28 Days Later (2002)
"Day 1: Exposure - Day 3: Infection - Day 8: Epidemic - Day 15: Evacuation - Day 20: Devastation"
When animal rights activists break into a medical research laboratory to release the captive chimpanzees inside, they inadvertently unleash a highly contagious rage-inducing virus which spreads via blood and saliva and quickly infects living beings. 28 days later and Jim awakens in hospital after being in coma to find London completely deserted. Meeting up with a pair of survivors, Jim discovers that the virus spread quickly among the populace, resulting in complete societal collapse, and the group attempt to find sanctuary to escape from the hordes of infected roaming the streets.
Between 1985 and the early 00s, mainstream zombie films were few and far between as they had fallen out of favour. Much like the slasher film fell by the wayside at the same time, the humble zombie film had become oversaturated and on the decline. But then in 2002, a low budget critically-acclaimed horror from Trainspotting director Danny Boyle was snapped up by an American distributor and the rest is history. Largely credited with totally reinvigorating the zombie genre and bringing it back to the mainstream, 28 Days Later was the first zombie film in years to receive a widespread cinematic release and became a big hit across the world, scoring over ten times its budget back in ticket sales.
28 Days Later is still fundamentally just another zombie film that we’ve seen before, only with some nice reinventions on the sub-genre tropes (don’t call them zombies for a start!). The story still has to weave through the same conundrums for the characters to conquer: searching for food, water and a safe place; suddenly learning how to survive after being brought up in a modern society; trust issues with strangers they encounter; realising there is more of the infected than there are survivors; and dealing with loved ones once they’ve become infected. 28 Days Later addresses all of these issues with a sense of stark realism – there isn’t going to be a happy ending for many people in the film.
Shot on digital video to give it a grimy, bleak appearance, 28 Days Later introduces a fantastic post-apocalyptic vision within it’s opening five minutes – the empty streets of London (a nice early 4am shoot to get the desired effect) looking eerily like they’ve never looked before. This isn’t some burnt-out, buildings collapsing wasteland but just the same old London without people. It’s an uncanny effect. The main character, fresh from hospital treatment and unsure of what has happened (potentially in a nod to The Day of the Triffids in which the main character follows a similar post-operation trauma without realising the Earth has been overrun with killer plants) staggers around the place, looking bewildered and disorientated. It’s this disorientation which helps to channel the narrative because there’s little exposition to fill in the gaps. Not knowing just what has happened and how quickly adds to the panic and fear.
It’s the realism and down-to-Earth nature of the film which helps 28 Days Later keep a strong bond with the audience. There isn’t a reliance on gore or even standard issue ‘boo’ moments to throw out a few cheap thrills and spills. 28 Days Later has a generally calm atmosphere with a strong underlying sense of dread where you know that something bad could happen at any moment but the characters have accepted that and tried to put it to the back of their minds. The film punctures this false illusion of security every so often with some shocks and Boyle wants you to remember the sudden shocking outbursts of violence, making them more effective in the process as you’re kept on the edge of your seat. Although there are relatively few action sequences in the film, the ones that are here are memorable enough to make you think you’ve seen more. An opening chase from a church and a thrilling sequence inside a tunnel are memorable purely for the speed and frenetic energy they’re presented in, rather than their length.
Whist not quite zombies by the usual definition, the infected certainly fall into the same category given there’s no real alternative nametag. Boyle’s rage-infected humans charge forward in a hyperactive, frenzied state, able to sprint, leap and do things that the usual slow-moving shuffling walking dead can’t do. It gives them a unique presence, something that Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake was quick to capitalise on a few years later. The scenes with the infected work far better than they should, given Boyle’s preference to shoot a lot of the film with an eerie peace and tranquillity. After all, why would there be a lot of background noise in the world when pretty much everyone is dead? The snarls and roars of the infected are made twice as scary when they pierce through the silence – you might not see them, but you can hear them coming. They also don’t need to eat brains either, which just turns them into savage killers with no rhyme or reason for doing what they do.
Cillian Murphy went on to do a lot better after this, starring in films such as Batman Begins, Inception and Dunkirk, and probably most famously now as the lead role in BBC TV show Peaky Blinders. He’s great in the lead role here, pretty much stumbling around in confusion and not having much of a clue as to what is going on for the first half, before gaining his inner survivalist in the second and realising he needs to stand up and make a difference in this new world. Strong support comes from Naomie Harris and Brendan Gleeson. Christopher Eccleston, who would go on to star in the revamped version of Doctor Who, appears just over half-way through as the leader of a bunch of soldiers holed up in a country mansion for protection.
It’s at this point where 28 Days Later is let down by its final third, as the story heads off in a slightly different direction to everything that came before it. I guess Boyle thought he needed to up the action ante in the film’s climax as the narrative becomes the generic men with guns vs ‘zombies’ shoot-out and all mayhem comes to the fore as the walls of the mansion are breached. Given this is what happens in a large majority of zombie films towards the end, 28 Days Later is hardly in unfamiliar territory, especially with the whole ‘humans are worse than zombies’ undercurrent. But we do care about the main characters by this point and, some plot armour moments aside, you will be rooting for their survival.
28 Days Later has become something of a modern-day standard bearer by which recent zombie films have been measured against and there’s a good reason for that – it’s one of the best to come out of the genre for a long time. Though far from perfect, Boyle’s horror film is full of moments of peace and tranquil beauty, juxtaposed with kinetic energy and raw savagery, keeping tension and suspense high and audiences on tender hooks. Bleak, pessimistic and a whole lot of perverse fun for genre fans.
28 Days Later
Director(s): Danny Boyle
Writer(s): Alex Garland
Actor(s): Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Christopher Eccleston, Brendan Gleason, Megan Burns
Duration: 113 mins