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Review: “28 Days Later”

Directed by: Danny Boyle
Produced by: Andrew MacDonald, Robert How (Line Producer)
Written by: Alex Garland
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Christopher Eccleston, Megan Burns, Brendan Gleeson
Music by: John Murphy
Year: 2002 (UK)

As I recently stated in one of my (many to come) Great Scenes articles, you don’t have to be from England to recognize just how terrifying the seemingly abandoned streets of London become in 28 Days Later. Danny Boyle’s brilliant take on the zombie horror film sub-genre is as breathtaking as it is unnerving.

Zombies have many origins in popular culture. Some take their inspiration from the real life voodoo practice of zombification through a curse, some by a viral infection, and some by scientific invention. Others leave the source of an outbreak a mystery.

Unlike most films in the genre, this film’s prologue shows just how this particular outbreak begins. A group of animal rights activists break into an animal testing laboratory, where chimps who have been “infected with rage” are being shown continuous clips of hatred, violence, and terror throughout the world. Despite the warnings of a lone scientist, caught working the graveyard shift, one of the group’s more compassionate members lets open the cage to one of the chimps and, unknowingly, unleashes a horror upon herself and the world, becoming the first, though quickly not the last, of “the infected.”

Let’s get one thing out of the way: Yes, I think this may be and remains to be one of the most terrifying movies I’ve seen. Something about the gritty quality of the digital cinematography, the camera angles, the editing, and the genuinely fearsome nature of the infected just sends a sense of dread directly into my brain and causes the adrenaline rush of terror to spread into the rest of my body.

The great thing about zombies as the villain is that they are not at all personal in their attack strategies, and yet they can be anyone, including your mother, your father, your sibling, spouse, best friend, or, in some stories, your pet… These characteristics let zombies stand in as a personification of absolute loneliness and even abandonment, and 28 Days Later focuses a lot on abandonment and the need to be with others.

Unlike the traditional zombies, who are usually a mindless, devolved creature, lacking critical thinking and only focused on the basic instinct of feeding oneself, no matter who becomes the target, the fearsome nature of the infected in this movie substitute hunger for anger. Instead of devouring their victims, they savagely run(!) them down and, if they don’t infect them first, pummel them to death.

Throughout this horror, however, a family begins to form. Jim (Cillian Murphy), a bicycle courier who has been in a coma for the past 28 days or so, wakes up in a hospital, naked, alone, and totally unaware of what has happened. He wanders the streets of an abandoned London, shouting for any sign of humanity. Instead, he runs afoul of the infected in a church packed with the dead and the might-as-well-be. It seems even the devout were feeling abandoned, as someone has scrawled on the walls, “Repent. The end is very fucking nigh!”

Luckily for him, there are survivors. Jim is saved by Mark (Noah Huntley), the sole member of his family to escape a public transportation death trap, and Selene (Naomie Harris, Pirates of the Caribbean 2 & 3), a former chemist turned hardened survivalist. Later, Jim notices some blinking Christmas lights in an apartment tower, where they meet the ever cheerful Frank (Brendan Gleeson, Harry Potter‘s Mad-Eye) and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns), who have managed to catch a radio broadcast claiming to have “the answer to infection.” And so they head out, following its lead, searching for refuge.

“The answer to infection” may as well have been “the answer to loneliness.” Throughout their journey, this small band of survivors begins to form a family unit. There’s a surprisingly beautiful moment where they stop to have a picnic and watch as a group of horses, a family, gallops past, uninfected and unaffected by the virus. Even Selene, who has already demonstrated her ability to put her emotions aside and do what she must to survive, begins to crack under the weight of her loneliness. After all the relentless violence, this scene becomes a refuge for the characters and the audience, as well, a moment of tenderness surrounded by brutality. It was only inevitable that, by the time this new family unit makes it to the origin of the broadcast, they are greeted by a new level of horror.

Though the new threat may make the film seem to espouse a message of pacifism, by the film’s climax, where the gentler, empathetic Jim, who has essentially been the “son” of this family unit, symbolically grows up and takes on the role of the protector, you begin to realize that this film is all about protecting the values of community and family in a world gone mad, and, sometimes, that may involve violence. Jim fights like the infected, moves like the infected, and even uses the infected as a weapon, but, unlike them, he shows discernment and discipline in his actions in order to eliminate the threat to his family unit and return them to peace again.

The film is fantastically ugly. Even in 2002, the Canon XL1 digital camcorder that Boyle employs for much of the film was already extremely dated technology, but it is used to great effect, giving the film a grainy, unkempt look that accentuates the chaotic nature of the infection. Frames are dropped during the action, and rain begins to look more like scattering static than falling water. I can’t find any information on this as of right now, so please feel free to correct me, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the ending is one of the few scenes not filmed in this style, as it is far more serene and film-like (and therefore more familiar) than all the rest of the film.

28 Days Later is simply one of the best horror films I’ve seen, being equal parts terrifying, artistically sound, well performed, and very nicely put together — though the shift in direction towards the end still sometimes feels a bit jarring in comparison to what came before. Luckily, it ultimately does serve a purpose and falls in line with the rest of the film’s tone.

Personally, this was the first film by Danny Boyle that I had ever scene, and he’s quickly becoming one of my favorite directors. Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours, Sunshine — all very different but all fantastic films, and I really hope that he one day returns to the film series he started with 28 Days Later. 28 Weeks Later was a surprisingly decent follow up that expanded on the themes of this film, but, though he produced it, the film ultimately lacked the artistic quality that Boyle brings his films when he’s in the director’s chair. Like Christopher Nolan, Boyle is one of the few directors to rise up to prominence in the past ten years to have not let down their audiences.

The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4.5 / 5

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