28 Days Later…, 2002.
Directed by Danny Boyle.
Starring Cillian Murphy, Noah Huntley, Naomie Harris, Brendan Gleeson, Megan Burns and Christopher Eccleston.
A virus sweeps across Britain, turning the population into raging creatures. Four weeks later, a man in a coma awakes to find the country in a dire state.
Before discussing 28 Days Later… (2002) it’s worth addressing an issue that has caused considerable debate – is this a zombie film? Technically, the answer would be no – these are humans who have been infected by a virus. They crucially aren’t reanimated dead such as the now familiar zombies found in George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and subsequent sequels, and they’re also not the voodoo-esque zombies from earlier cinematic offerings such as White Zombie (1932). The creatures in 28 Days Later… are simply diseased humans; however, they do exhibit zombie-like behaviour. Although these aren’t technically zombies, the film does share some striking similarities with other zombie films in the themes it tackles and the ideas raised. No definitive answer is given within the film, which leaves it entirely up to the viewer to decide how they wish to label those infected with the virus.
28 Days Later… opens with a group of activists breaking into a laboratory and freeing a chimpanzee which has been infected with a Rage virus. This virus is highly contagious and can be spread through saliva and blood, and within twenty-eight days the majority of the population of Britain are either infected or dead. It is at this point when Jim (Cillian Murphy) awakens from a coma to find himself in an abandoned hospital in a deserted London. He is initially unaware of the virus and the effect it has had on the country, but an eerie stroll through an unpopulated London quickly highlights the fact that something has gone very wrong.
Jim soon joins with two fellow survivors, Mark (Noah Huntley) and Selena (Naomie Harris), who clue him in on what’s been happening while he’s been sleeping. The virus causes those infected to go into a bloodthirsty consuming rage, and now it is a battle for survival. A single drop of infected blood is all it takes for the virus to take hold of a victim, and Selena has adopted a no mercy policy which is demonstrated when Mark receives a wound fending off some of the infected. After a considerably terrifying and relentlessly bleak opening, the film stops for breath with the introduction of two other survivors – Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his fifteen-year-old daughter Hannah (Megan Burns). Alongside Jim and Selena they form a makeshift family unit, and decide to travel from London to Manchester following a radio message offering salvation.
The first two thirds of the film are superb, with director Danny Boyle establishing the atmosphere of a dangerously abandoned country excellently. The views of silent city streets and empty motorways are haunting, and the ever-present threat of the infected is simply chilling. One of the main differences between the infected and more traditional zombies is their speed – with the infected capable of running. This adds a new dimension of fear and the feeling that absolutely nowhere is safe. Boyle and writer Alex Garland have constructed a new breed of zombie that plays on contemporary yet justifiable fears of airborne viruses, steeping the film in realism which is emphasised by shooting on digital cameras, resulting in a gritty aesthetic.
Sadly, the pacing of the film slows to a staggering halt during the final third. Where 28 Days Later… really works is placing survivors on the run from infected, but this doesn’t really allow for a whole lot of social commentary – and one thing zombie films like to do is make a statement about society. Therefore, upon arriving at a military base and seemingly being rescued, the story takes a not entirely unbelievable turn but one that isn’t particularly exciting. Lead by Major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston), a group of surviving soldiers find there’s little left to live for, and so West promises them women. This places Hannah and Selena in a dire situation, and leaves Jim expendable. Refocusing the threat away from monstrous infected and onto monstrous humanity is an interesting idea, but one that would have benefited from being introduced earlier and sustained throughout. As it is, it feels like the story just runs out of steam and is left floundering.
Thankfully 28 Days Later… boasts an incredible cast who are mostly able to sell these later weaker scenes, with Cillian Murphy giving an incredible performance. Naomie Harris is completely believable as the hardened battle-worn woman just trying to survive, and Brendan Gleeson is always a welcome presence. Megan Burns, meanwhile, is a little stilted, and the role of Hannah really would have benefited from being recast. She’s never awful enough to completely derail the movie, but she does slightly distract.
Danny Boyle directs with confidence and flair, peppering the movie with an excellent selection of mood-setting music and songs. Despite the fumbling of the climax, this is still an enjoyable and gripping film that enthusiastically entertains. While 28 Days Later… might not strictly be a zombie movie, it’s still likely to be one of the better zombie movies you’ll ever see.
Flickering Myth Rating: Film *** / Movie ****