Though it wasn’t very well received by critics (most of whom, I would argue, missed the point), DOOMSDAY (2008) is a brilliantly wild and sprawling celebration of what I call “fuck yeah” cinema—those bombastic movie moments that are so ridiculously awesome and awesomely ridiculous that you can’t help but pump your fist and (at least internally) yell “Fuck yeah!” at the screen. ’80s action movies were especially good at this phenomenon, and DOOMSDAY is a loving ode to a hilariously wide range of those flicks. Writer-director Neil Marshall pays intentionally blatant homage to RoboCop, The Road Warrior, Aliens, Escape from New York, The Warriors (which technically came out in 1979, but it’s a stellar “fuck yeah” film), and Excalibur, just to name a few…hell, there’s even a slo-mo Platoon-style death scene right before an extended car chase. Like a hopped-up greatest hits montage of gory, action-packed films, DOOMSDAY proudly and defiantly wears its influences on its sleeve, inviting viewers to worship at the altar of “fuck yeah.”
It’s the year 2035. A deadly disease nicknamed the Reaper Virus has decimated Scotland; the entire county was quarantined in 2008 due to the virus and left to fend for itself. The British government has recently discovered two shocking things: (1) the Reaper Virus has somehow reappeared in London, far from the containment walls, and (2) there are survivors in Scotland who could hold the cure to the disease. Enter Eden Sinclair (Rhona Mitra), a kick-ass government agent with a bad attitude and an eyepatch who’s tasked with going over the wall into Scotland with a small cadre of scientists and soldiers to find the cure and bring it back to London within 48 hours. The excellent cast also features Bob Hoskins as Nelson, Sinclair’s handler, and Malcolm McDowell as Kane, the scientist who is suspected to hold the cure.
McDowell provides the opening narration (because when you have a voice like that in the cast, you use it to your full advantage), describing the decline of civilization behind the wall as the abandoned people turned to looting, murder, and eventually cannibalism. One of his final thoughts on the situation is “It’s medieval out there,” drawing “medieval” out to 18 syllables as only Malcolm McDowell can. This is the dystopian nightmare—caused by a government shrugging its shoulders and giving up on its people—into which Sinclair and her team must venture without backup or any hope of extraction if they fail to find a cure for the virus.
Marshall has a fondness for stories about small groups of people fighting against impossible odds in tight, isolated spaces. His terrific directorial debut Dog Soldiers (2002) features a group of soldiers holing up in an abandoned house in the Scottish Highlands to try to survive the night against a pack of werewolves, and modern horror classic The Descent (2005) follows an all-female group of adventurers who discover that they’re spelunking in the wrong damn cave. The Descent, in particular, is a master class in horror both preternatural and mundane, as the shots of the cavers inching through impossibly tight tunnels are just as frightening as the monsters that attack once they’ve traveled too far into the cave system to escape.
Marshall shows the same affection for claustrophobia in DOOMSDAY, trapping his suicide squad in an out-of-order elevator, a speeding car under siege by cannibalistic punks, and state-of-the-art armored vehicles that are suspiciously susceptible to hatchets and Molotov cocktails. But rather than choosing just one location in which to test his characters, as in his prior movies, Marshall sets his cast loose across the ’80s cinematic landscape, putting them in one tight spot after another by dropping them into the middle of setpieces straight out of his favorite thrillers and action flicks.
DOOMSDAY keeps the genre love going with nods to Marshall’s horror background. Many of the cast members appeared in his previous films, and the “Britain is quarantined and ostracized in the face of a viral pandemic” premise (along with a few of the music cues) are straight out of 28 Days Later. When Dr. Talbot (Sean Pertwee), a member of Sinclair’s team, is roasted alive and eaten by the aforementioned cannibalistic punks, it calls to mind the horror of Sergeant Howie at the end of The Wicker Man. Marshall even references his own film in DOOMSDAY‘s sole jump scare, a telegraphed but effective callback to the moment in The Descent when we get our first full look at the cave monsters via a handheld video camera.
Tyler Bates’s score fits with Marshall’s “of course I’m ripping that movie off, that’s the whole point” vibe, with Carpenteresque synth punctuating some early adrenaline-fueled moments. Continuing the throwback feel, most of the soundtrack is ’80s new wave, including what is undoubtedly the best use of a Fine Young Cannibals song in cinematic history. Just before Dr. Talbot is roasted and eaten by the punks, their leader Sol (Craig Conway) takes the main stage with FYC’s “Good Thing” as his entrance theme. This wry humor pops up in a few key spots to let you know that Marshall is fully aware of the kind of movie he’s making. As Sinclair and her team escape the medieval castle where Kane has installed himself as the King of the Immune Scots, dodging explosions and guards in suits of armor, they run past an emergency exit sign that’s a holdover from the castle’s days as a tourist attraction. Rather than deflating the energy of the escape and undercutting the gory duel to the death that preceded it, the joke enhances the action, winking at the audience and saying, “Isn’t this shit crazy?”
DOOMSDAY is a funny, balls-to-the-wall genre mash-up, but it does have some serious things on its mind. Though the film was just as relevant when it was released in 2008, the sociopolitical themes hit awfully close to home if you’re paying even the slightest bit of attention to the news right now. It’s hard not to wince as you witness the indifference and cruelty of the government in the face of a deadly virus. Canaris (David O’Hara), a senior advisor to the Prime Minister and the person actually pulling the strings in the administration, cares more about saving face and pruning away the “dead flesh” (i.e., millions of expendable citizens) than he does about halting the progress of the virus and protecting people. O’Hara is the perfect choice to play the cold, power-hungry fascist, with his imposing figure and gravelly, unimpressed monotone. When Sinclair goes full RoboCop on him, using state surveillance technology to bring down the head of state, it’s a delicious moment of ironic comeuppance. And Kane’s privileged, cowardly decision to hide from the problem and install himself as king—using warped Darwinian logic that the fittest have survived and he, being the smartest man in the room, deserves to rule over them—will strike a chord with those of us who can’t afford to ensconce ourselves in a literal castle to wait out a plague.
The sociopolitical parallels go beyond the current pandemic. Immediately before the British government shuts off Scotland and leaves its people to die, the military incites a riot by shooting someone who appears to be an unarmed man of color who is infected with the virus. Unfortunately, this is a very familiar sight (and has been for centuries), but it feels especially timely now with the increased news coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement and peaceful protests that have been turned violent by police. The desperate people storm the gates, and the military retreats from the problem that they created while innocent, marginalized people die. I mentioned similarities between DOOMSDAY and 28 Days Later, but an important distinction between the two is that the infected in DOOMSDAY don’t turn into rage zombies. They’re just normal people suffering and dying while they wait for somebody, anybody, to do something about it.
In DOOMSDAY, that somebody is Eden Sinclair. It’s no coincidence that Sinclair is a native to Scotland, having escaped as a young girl right before the wall closed off the country for good. Marshall seems to be suggesting that you just can’t depend on outsiders, no matter how well-meaning they are…the only people who can or will save you are the ones who share your experiences. And Sinclair, like the action heroes she’s based on, is here to get shit done. Rhona Mitra really deserved a career as an action star after this movie. She’s tough, strong, and funny, sporting a blank stoicism for most of the film but allowing her cleverness, deadpan humor, and rebellious side to peek through at crucial moments. And she just plain kicks ass.
DOOMSDAY isn’t the perfect blend of political commentary and audacious spectacle that, say, Mad Max: Fury Road is, but it’s not trying to be. No, DOOMSDAY is a pyrotechnic love letter to genre film that’s fully aware of its own ridiculousness. It wants you to laugh along with it and remember how fun movies can be, especially wild, punk-rock genre movies made by masters of the “fuck yeah” moment. It wants you to cheer at flying heads and gladiator battles and climactic car chases, and it invites you to grin ruefully at human barbecues set to Siouxsie and the Banshees. DOOMSDAY revels in the sublime catharsis of post-apocalyptic film excess.
At the end of the movie, in quite possibly its biggest “fuck yeah” moment, Sinclair chooses to stay behind in cannibal punk Scotland—even providing a human potluck offering of her own—rather than return to fascist Britain. Why? Because it’s where she belongs. It’s weird, wild, and messy, and that’s what makes it—and DOOMSDAY—so fucking fun.