The Choice Of An Ending: DVD And The Future(s) Of Post-Apocalyptic Narrative – Carol O’Sullivan

DVD is changing the way films are made, watched and studied. One of the most conspicuous features of DVD releases, and one that has so far been surprisingly neglected by critics, is the alternate ending. This is an increasingly popular bonus feature on DVDs. Such endings vary from slight re-edits to radical reversals. Their apparent straightforwardness, however, masks a fundamentally destabilising function. The following analysis of the complex variant endings presented on the DVD edition of 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002) reads them as reflective of the narrative tensions surrounding the ‘ending’ both in science fiction and in film. It will be argued that 28 Days Later not only exemplifies the format’s suitability for the representation and (ir)resolution of apocalyptic anxieties, but also points the way to DVD’s own exhilarating possible futures.

Recent studies of the DVD format are in agreement that it constitutes ‘not simply another means of disseminating films, but […] rather a new kind of artifact’ (Brookey & Westerfelhaus 2002: 124), a ‘new edition’ (Parker & Parker 2004: 14), a ‘new text’ (Hight 2005: 5). Filmmakers are increasingly likely to be conscious of the format’s expressive potential (and commercial importance) at all stages of a film’s production (Stanley 2002; Johnson 2005: 38-39). Brookey and Westerfelhaus (2002) have shown how DVD bonus features can function paratextually as framing devices which direct and restrict viewers’ consumption of movies. It is argued here that the alternate ending feature also has an important role to play: a recent discussion in the journal SubStance concerning film’s capacity to deal with parallel and multiple ‘what if’ scenarios will be useful in making explicit the capacity of alternate endings for meaning making at a deep level.

To highlight the growth of the alternate ending as a standard feature for movies on DVD is not in any way to say that altered endings are unique to DVD, or for that matter unique to films. From Dickens’s Great Expectations to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, altered endings are an intrinsic feature of narrative development. The ending of Great Expectations is particularly contested. The first ending in which Dickens allows no future to Pip and Estella’s relationship was famously replaced by a more ambiguous one. Subsequent editors disagreed vociferously about which the canonical ending should be, and a number of variants were proposed (see Meckier 2000 for an overview of the debate). In the case of Ibsen’s play, which ends with Nora’s desertion of her husband and children, Ibsen was persuaded to write some extra lines for a German production of the play in which Nora changes her mind. Although this ending was perpetuated in some early productions, and is sometimes supplied in critical editions (e.g. Ibsen 1998: 88), it is no longer performed. An example even more germane to our discussion, because drawn from film, is Marshall Neilan’s 1924 silent version of Tess of the d’Urbervilles for MGM. Two endings were shot for this film, one following Hardy’s novel in which Tess is executed, and a second in which she is reprieved at the last moment by the Home Secretary. It was apparently intended that distributors choose which ending they wished to show (Widdowson 2006: 53), though later re-releases contained only the bleaker ending.

The textual complexity of the issues surrounding endings is nothing new. What links all the above examples is that the physical and cultural conventions of performance, exhibition and publication generally made available only one of these at a time to viewers and readers. Now the interactive capacities of DVD have brought the instability of endings, and the tensions underlying editorial and directorial decisions, into public (or rather private) view. Every new DVD release which includes an alternate ending re-illustrates Edward Branigan’s observation that ‘within any film narrative lie alternative plots and failed stories whose suppressed realization is the condition for what is seen […] in the explicit text’ (2002: 110). 

How may we figure this relationship between the ‘explicit’ and the ‘alternative’? Because the format is developing so rapidly, the paratextual status of DVD special features is still fluid. Georg Stanitzek has argued for the classification of filmic paratexts in Genettian terms,[1] distinguishing between peritexts, including titles, subtitles and title sequences, and epitexts, including film posters, trailers and stills (2005: 36), but neither of these categories seems entirely appropriate for DVD bonus features, which, as Brookey and Westerfelhaus rightly observe, ‘[blur] the distinction between primary and secondary texts’ (2002: 22). Instead, they suggest the term ‘extra text’, which is ‘outside of, and in addition to, the cinematic text as traditionally defined by film criticism – i.e., the parameters of the theatrical release’ (Brookey & Westerfelhaus 2002: 23). Although this definition of the cinematic text is looking fragile, as the boundary between test screening and theatrical release becomes increasingly permeable and the proliferation of Directors’ Cuts and DVD Special Editions casts doubt on the definitive status of the theatrical release (cf. Johnson 2005: 43), the term ‘extra text’ may still be helpful. The high degree of hierarchisation on DVDs allows us to distinguish between a ‘canonical’ version of the film (which may or may not be identical to the theatrical release), accessed via the ‘Play Movie’ option, and other features which we will consider, at least for the moment, extra textual.

Within the range of extra texts commonly presented on DVD, alternate endings and some deleted scenes seem to have a privileged status when compared to the many bonus features (making-of documentaries, interviews, teasers, trailers, music videos, production stills et cetera) whose primary function stems from ‘the film industry’s efforts to develop DVD as an EPK [Electronic Press Kit] platform’ (Hight 2005: 14). Alternate endings alter the film on a molecular level, activating the ‘failed stories’ lying behind the apparently monolithic film artefact.

Many such stories are visible in the extra text of 28 Days Later. Boyle’s film, written by Alex Garland, tells the story of a London bicycle courier, Jim, who wakes from a coma twenty-eight days after a botched raid on a laboratory by a group of animal-rights activists to find the world apparently deserted. He discovers that the vast majority of the British population has been infected with a deadly virus which causes them to suffer permanent and uncontrollable rage. Jim joins up with three other survivors, Selena, Frank and his daughter Hannah, in a quest for safety. They reach the seeming security of an army base near Manchester, where Frank becomes infected and dies. Jim, Selena and Hannah take refuge with the surviving soldiers only to find that they are violent and unstable. Jim escapes an attempt on his life and returns to rescue Selena and Hannah from assault and rape. 

The turning point for the film’s principal endings occurs as Selena, Hannah and a badly wounded Jim are escaping from their captors at the mansion. Their London taxicab, driven by Hannah, collides violently with a locked gate and Jim and Selena are catapulted towards the camera into an abrupt freeze-frame. From here the narrative follows two potential paths. In the canonical ending, the one included in the body of the film in cinemas, in the published script and on DVD, Selena and Hannah take Jim to a hospital where Selena’s training as a chemist saves his life. Twenty-eight days later, a convalescent Jim wakes up in a cottage in the Lake District to find Selena making sheets and curtains into a large ‘Hello’ sign. The film ends with the sighting of the sign by a reconnaissance plane, to the relief and delight of the three survivors.

This canonical ending is by far the most optimistic of the film’s several endings. By contrast, in what Boyle and Garland refer to on the commentary track as the ‘proper’ ending,[2] Jim dies in hospital despite Selena’s efforts to save him. The hospital footage is intercut with a dream sequence in which Jim relives the accident which put him into the hospital the first time. The sequence plays on the viewer’s expectations of the kind of shock ‘reanimation’ which is a stock device in the horror genre, only to disappoint them. As Alex Garland puts it in the commentary to this scene, ‘Every time we showed that to someone, they were expecting him to cough and splutter and come back to life, so it really did work, as an ending’. The commentary makes explicit through the dream sequence that it is Jim’s memories of the violence and aggression of society before the outbreak which cause him to ‘let go’. This ending was found by test audiences to be too bleak; not only does the hero not survive, but the departure of the two women from the hospital, picking up their guns as they leave, was interpreted by test audiences as foreshadowing their death rather than their survival.

Two further endings are provided under ‘Alternate Endings’ in the Special Features menu. In the first of these, an apparent addition to the scenario in which Jim dies, only Selena and Hannah have reached the cottage. There they make a sign and attract the attention of the plane as in the canonical ending. A radically different ending, which was never shot but was scripted and discussed extensively in post-production, is storyboarded for the DVD release with a commentary by Boyle and Garland. This ending diverges from the film’s plot at the Manchester checkpoint, where the soldiers never appear. Frank still becomes infected, but Jim refuses to kill him. Instead, Frank is overpowered and immobilised while the protagonists take shelter in a hospital where they hope to find ‘the answer to infection’. This answer is provided by a lone survivor locked in a room in the hospital, and turns out to consist of a full blood transfusion. At the end of the narrative Frank is cured at the cost of Jim’s life, and Jim is left at the hospital bound and infected, surrounded by television monitors showing scenes of violence.

Any attempt to account for the existence of these diverse endings within the DVD (extra)text must begin with film’s established mechanisms for depicting variant endings and parallel plots within the body of the film.[3] In his 2002 essay ‘Film Futures’, David Bordwell offers a comprehensive account of the narrative mechanisms of what he calls ‘forking-path’ plots. Basing his analysis on four examples, Blind Chance (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1981) Too Many Ways to Be No. 1 (Ka-Fai Wai, 1997), Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer, 1998) and Sliding Doors (Peter Howitt, 1998), Bordwell argues that forking-path narratives are essentially conservative. They adhere to key conventions including linearity of plot, signposting, parallelism and cohesion devices such as appointments and deadlines (2002: 92-102). Bordwell argues that while a prose fiction such as Borges’s ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ may envision infinite parallel and intersecting narrative possibilities, films tend to limit the proliferation of such paths in the interests of audience comprehension. Working as they are in a time-based medium, filmmakers must ‘work particularly hard to shape the spectator’s attention, memory and inference-making at each instant’ and thus ‘balance potentially confusing innovations like the multiple-draft structure with heightened appeal to those forms and formulas that viewers know well’ (103).

In his response to Bordwell in the same issue of SubStance, Edward Branigan makes several key adjustments to Bordwell’s ideas. He suggests differentiating between conservative, generic ‘forking-path’ narratives such as those discussed by Bordwell, and ‘multiple-draft’ narratives, which may include very different combinations of subplots and multiple plot lines; here he explicitly references DVD extra text (Branigan 2002: 108). His suggestion that ‘what is “nearly true” is an important kind of “fork” in a plot and has an impact on a film’s future, that is, how a film acquires value after being seen’ (105) could be read as modelling the rationale behind the existence of alternate endings on DVD, and indeed explaining the appeal of this feature. Branigan argues that the ‘nearly true’ is characteristic of films in general, rather than a particular subset: ‘all films […] have ghosts’ (Branigan 2002: 111). Alternate narratives are thus seen as intrinsic to film, which seems more than plausible in the light of the scripting and even shooting of different narrative possibilities which routinely takes place at various stages of film production.

If parallel narratives can be seen as intrinsic to film it might seem surprising that explicit parallel narratives are found in such a relatively small set of films. An explanation can be found in the presupposed experience of film as ‘moving inexorably forward’ (Bordwell 2002: 103), with no possibility of stopping to rewind. When a film is to be viewed once, the filmmakers are naturally obliged to ‘reflect what is perceptually and cognitively manageable for their audiences’ (Bordwell 2002: 91) at a single sitting.

This would seem to be the point at which the usefulness of DVD becomes self-evident. Being a format which is designed for repeated viewing (Hight 2005: 10), and which offers the possibility of rewinding and re-viewing at any point, it may be able to cope with greater narrative complexity than cinema-screened film. But this too is only part of the truth. At the moment DVD is not exploiting this particular capacity, as DVD releases follow and, generally speaking, duplicate cinema releases. To engage with genuinely multiplying narrative possibilities, we must look to digital narratives such as computer games and hypertexts. DVD, though an interactive medium, is so only to a limited extent, and pathways are tightly controlled (Hight 2005: 10-11). The ‘play movie’ option will bring up a canonical edit of a film which will play from beginning to end, returning finally to the main menu. No options will be offered to the viewer during this viewing, though the viewer is free to pause, rewind, or bring up the menu at any time; a far cry from the forking paths of digital narrative.

So where does the importance of the DVD format for narrative lie, if DVD tends to simulate the cinema experience rather than engaging with the forking paths of genuine interactivity? I would argue that the significance of DVD lies precisely in its limited interactivity. Marie-Laure Ryan has discussed in detail the relationship between interactivity and immersivity, and shows how in the case of hypertext these two features of narrative might be considered as antithetical (Ryan 2001: 263).[4] The advent of DVD makes interactive cinema possible, as Ryan observed some time ago (2001: 271-272), but DVD has yet to take up the challenge on any kind of large scale, suggesting that interactive cinema as an immersive experience is less attractive than the current provisions on DVD, which offer a viewing experience analogous to cinema with, crucially, optional extras. Not only does the viewer have choice, but the viewer has a choice in whether or not to have a choice. In this I tend to disagree with Craig Hight’s suggestion that ‘we are not so much viewers of a digital text as users’ (Hight 2005: 9; his italics). The minimal degree of interactivity required to choose the ‘play movie’ option on a DVD allows for an audience of both viewers and users, with the freedom to shift between those two modes.

28daysThe DVD release of 28 Days Later, like most commercial DVDs, targets both viewers and users. The main feature plays conventionally with no interruptions or distractions. The extra text, on the other hand (crucially including the physical packaging of the DVD)[5] invites viewers to look further into the film’s genesis via a feature commentary by the director and writer, deleted scenes (with optional commentary), alternate endings (also with commentary), and a making-of documentary. It is repeatedly made clear in the commentaries that the canonical ending of the film was not a foregone conclusion and that several endings were considered at different times. Different narrative paths are also invoked within the body of the plot. The substantial dialogue given to the minor character Mark, who appears early in the film, is designed to suggest to the audience that he and Selena might be the primary couple of the film. This might-have-been scenario will make his infection and violent death at Selena’s hands shortly afterwards all the more shocking. The feature commentary also discusses the shift from the original story of worldwide pandemic to the ‘quarantine’ storyline of the finished film, prompted by the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the UK during production. This foregrounding of alternate narrative pathways has the effect of conferring a decidedly provisional status on the ‘final’ film.

In offering a variety of endings, the DVD is not only catering to the increasing expectations of DVD purchasers but also expressing uncertainties inherent to the film’s genre. Endings are crucial to the science fiction subgenre in which the film situates itself (and which, for the purposes of this article, is considered to include the genre of apocalyptic horror). It is worth taking a moment to outline these generic links. The film flaunts its post-apocalyptic antecedents in both print and cinema through a dense network of intertextual reference: in the words of its writer Alex Garland it ‘references and is influenced by other stories to such an extent that the word ‘original’ feels slightly dishonest’ (2002: vii). George Romero’s zombie trilogy constitutes an obvious intertext. Garland explicitly cites two specific ‘nods’ to Romero’s trilogy, one in the form of the scene of conspicuous consumption in the supermarket, echoing the mall setting of Dawn of the Dead (1978), and the other in the character of the Infected Mailer, who recalls the chained-up Bub of Day of the Dead (1985). Another key intertext is The Omega Man (Boris Sagal, 1971). Inasmuch as it shares many of the characteristics of the zombie film 28 Days Later partakes of the ‘radical futurelessness’ which Jane Caputi considers to be an intrinsic feature of the zombie genre (1991: 59-62).[6] As Major West, played by Christopher Eccleston, says of the captured Infected soldier Mailer, ‘he’ll never bake bread, plant crops, raise livestock. He’s telling me he’s futureless’.

In many ways, as Alexandra Semmler observes (1998: 161, 169) the viral threat has replaced the nuclear threat in literature and film as a source of anxiety.[7] In doing this it has inherited many elements of post-nuclear iconography. Thus 28 Days Later uses iconic devices associated with the post-nuclear film genre including the deserted city and the discovery by Jim of newspapers and posters from the final days of panic which enable the viewer to put together a picture of past events (see Broderick 1993: 369). The shots of the deserted city with paper blowing through the streets strongly recall the closing shots of the deserted streets of Melbourne in Stanley Kramer’s 1959 film On the Beach. The film also has its roots firmly in print science fiction, notably in the work of John Wyndham.

28 Days Later shifts constantly between irony and homage in its treatment of genre conventions. The traditional role of the military as a source of safety and protection, as seen in some earlier disaster narratives such as Nevil Shute’s 1939 novel What Happened to the Corbetts or the film Panic in Year Zero! (Ray Milland, 1962) soon gave way to more ambiguous portrayals; Night of the Living Dead memorably ends with the shooting of the only survivor by the police.Predictably, in 28 Days Later the safety promised by the army broadcast is illusory. The soldiers in Manchester turn out to be dangerously unstable and the small family group is forced to orchestrate an escape. However, the end of the film restores the army’s function as deus ex machina (cf. Pat Frank’s 1959 novel Alas, Babylon); when the survivors greet the advent of a foreign reconnaissance plane with delight. Jim’s transformation from mild-mannered bicycle courier to blood-stained ruthless commando, visually reinforced by the use of the same frame setting as that used for the shots of the Infected,[8] also echoes that of previous heroes of apocalypse dramas including Harry Baldwin in Panic in Year Zero! and John Custance in John Christopher’s 1956 novel No Blade of Grass. Yet unlike Baldwin and Custance, twenty-eight days later Jim seems back to his normal, gentle self, the metamorphosis having apparently failed to ‘take’. The film plays with but ultimately rejects the survivalist strand of post-apocalyptic narrative.

As Bordwell observes (2002: 101), forking-path narratives can develop in generically distinct ways. As a splatter horror movie, 28 Days Later might be expected to end with a Final Girl scenario involving Selena or Hannah. A zombie movie would be expected to end with the small group of survivors being overrun.[9] In fact, the film ends as a ‘cosy catastrophe’, to use Brian Aldiss’s term for the middle-class disaster narrative exemplified by the novels of John Wyndham and John Christopher (Aldiss 1986: 252-255). Like Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951), and The Kraken Wakes (1953) or Christopher’s A Wrinkle in the Skin (1965), 28 Days Later ends with the formation of a stable, middle-class family group and the certain survival of humanity. The ending not only provides a resolution to the narrative but helps to ‘place’ the film within the genre.

Endings, however, have long been a contested site in post-apocalyptic narratives, particularly those which have sought to use radical futurelessness as a tool for social activism. By portraying extinction scenarios or, more commonly, representing these symbolically through the destruction of the family unit, writers and filmmakers have attempted to draw readers’ attention to technological threats. The particular resonance of endings in speculative fiction has led to widespread pressure on writers to alter endings.

In Judith Merril’s novel Shadow on the Hearth (1950), Gladys Mitchell and her two daughters wait at home in Westchester for her husband to return from a atom-bombed New York. The father’s safe return from the city was added at the insistence of Merril’s editors at Doubleday (Seed 2000: n.8). The original, more low-key ending, in which the father almost reaches home before being shot by a Civil Defence worker, was not restored until the 1966 paperback edition. A similar story lies behind Carol Amen’s short story ‘The Last Testament’, filmed as Testament in 1983 by Lynne Littman. The much-praised ending of the short story and the film, in which the narrator decides, but subsequently refuses, to carry out a group suicide attempt in the face of certain death by radiation poisoning, is again not the story’s original ending. The narrator’s change of heart was the result of pressure from Amen’s editors at the Catholic periodical the St. Anthony Messenger (Brians 1991: 157).   

For other major works in this sub-genre, it is the changing times, and with them, the feeling of ‘remission’ from apocalyptic anxiety, to use Kermode’s term (2000: 183), which dictate changes of ending. Robert Swindell’s novel Brother in the Land (1984), one of the ‘most pessimistic of youth-oriented nuclear war novels’ (Brians, quoted in Tebbutt 1997: 40), was republished in 2000 with a new final chapter in which Swindells reverses the ending.[10] The original novel, written in diary form, ended with the death of the narrator’s young brother Ben and the loss of hope on the part of the narrator. The new ending takes the narrator and his girlfriend to an agricultural commune on Holy Island where Kim subsequently gives birth to a baby named for Ben. The ‘land’ of the title undergoes a renewal from gelid grave-site to fertile farmland.
Finally, the recent mini-series On the Beach (2000), directed by Russell Mulcahy and based on Nevil Shute’s novel and on John Paxton’s 1959 film script, also resists the bleakness of Shute’s original ending, which features a series of group and individual suicides pre-empting imminent death by radiation sickness. In the novel and Kramer’s 1959 film, the hero and heroine, US submarine captain Dwight Towers and Australian farmer’s daughter Moira Davidson, are separated when he decides to leave Melbourne with the remainder of his crew to scuttle his submarine. In Mulcahy’s three-part TV miniseries, the hero and heroine are instead reunited for a romantic picnic at the end of the film in a dramatic reversal of the values of both book and film.

28 Days Later is subject to similar pressures. Boyle and Garland’s awareness of the existing narrative tradition surfaces at several points, including Selena’s address to right of camera in the first of the two alternate endings described above: ‘We’re gonna have to fertilise you…We need offspring. Or in the long term, this isn’t gonna work…’ (Selena’s line turns out to be spoken to a chicken). I have outlined above how the film combines different generic conventions which fluctuate through the film and through the alternate endings. The balance between social commentary and entertainment can be similarly seen to fluctuate through the extra text of the film. The making-of documentary heavily emphasises the plausibility of the movie’s basic premise, citing recent outbreaks of Ebola and West Nile virus as well as the appearance of HIV. Although this is a standard EPK device whose purpose is ultimately to enhance the film’s immediacy, and hence entertainment value, for viewers, we can also see traces of a wider social awareness at many points. The film shares the reservations of the post-viral subgenre about the ethics of biological and viral experimentation[11] and superimposes on this background a broad commentary about violence in society, reinforced by visual referencing of well-known images from broadcast news. This commentary is strongest in the footage of Jim’s dream about his accident, intercut with the scene in which Selena fails to save his life, and in the radical storyboarded ending in which Jim is left bound and struggling in rage under a bank of monitors portraying scenes of violence. The decision on the part of the filmmakers to abandon the original worldwide pandemic plot in favour of the notion of an international ‘quarantine’ imposed on Britain is linked on the commentary track by Boyle and Garland to the foot-and-mouth epidemic which Britain was experiencing at the time of filming and which contributed to Britain’s international image as a diseased island. In its treatment of contemporary apocalyptic concerns, the film aligns itself with a strong tradition of British science fiction whose collective purpose is ‘to examine, admonish and censure these fears by keeping these scenarios at the forefront of our collective unconscious’ (Griffiths 2002: 44). On the other hand, the film also implicitly criticises certain forms of activism in a way which earlier narratives do not. Particularly in the first scene of the release of the chimpanzees from the research facility, activism is portrayed as embarrassing at best, disastrous at worst. Like much catastrophe narrative, 28 Days Later straddles the boundary, more or less uncomfortably, between exploitative entertainment and political awareness.

These and other concerns are acted out in the film’s endings. Like the post-apocalyptic narratives described above, the filmmakers are under pressure to provide a happy ending. Indeed audiences deserve a happy ending, as Boyle reasons on the commentary track over the film’s closing credits:

I think we all felt when we watched the film with an audience with our bleak ending on it, that the film was such a gruelling experience to get through that it felt like you had a responsibility, especially on a journey film which this particularly is, […] to end with at least a note that the journey might continue in some way, […] that these people could go on in some way…[12]

As I have said above, the ending provided for ‘viewers’, to use Hight’s term for spectators uninterested in the interactive properties of DVD, recalls the cosy catastrophe subgenre, particularly Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids. In both stories, the final configuration of characters sees a young couple and their adopted daughter successfully deploying the enemy (triffids/Infected) against dangerous totalitarian paramilitaries, and ultimately settling down in rural comfort. By contrast the extra text offers what Hight calls ‘users’ a collage of versions and endings left deliberately contingent in relation to each other. In this it constitutes an advance on both print and cinematic representations of post-apocalyptic scenarios, which as we have seen, necessarily mask the tensions and uncertainties inherent to endings in this genre. The inclusion of the alternate endings on the DVD of 28 Days Later could be read as an act of resistance to the kind of pressure exemplified above, whether emanating from producers, publishers or test audiences, to provide an upbeat ending for its own sake. The intimations of mortality which are so central to apocalyptic reflection are given their space within the narrative. But the medium at once allows and prompts an even more sophisticated reflection on apocalyptic fears. The multiple endings, with their uncertain hierarchisation, invite users to share in the filmmakers’ overlapping visions of potential, and sometimes contradictory, futures, thus expressing doubts central to the genre itself.

The case of 28 Days Later shows how DVD does not merely provide access to some of film’s ‘what-if’ narratives. The existence of multiple endings can become itself part of the film’s message, or meaning: one of the ‘unprecedented ways’ in which film and extra text are linked to each other through DVD technology (Brookey & Westerfelhaus 2005: 124). This further problematises the relationship between text and extra text as outlined earlier. Rather than defining all text outside the main feature as ‘extra text’, we may find it useful to distinguish between standard bonus features, which frame the text but do not alter it fundamentally, and the fragmented parallel narratives and abandoned alternatives which Branigan sees as one possible element of ‘multiple-draft narrative’ (2002: 108). There are thus two distinct texts of 28 Days Later present on the DVD: a linear narrative and a multiple-draft narrative, incorporating commentaries, deleted scenes and alternate endings, in which the co-existence of different narrative possibilities becomes in itself a carrier of meaning and an expression of apocalyptic doubt for a sceptical generation.

Although it is certain that the full potential of DVD for stretching the limits of narrative has not yet been harnessed,[13] 28 Days Later points the way towards exciting future possibilities. To borrow Edward Branigan’s words (2002: 111), the significance of this film for science fiction and for the future of DVD lies ‘not with the explicit outcome of its plot, but with the “crushed potentials for the future that were contained in the past” – in what was nearly true’.

Works Cited

Aldiss, B., with D. Wingrove. 1986. Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction. London: Victor Gollancz

Barlow, A. 2005. The DVD Revolution: Movies, Culture and Technology. Westport, CT/London: Praeger

Bordwell, D. 2002. Film Futures. SubStance 31 (1): 88-104

Branigan, E. 2002. Nearly True: Forking Paths, Forking Interpretations: A Response to David Bordwell’s “Film Futures”. SubStance 31 (1): 105-111

Brians, P. 1991. Nuclear Family/Nuclear War. In The Nightmare Considered: Critical Essays on Nuclear War Literature, edited by Nancy Anisfield, 151-158.Bowling Green, OH: Popular Press.

Broderick, M. 1993. Surviving Armageddon: Beyond the Imagination of Disaster. Science Fiction Studies 20 (3): 362-382

Brookey, R. A. & R. Westerfelhaus. 2002. Hiding Homoeroticism in Plain View: The Fight Club DVD as Digital Closet. Critical Studies in Media Communication 19 (1): 21-43

Brookey, R. A. & R. Westerfelhaus. 2005. The Digital Auteur: Branding Identity on the Monsters, Inc. DVD. Western Journal of Communication 69 (2): 109-128

Caputi, J. 1991. Psychic Numbing, Radical Futurelessness, and Sexual Violence in the Nuclear Film. In The Nightmare Considered: Critical Essays on Nuclear War Literature, edited by Nancy Anisfield, 58-70.Bowling Green, OH: Popular Press.

Genette, G. 1997. Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Cambridge: CUP

Garland, A. 2002.  Introduction. 28 Days Later. London: Faber & Faber

Griffiths, M. 2002. Apocalypse: its Influence on Society and British Sf. Foundation 85: 35-45

Hight, C. 2005. Making-of Documentaries on DVD: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and Special Editions. Velvet Light Trap 56: 4-17

Ibsen, Henrik. 1998. Four Major Plays. Oxford: OUP

Johnson, D. 2005. An Interview with Will Brooker. Velvet Light Trap 56: 36-44

Kermode, F. 2000. The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction with a New Epilogue. Oxford: OUP.

Meckier, Jerome. 2000. Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations: A Defense of the Second Ending. In Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom, 167-195. Philadelphia: Chelsea House.

Parker, D. and M. Parker. 2004. Directors and DVD Commentary: The Specifics of Intention. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 62 (1): 13-22

Ryan, M-L. 2001. Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP

Seed, D. 2000. Imagining the Worst: Science Fiction and Nuclear War’ in Journal of American Studies of Turkey 11: 39-49;

Semmler, I. A. 1998. Ebola Goes Pop: The Filovirus from Literature into Film. Literature and Medicine 17 (1): 149-174

Stanitzek, G. 2005. Texts and Paratexts in Media. Trans. Ellen Klein. Critical Inquiry 31 (1): 27-42.

Stanley, A. 2002. Selling the Alternate (but Not Too Alternate) Ending. New York Times, December 15, A45

Tebbutt, S. 1997. Mapping Post-nuclear Scenarios: Gudrun Pausewang’s and Robert Swindells’ Teenage Novels. Foundation 70: 39-49

Widdowson, P. 2006. The silent era: Thomas Hardy goes way down east. In Thomas Hardy on Screen, edited by T. R. Wright, 50-62. Cambridge: CUP


1. In Genette’s typology of paratexts, the peritext includes ‘such elements as the title or the preface and sometimes elements inserted into the interstices of the text, such as chapter titles’ (Genette 1997: 5). He defines the epitext as ‘any paratextual element not materially appended to the text’ (344).

2. This preferred, bleaker ending is somewhat confusingly included in the DVD’s Deleted Scenes rather than in the Alternate Endings.

3. Perhaps the best example of this to be found in apocalyptic science fiction is Val Guest’s The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961).

4. Having said this, an interesting tendency can be observed in the marketing of Special Edition DVDs to equate multiplication of extras with increased immersivity, as in the case of the recently released three-disc edition of Gladiator which claims to deliver ‘the most intense Gladiator experience ever’. Will Brooker also suggests that the inclusion of clickable content on DVD linking directly to external websites would be ‘far more immersive’ (Johnson 2005: 39).

5. The DVD’s release provides a striking illustration of how the format can retrospectively influence the cinematic text. The advertisement of alternate endings among the extras listed on the back of the DVD, which came out in the UK during the film’s US theatrical release, prompted such widespread interest among fans and viewers and in internet chatrooms that from 25 July 2003 the film’s US distributor added an extra ending (the ‘proper ending’ in which Jim dies in hospital) to be shown in cinemas after the credits.

6. This ‘radical futurelessness’, which Caputi sees as implicitly nuclear in nature, is detected in films including Night of the Living Dead, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Siegel, 1956)and River’s Edge (Hunter, 1987), where it manifests as ‘hyperkineticism […] or generalized dullness’ (62). The common ground between the two states lies in a form of psychic numbing which renders the subject incapable of responding constructively to catastrophe.

7. The viral threat has become one element in a wider range of environmental anxieties which would include climate change and global warming.

8. This visual device, discussed in the commentary to the scene in which Jim ambushes several soldiers at the motorway checkpoint, provides a jerky, stuttering impression of movement.

9. Among the deleted scenes is a version of the climactic scene at the mansion in which the Infected storm the house in large numbers, which, as Garland observes wistfully on the commentary track, would have brought the latter part of the film ‘more in line […] with the genre’.

10. The new ending was originally written for a German publishing house who wished to translate the novel but felt that the ending was not appropriate for its target audience. A subsequent British edition also adopted the revised ending. I am grateful to Robert Swindells for his kind replies to my questions on this topic.

11. Cf. for instance Stephen King, The Stand (1978; filmed by Mick Garris as a miniseries in 1994); George R. Stewart, Earth Abides (1949).

12. This ending is remarkably similar to Stanley Kramer’s justification for allowing Peck and Gardner’s characters a romantic relationship in his 1959 film of On the Beach: ‘We have to give them some sex […] This is a serious picture, it’s about the death of the world, and we have to give them some romance and sex.’ Quoted on, accessed 12 August 2006.

13. For instance, Aaron Barlow imagines a future in which the choice of ending might be incorporated into the viewing experience itself, realising the interactive potential of the format (2005: 82). Something comparable has been done for the DVD release of the horror movie Final Destination 3, which includes a version of the film with a ‘choose their fate’ feature. At several points viewers are offered the opportunity to change small events in the narrative – the toss of a coin, the temperature of a tanning bed – and invited to see how this small change affects subsequent events. This device met with general approval from consumers, and it remains to be seen whether it will be more widely adopted.

Author Biography:

Carol O’Sullivan is a lecturer in translation and Italian at the University of Portsmouth. Her research concentrates on the interactions and intersections between the fields of translation, literature and film. Her email address is carol.osullivan@ .