It’s a strange thing to be very impressed by a cutting edge movie in the theatre, but then, not watch it again for nine years. Such is the case for me with 28 Days Later. I even purchased the DVD a few years ago, and only just now dedicated myself to watching it for this occasion. Now, the common misconception about this movie is that it is a zombie flick. While it does have the trappings of one, these people are not zombies, merely human beings who have been infected with a virus that turns them into rage-filled animalistic people. This film presents a very interesting and clearly expressed departure from that classic subgenre while still baring some resemblance to it.
It has been twenty-eight days since Jim (Cillian Murphy), a young bicycle courier, was knocked off his bike and injured in a car accident. When he wakes up from his coma, the world has changed. London is deserted, litter-strewn and grim, and it seems the entire world has disappeared. The truth, however, is even more horrifying – a devastating psychological virus has been unleashed upon the world, turning the population into blood-crazed psychopaths driven only to kill and destroy the uninfected. Jim coincidentally joins up with the tough and strong-willed Selena (Naomie Harris), who has become accustomed to the hard reality of survival. While out-running the savage infected, Jim and Selena add the father and daughter survivors of Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and Hannah (Megan Burns) to their struggle to get out of the city to a military encampment at Manchester, but there, their troubles are just beginning.
This movie was shot on standard definition digital video camcorders, and so, it offers a rather unique visual quality. Director Danny Boyle even did post-production work to further degrade the picture quality to give it an even rougher look to reflect the film’s harsh reality. I think this was an immensely successful artistic idea. The Canon XL1 camera clearly performed well in low light situations allowing the filmmakers to create some strong contrast and atmosphere. From that digital video quality comes a bleak appearance which dominates the movie, even in broad daylight. 28 Days Later is shot amazingly well with a lot of intense, kinetic camera work heightening the chaos and adrenalin pumping terror. The cinematography regularly highlights the desolate landscape of London, and shows how isolated these characters are from any semblance of civilization. The overall tone and visual style is unlike any film I believe I’ve ever seen, and in those dark scenes, this movie can look immensely gorgeous.
This movie doesn’t focus heavily on the intense fury of the infected. While it does that exceptionally well creating many tense and violent sequences, and making them count when they do occur, it instead takes most of its screentime to focus on its characters, and make the story about their struggles for survival. We are given strong character building scenes which create an emotional context for the audience. It let’s us know how this horrific event has affected them, and invests the audience in the depth of those characters. They are heartfelt and intelligent people that you can come to care about. On the most part, this is a very well-acted movie with some strong recognizable talents.
This was my first exposure to Cillian Murphy, and he delivers a very grounded and human performance. He and Naomie Harris really warm to one another as the film goes on, and create a very heartfelt chemistry. Harris herself slowly peals back the tougher exterior of Selena to ultimately show the vulnerability deep down inside. She had to be tough to survive, but Jim allows her to show her true self. Harris displays a wide range of talent in this role that starts out as a self-minded survivalist willing to cut loose anyone at a moment’s notice to a strongly sentimental and hopeful person.
Brendan Gleeson does a fine job making Frank a very wholesome father. He has a lot of heart, and rarely allows despair or desperation to creep into himself. He keeps a positive attitude which really boosts the mood of the picture, and gives hope to all of the characters. Christopher Eccleston turns in a hardened and off-putting performance as Major West, the leader of the military encampment. He certainly has the presence and authority of a leader, and gradually creates an intimidating foil for our protagonists.
Composer John Murphy created a very aural, almost ethereal score that taps into the hope, sorrow, isolation, and humanity of the film. It really elicits a wealth of heavy emotion from its ambient style, and never does exactly what you’d expect from a horror movie score. It’s more about establishing mood than enhancing scares. Case in point is that the climax is not scored with pounding drums or shrieking strings. It has a very impending sense of doom with a slow, deliberate rhythm given edge by a rising electric guitar. The horror is never telegraphed. There is no musical warning that something terrifying is about the befall our heroes. One such moment has almost pure silence as an infected child jumps down from above and creeps up behind Jim. This creates a stronger and more unique suspense that has greater pay-off when the visceral violence hits. The only other work I know from Murphy is his bleak and very heavy toned Miami Vice film score, and so, it’s nice to experience a different range in his musical abilities with something like this.
I believe that, from one perspective, you could call 28 Days Later a far more realistic and believable sort of zombie movie. Instead of people rising from the dead, which is an extremely fantastical idea, humanity is being wiped out by a man-made virus that turns the populace into nothing better than mindless creatures. They scavenge for food by attacking those who are still normally human, and can infect you with just a single drop of blood. The change is near-instantaneous, and there is no cure, no way of fighting it. So, while these are not actually zombies at all, this film does take the conventions of that genre, and apply it into a context that we can take with seriousness. The concept is easy to comprehend and accept, and the imminent fear of infection is something we can all grasp onto.
As opposed to the slow, lumbering characteristics of the classic style of zombies, these fast moving, bloodthirsty infected create the heart pounding urgency and tension that this film required. Screenwriter Alex Garland cleverly took only the base elements of the zombie movie template, and adapted them into a different sort of horror movie full of immediate danger and frightening excitement. Again, the film is not about blasting away hordes of ravenous infected humans, but about these characters struggling for survival in a desolate landscape where even those they believe can save them turnout to be no more human than those who have been infected.
The movie does take a more unsettling turn when our protagonists join up with the soldiers. The fact that they are welcomed there, not out of a pure humanitarian reasons, but for far more traumatic and frightening reasons creates a whole new style of danger and threat. They are ultimately held captive by Major West, and will be forced against their will to do whatever these soldiers want with them. Once Jim escapes execution, the film really ramps up the danger and suspense as it practically becomes a horror film version of First Blood. While Jim is no soldier himself, he takes his fierce determination, and uses it to strategically strike back against these military men in merciless fashion all while more infected run amuck. Cillian Murphy becomes greatly impressive handling the physical demands fantastically, and adding a fearsome quality to his performance. Part of what makes the film so effective is that we are not following around a group of highly trained military professionals. These are average people who do get frightened, and are pushed to their limits. They are generally no more capable of surviving this situation than you or I, but they never give up on the chance of survival or rescue. They continually trudge forward through whatever horrors they encounter.
28 Days Later is an excellent horror film that may not be for everyone. It does have a slow, gradual pace that nearly fills up two hours of runtime. There is plenty of gore and ravenous violence to go around, but it’s never an onslaught. The characters are the central piece in the film, and the filmmakers want you invested in them with the horror and action being secondary. That is not at all a bad thing, but it is something that might not be everyone’s appeal. The cast features some names that have really come into wide prominence since this film was made such as Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris, and I believe that should give you confidence in the quality of the performances and characters. Danny Boyle really delivered something dark, intense, and innovative for its time that was creatively and commercially successful. I’ve never been much into the zombie subgenre, but this film smartly took the right ideas from those films and injected them into a very effective and fresh approach.