forced to consider the contingency plan of diverting a Climate Change canal-system to flood inner London. The conniving manipulating Michael Canaris (David O’Hara) prompts him, ‘we are at war, Prime Minister.’ It’s similar terrain to Danny Boyle’s ‘28 Days Later’ (2002) in which the ‘Rage’ virus is unleashed when an infected chimpanzee is liberated from a Cambridge laboratory by Animal Rights activists. But even more resembling its sequel – ‘28 Weeks Later’ (2007) in which NATO forces set up an Isle of Dogs ‘Safe Zone’ with a defensive exclusion perimeter guarded by lethal force. But it’s not difficult to draw parallels with the found-footage movie ‘Quarantine’ (2008), with mutated rabies – and its sequels, or ‘Contagion’ (2011) with its ‘Mev-1’ virus. All play on the jittery flesh-horror fear of infection.
Hatcher is offered a lifeline when satellite pictures show people on the streets of Glasgow. If there are survivors, there must be a degree of immunity, and a possible cure? The Bob Hoskins character tasks Eden with heading a secret mission into Scotland, to seek out researcher Dr Marcus Kane (Malcolm McDowell), who was working to devise a cure before the north-south divide quarantine was imposed. ‘If it’s there, I’ll find it’ she says. She’s helicoptered to the security wall where two armoured cars are ready equipped for the trip, she’s told that ‘they move like shit off a shovel!’ The gates are unsealed, then soldered shut again once they’ve passed through into the desolation of wrecked cars beyond, with skeletal passengers. Glasgow is darkly overgrown, and St Andrew’s Hospital is littered with skulls.
They emerge from the car wearing biohazard suits, and she uses her detachable eye to look inside, hunting ‘evidence of Kane’s work.’ Meanwhile an ailing girl is given sanctuary in the second armoured car, but as the car is attacked by a hail of Molotov cocktails the girl ‘recovers’ and slits the driver’s throat. And Eden’s team come under sustained attack from hordes of Scots barbarians – a cross between Punk Braveheart and Mad Max, answering with bursts of machinegun fire as they retreat. Escaping in the second car the girl driver is hit in the throat by a crossbow bolt and the car overturns. Under relentless attack Eden escapes on foot, but is surrounded.
She’s tortured in a cell, suspended from the ceiling while brutally pummelled by the Punk-Mohican’d Sol (Craig Conway) and tormented by the tattooed Viper (Lee-Anne Liebenberg). A gimp is chained in the corner. A hideous array of torture devices are wheeled into the cell. He bites her face. ‘If Kane is alive, I need to find him’ she tells him by way of explanation. He has other plans, ‘you are our passport to the Promised Land’ he gloats, seeing her as an escape route into forbidden England. Dr Talbot (Sean Pertwee), the team’s medical scientist, has also been captured. Only Sergeant Norton (Adrian Lester) and Dr Stirling (Darren Morfitt) are still at liberty.
The movie centrepiece is the grotesque cannibalistic orgy, off-the-scale ultraviolence, a flame-thrower Rock show Disco spectacular, a pole-dancing motorcycle Hieronymus Bosch vision of hell. ‘The wind of change is blowing a hurricane’ Sol yells through the amp-system to a soundtrack of Adam & The Ants (“Dog Eat Dog”), Fine Young Cannibals (sic), and a grotesque tartan can-can Bad Manners. ‘This is OUR city’ he rabble-rouses as the unfortunate Dr Talbot is suspended over a vat labelled ‘RARE, MED, KRISPY’ and lowered into the sea of flames that Viper ignites as dishes are thrown out to the mob and Sol crown-surfs. Viper beheads Talbot’s crisped corpse and carves it into edible portions.
While Eden contrives to escape, pausing at the next cell where a woman pleads that she is Kane’s daughter, ‘I can help you find him.’ Sol, it turns out, is also Kane’s insurgent son. Viper blocks their way out, Eden fights with a calculated desperation, and beheads her. Together the two fugitives head through the streets towards the rail-station, while Sol leads a Mad Max techno-savagery pursuit, riding motorcycles with skeletons strapped to the front, and a coach graffitied ‘Out Of Fucking Service’. Norton and Stirling have a steam-locomotive readied on Platform Four where it says ‘Welcome To Glasgow.
The next sequence takes the fugitive group out across wild Scottish countryside, leaving the train and walking strung-out beneath broken powerlines. They reach, and pass through the ‘Ben Crannich Archive’, which is a subterranean Fall-Out shelter stronghold, and out the other side into an idyllic glen, only to be confronted by the bizarre visitation of a medieval knight on horseback. This is Kane’s executioner. Eden demands ‘we want to see Kane,’ and allows the party to be rounded up and taken cross-country roped behind horses, past a row of impaled corpses to an ancient castle – once a tourist attraction complete with ‘Gift Shop’, now the seat of Kane’s own private fiefdom, ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ Kane is the brooding Malcolm McDowell at his most malignant, the beautifully insolent ‘Michael Travis’ of ‘If’ (1968), and the evil Droog antihero of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (1971). When he returned as the more adult ‘Tolian Soran’ in ‘Star Trek Generations’ (1994) he carries over the same charismatic malevolence that he invests in the Kane character. He tells them ‘there is no cure. There never was.’ That the survivors prevailed not through science, but by natural selection. ‘In the land of the infected, the immune is king.’ And he has no sympathy for what is happening south of the wall, ‘they started this fire. They can burn in it!’
‘Same shit. Different era’ Eden tells Kane defiantly, as they are imprisoned.
A flashback to London shows the worsening ‘Hot Zone’ crisis, as barbarism breaks out live from Dean Street, and Tower Bridge is barricaded. When an infected victim breaks into the Prime Minister’s compound, Hoskins shoots him, but Siddig’s PM John Hatcher, spattered by tainted blood, retires to his office and shoots himself in the head before the symptoms have time to erupt.
Meanwhile, Eden is released into an arena combat zone against the knight. As, drowned by the sound of cheering jeering crowds, the others escape. After prolonged uneven combat she seizes an axe from a guard and kills the knight by bloodily stoving his head in. They reach the horses and make good their escape as a disconsolate Shakespearian McDowell watches from the battlements. Heading back through the archive Eden finds a radio to alert London, and they also – testing the limits of credulity, locate a fully-functional Bentley Continental GT sealed into a packing case. But Norton (Adrian Lester) is peppered with arrows by Kane’s vengeful pursuers as he fights a rear-guard action.
In London, Hoskins picks up her mobile call. ‘Trace the source’ says Michael Canaris, assuming the powers of the conveniently deceased Prime Minister.
Again, there are Mad Max overtones as the Bentley is pursued by the full Glasgow wrecking crew in a Police Car labelled ‘Bastard’ and Venom’s severed head impaled beside Sol, all choreographed to Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Two Tribes (Carnage Mix)”. There are hair-raising chase sequences, and ferocious eye-gauging combat as Sol leaps into the high-speed fleeing car. The gimp crashes and burns. Sol is killed as they smash through the coach… and the rescue helicopter touches down to retrieve them.
There is no cure to the ‘Reaper virus’, but Michael Canaris indicates Cally, Kane’s fugitive daughter, and says ‘we can use her blood to make a vaccine,’ with all manner of implications of unpleasant medical procedures. Eden opts to stay in Scotland, and accelerates the Bentley back to use the address on the buff envelope to locate her family home, and photos of her mother.
Hoskins is there too, ‘I used to be a policeman, once.’ She gives him a disc of evidence to incriminate Canaris, recorded from her pop-out electronic-eye implant during their meeting. Later, the disc is shown being screened on TV, presumably destroying his fascistic leadership.
‘Drive careful. Be lucky’ Hoskins tells Eden as he leaves her in Glasgow.
The movie closes as she confronts the mob, and provocatively tosses Sol’s head at them. ‘If you’re hungry, try a piece of your friend.’ In the combative struggle, this is her gambit as their next leader
Yes, it’s a flawed and derivative movie, but its’ insane ride does exert a grotesque fascination that captures something of the madness and skin-crawling panic of civilisation collapsing into chaotic disorder as lethal virus rips unchecked through the populace. And yes, we wore our Covid-masks and observed social distancing, and yes, people died and we feel their loss, but it could be said that – as a global society, we’ve been fortunate… so far!
‘DOOMSDAY’ (2008), Universal Pictures through Rogue Pictures, Crystal Sky Pictures, Intrepid Pictures, Scion Films. Produced by Benedict Carver & Steven Paul. Directed and written by Neil Marshall. With Rhona Mitra (as Eden Sinclair), Bob Hoskins (as Bill Nelson), David O’Hara (as Michael Canaris), Malcolm McDowell (as Marcus Kane), Alexander Siddig (as PM John Hatcher), Adrian Lester (as Sergeant Norton), Craig Conway (as Sol), Lee-Anne Liebenberg (as Viper), Chris Robson (as Miller, part of Eden’s team), Leslie Simpson (as ‘Les Simpson’, Carpenter, part of Eden’s team), Sean Pertwee (Dr Talbot, the team’s medical scientist), Darren Morfitt (as Dr Stirling, the team’s medical scientist), MyAnna Buring (as Cally, Kane’s daughter), Emma Cleasby (Eden’s mother in the opening sequence), Christine Tomlinson (young Eden in the opening sequence).
Universal DVD 825-403-2-11, with bonus features ‘Anatomy Of Catastrophe: Civilization On The Brink’ (127:24), ‘The Visual Effects & Wizardry Of Doomsday’ (8:26), ‘Devices Of Death: Guns, Gargets & Vehicle’s Of Destruction’ (20:24), Feature commentaries with Neil Marshall, Sean Pertwee, Darren Morfitt, Rick Warden (who plays Chandler), and Les Simpson.