28 Days Later (2003)
Zombies have generally seemed one of the little brothers of the horror genre. Certainly not as complicated or Freudian as Frankenstein or Jekyll and Hyde, and no where near as seductive as vampires and werewolves. Zombies are stumbling, bumbling cement-shoe wearing monsters. Theyre usually conduits for some kind of social message, like George Romeros classic Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. The scary part of zombies is the methodical eventuality they exhibit. They may be stupid, they may be slow, and they may be really stupid, but theyll keep coming. They’re dead and they got no where to be. And there’s the pull – that they will eventually get you. You’ll give in, something will happen, and they’ll seize upon that unfortunate misstep (I did an extensive paper on the symbolism of zombies in Romero’s films and the connections between religion and horror. I think I deleted it though, so this is the best analysis you’re gonna get). Now there’s director Danny Boyle’s indie horror flick, 28 Days Later, which gives the zombie genre a few good shocks to the system.
We open up with stark television clips of violence, genocide, and all around mayhem around the world. Its basically what the cable news stations are now, except in this case, the viewership of these broadcasts are monkeys. Yes, it seems that the British government is experimenting on the nature of rage by strapping monkeys onto slabs and forcing them, A Clockwork Orange style, to watch all kinds of icky video. Animal rights activists break into the facility and plan on freeing the primate prisoners. A lab assistant tries to deter the monkey theft. He says alarmingly that the animals are infected with rage (as are most drivers it seems), and that this infection is highly contagious. The animal rights activists scoff at his concern and open the cages to the primates. For their altruistic virtues the activists are instantly attacked, bitten, mauled (can one be mauled by monkeys? It just seems like bears and lions have a monopoly on this verb) and infected with this deadly rage disease. This is likely the worst PR set-back for the animal rights activists since PETA clubbed baby seals. Look it up.
Flash to the titular 28 days later. Jim (Cillian Murphy) comes to in a hospital bed, and like previous films, Boyle finds an outlet to shoehorn in some full-frontal male nudity. Its almost like a directors trademark. Jims a bike messenger and has been in a coma for about, oh, lets just say for the sake of it, 28 days. Jim wanders through the vacant hospital calling out for anyone. He hits the streets of London to find them startlingly empty, like some Twilight Zone episode. City kiosks are papered with numerous pictures for missing relatives or good-bye letters. A scattered newspaper says London has been evacuated. Jim meets two other survivors, Mark (Noah Huntley) and Selena (Naomie Harris). They wax chunky exposition to tell us what we already know: the virus got out, spread rapidly, is transmitted through the blood. Selena does have more unsettling news about the nature of the disease. It turns out that once infected a person has about 10-20 seconds of rational thought left before they fully turn into the rabid, crazed not-dead zombies. Jim demands to see his parents and the two agree to lead him to his home in the morning.
The next morning the surviving trio trek through the empty streets and residential areas. Jim enters his home calling out for his parents. He immediately has to cover his nose with his shirt sleeve. He walks into his parents bedroom to find both curled up next to each other long dead. On the nightstand are a bottle of wine and a slew of pills. His mother holds a picture of Jim as a child. On the back Jim reads: “We left you sleeping. Now we’ll be with you again.” At the bottom it says, ”Don’t wake up.” Jim is devastated.
They find refuge in the apartment building of a Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns). The two have been surviving since the outbreak. Frank is delighted to find other survivors. He shares a radio message he picked up. The message, though slightly garbled, is from a military base a ways away. They say they have discovered the answer for infection and will provide shelter for any survivors. The foursome pack up their belongings in Franks car and head for the military base with a new sense of hope.
The cinematography of 28 Days Later is wonderful. It’s the best I’ve ever seen digital video. The choice of shooting on that medium also amplifies the horror and creates a more immediate sense of danger. The musical score could have been written by one of those popular Brit-rock bands. It’s propulsive, effectively building, and wonderfully sonic.
Harris is the star of the film, whether the makers know this or not. Shes one tough cookie but also reflects great moments of vulnerability as she opens up to the group and starts kindling some feelings for Jim. Gleeson is one of the best character actors out there, as evidence by a great turn in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. Acting is never the strongest suit for horror flicks but 28 Days Later has some nice exceptions to this norm.
28 Days Later has a resonating sense of truth to it, if that can be said about apocalyptic cinema. When one character regrettably becomes infected they order their fellows to stand back, but before succumbing they say, Just know that I love you. This felt so genuine to me. Like if a comet was hurtling to decimate the planet within seconds, and your loved ones were around you, would you not act the same way? How does one compress all their feelings and appreciation and love in closing seconds? Something tells me its something like what is displayed in 28 Days Later.
Boyle, as has been ingrained into me from the blurb-heavy ads, has indeed reinvented zombie horror. However, what you may not know is that zombie horror doesn’t exactly have many titles to it. I think I’ve already mentioned most of them. Boyles zombies aren’t dead, just infected human beings. They don’t move at that lumbering drag-your-feet speed of classic zombie lore, no these not-so-undead move with great velocity and ferocity, like rabid junkyard dogs. The new touches here and there provide some interesting dynamics to the genre.
Perhaps what is different than most zombie films is that the audience grows to like the characters and root for their survival. In most horror films the characters are either too stupid or sketchy that it allows the audience to wait in amusement for their eventual horrific deaths. Its simple: we want to see these people die because its titillating (Maybe I was wrong about all the zombie analysis I still had in my head).
Boyle does service a slight message in his zombie film when the group gets to the military base. Perhaps, he muses, our military and trusted leaders are no better than those rabidly wandering the streets. The idea of a thriller set against a biological pandemic also feels very timely and relevant. The film kind of drags in the middle during the stretch between London and the military base. And the end was a bit too much Die Hard for my taste, but is suitably climactic.
Boyle has crafted a creepy, smart, and engrossing piece of entertainment. I hope people dont confuse this film with that Sandra Bullock clunker, 28 Days. They may be spending the entire time wondering where shirtless Viggo is and when Bullock will start her endless pratfalls (You knew I was going to talk about that movie somewhere).
Nate’s Grade: B
Posted on June 30, 2003, in 2003 Movies and tagged alex garland, brendan gleeson, christopher eccelston, cillian murphy, danny boyle, end of the world, horror, indie, naomie harris, thriller, zombies. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.