You know you're living in crazy times when a zombie film is so oddly applicable to modern-day society. Danny Boyle's 28 DAYS LATER takes the post-apocalyptic ideas of Richard Matheson, Stephen King and George Romero and applies them to a world where it all seems perfectly believable, even if we've been down this same road many times before.
This particular apocalypse is triggered ironically by a compassionate group who want to save the lives of those who can't stand up for themselves. In this case, it's a group of animal rights activists who try to liberate some lab animals. Unfortunately, as is often the case in activism, they haven't read the fine print. When they see a chimpanzee strapped down to a table watching a half dozen monitors showing images of violence and hatred, they see the inhuman suffering inflicted on the poor animal. They don't stop to wonder why the chimp is strapped down, or why he seems so oddly contented with the horrors displayed before him.
A scientist who stumbles across the pseudo-terrorists urges them to stop. He tells them that in order to perfect the cures for the worst elements of society, the virus needs to be understood. "They've been infected," he screams. When they demand to know with what, he answers desperately, "rage." Too late. The animals infect the room and threaten to make animals of us all, vomiting blood and tearing apart everyone who gets in their way.
28 days later, Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up in a hospital bed. Seems he was a bike messenger who got plastered by a car shortly before the violence erupted. He had the good fortune to be in a coma when everything went down.
He wakes up to find the hospital deserted. He ventures outdoors and it's like he stepped into a netherworld. All the buildings are standing as they did before, but there is no one left. Everyone has disappeared. It seems the rage virus, which turns people into bloodthirsty zombies, for lack of a better term, has spread across all of England and possibly the world. Funny he doesn't find any patients slaughtered in their hospital beds or bodies lying in the street. I guess either cleanup crews had done some work or there just wasn't much left (this is assuming it's not a gaping plot hole). The buildings are still pristine, however. The zombies don't like architecture, they like flesh.
Eventually, Jim learns how to survive through his few contacts. First, he learns from Selena (Naomie Harris) who tells him that everything else has been wiped out and the only thing worth surviving for is survival itself. Jim refuses to accept this. After all, what would be the point of going on if there wasn't anything worth going on for? In a memorable poignant moment, and there are many, he tells Selena, "You don't think I get it, but I do."
Jim and Selena team up with Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and Hannah (Megan Burns), a father-daughter team trying to start anew by keeping the family unit intact. As they make their way to a military outpost and a supposed "cure to infection" (the term "zombie" is never actually used), the family unit grows and the bonds tighten. But when they reach their destination, what kind of paradise do these survivors offer?
On the surface, the film is nothing new. The last survivor mentality recalls Matheson's classic I AM LEGEND. The rage virus has been covered in James Herbert's THE FOG and the Romero film, THE CRAZIES to name a couple. But for some reason, this newest exploration on this theme of inherited insanity seems truly special.
I admit a certain amount of bias in that I have not yet seen a Danny Boyle film I didn't like. SHALLOW GRAVE is a great dark comedy with a Hitchcockian flare. I was so taken with TRAINSPOTTING upon its U.S. release, I saw it four times in the theatre. A LIFE LESS ORDINARY was woefully underappreciated and is miles away from most romantic comedies. Hell, I even liked THE BEACH, even though I can feel people turning on me for sharing that sentiment.
So when I heard he was following up that box office disappointment with a horror film, I was intrigued. We've never seen his take on sci-fi, ALIEN LOVE TRIANGLE. It's a short that Dimension has been sitting on for the last seven years while it's other two brethren, MIMIC and IMPOSTER have been expanded to feature length. Folks in the States have never even heard of his two experimental films, VACCUMING COMPLETELY NUDE IN PARADISE and STRUMPET.
Boyle has regrouped. After a pair of films that didn't endear him to 20th Century Fox executives, he ventured back over the pond. With his newly acquired love for DV in hand, he has crafted a zombie film for our times. Our own Jonathan Stryker was absolutely right in pointing to the parallels between the ideas of chemical warfare, terrorism and viruses such as SARS. The world has grown more and more paranoid over the past couple years, and the apocalyptic vision of Boyle's world has mirrored that beautifully. What's most troubling is that although this world is a desolate wasteland of despair, it's all a matter of degrees. As Christopher Eccleston points out, the virus is nothing more than "people killing people," the same thing he saw before the virus and the same thing he expects to see if the virus ever passes on.
The second half, with it's military stronghold and odd way of clinging on to some sort of normalcy does recall Romero's DAY OF THE DEAD. But where DOTD was a struggle between military rigidity and liberal-thinking compassion, 28 DAYS LATER has plenty of layers of it are own. Aside from the setting, the films are very different.
A more appropriate title of the film would be SURVIVAL, since that is what drives all the characters and what constitutes survival changes from person to person. For Selena, it's just a neverending struggle to keep plodding on with no emotional attachments. For Frank and Hannah, family is what's important and there's nothing worth living for if we don't depend on one another. For Eccleston and his troops, it's the propagation of the species. But beneath his rigid exterior is someone who knows the difference between humans and animals. As he looks on one of his infected friends, he notes with more than a trace of pity how he'll never laugh or read a book ever again. It's our appreciation of the finer things beyond survival that makes us human. But by the same token, it's our focus on mere survival that could threaten to do us in. In the middle of all this is Jim, who like someone feeling out spiritual paths, is seeking the best way to deal with this new world disorder.
28 DAYS LATER, while not absolutely perfect, is an unquestionable success. Boyle has created a world gone wrong that is all too similar to our own. His characters (courtesy of a script by Alex Garland, who wrote the novel THE BEACH) are wonderfully fleshed out and the performances are incredible.
More than that, it's a damn good horror film to boot. The scares are plentiful. The film weaves a seamless tapestry of fear as it travels from destination to destination. The film works simultaneously at developing a feeling of dread, while throwing us with jolts that literally jump out at the screen. Amazing that this already accomplished filmmaker has captured some of the same magic as those icons we have been admiring in our little underground.
28 DAYS LATER joins films like DOG SOLDIERS and DEATHWATCH in the ranks of classic British horror films to come by in just the last couple years. Like the best horror films, it explores the roots of fear while relishing in bringing that fear to the surface. Amazing that it has taken a full year for the film to get a U.S. release. But how encouraging to see it greeted with such fanfare.
The film has been given a very warm reception in both the UK and in North America. So much for thinking such a film couldn't be appreciated by the world at large. People can surprise you. Films can surprise you. Horror can surprise you. And 28 DAYS LATER delivers on just about every level that counts.